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Helping at School When Volunteering Isn't an Option

by Ann Barbour

Ann Barbour

Dr. Ann Barbour is Professor of Early Childhood Education at California State University, Los Angeles, (CSULA) and Series Content Advisor for the Peabody Award winning daily television series A Place of Our Own and Los NiƱos en Su Casa. Read more »

Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions.

As you settled into the new school year, did you receive requests to volunteer at your child's school? I thought so!

Schools encourage parent involvement primarily because children do better academically and have fewer behavior problems when families are involved. Schools also benefit from the resources and support families can provide, which are particularly important in these economic times.

Even though we know this type of involvement is a good thing, parents with overloaded work and family responsibilities can find participation difficult. If helping out at school isn't possible for you, there are many other ways to participate. The most important type of parent involvement happens at home. And it involves much more than overseeing homework. On the most basic level, you can encourage your child's learning during every day conversations and activities, by paying attention to his interests and questions, and by reading together on a regular basis.

Also, whenever you can help your child make outside-of-school connections to curriculum, you're reinforcing and extending classroom learning. Being able to do so hinges on actually knowing what's happening at school. And since kids aren't always the best sources of information about this, it's good to keep in touch with your child's teacher.

The teacher may already have established regular communication channels to help you keep up-to-date with and give feedback about your child's educational experiences. Whether or not that's the case, you can take the initiative to let her know you're interested in your child's learning and offer whatever kind of support you can. If she knows something about your other responsibilities, schedule and preferences, she’ll be more likely to tailor messages and requests accordingly.

Understanding what your child is learning will also help you talk with him about it and connect other experiences to it. You'll be able to say, "Tell me about Curious George (your poem, the neighborhood map, the mealworm habitat" rather than asking "What happened in school today?" which can yield a "Nothing" reply. If information about curriculum topics, lessons or investigations isn't part of the teacher's regular communications with families, you can respectfully request it. You can also follow up by letting her know what your child does outside of class that's related e.g., "Emma emptied out my change purse to look for nickels so she could count by 5s."

Here are some other ways you can be actively involved without volunteering at school or committing a huge amount of time:

  • Make sure you review with your child any work he brings home. Think about displaying it in a prominent place in your home to show how much you value his education.
  • Schedule occasional phone conferences or ask the teacher if you can "talk" by email when you have a question, concern or something to share.
  • If your child brings home a weekly folder, include short notes in it for the teacher to read.
  • Make a point of briefly touching base with the teacher when you drop your child off at school. A quick greeting and comment will continue to let her know you're an active partner in your child's learning.
  • Ask the teacher how you can support classroom activities at home. You can even make suggestions based on your particular skills or talents. For example, you could offer to:
    • Help make learning activities or repair broken equipment.
    • Donate materials.
    • Use your technology skills to help publish a class newsletter.
    • Organize or participate in a telephone tree that informs families about school activities.

You might also consider thinking about how you might be present occasionally. If you have a flexible work schedule or a vacation day, consider joining your child for lunch. You might even decide to help out at a one-time event such as a field trip or school festival. Your child will look forward to and remember these special times, and you'll further reinforce the importance of his school experiences.

I'd like to hear your ideas about how parents can be involved, without a heavy time commitment. Thank you!

Sorry, Ann Barbour is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.

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