My whole family was excited for this year to arrive for my son: it was the year he could start playing an instrument at school.
We went to the after-school parent meeting that introduced the instrument families and gave us tips for beginning instrumentalists. There was information there on renting instruments, which we picked up. We received a paper with instructions for how I should submit his top three instrument choices online.
Later that summer, we received word that he would get to play percussion, his first choice. It was followed by a page of information about obtaining an instrument, how parent support is crucial to the success of playing an instrument, and how to get the instrument to and from school.
The instrumental music teachers were so organized. They had thought of everything parents might need, and the procedures for getting started as an instrumentalist were efficient. Over one hundred 5th graders are now happily involved with the school band and private lessons.
Let’s view this scenario another way.
An upcoming 5th grader really likes music. He is a bright student who is very independent. He wants to play the drums, so he picks up the informational paper. It is an invitation for parents to attend an after-school parent meeting to learn more about the program.
This is where this student’s musical journey comes to an end.
You see, this student’s single mom is doing the best that she can. She is the mom to three young kids. The father is in jail. She has a steady job at a local fast food restaurant, takes care of her preschool age kids during the day, and works afternoons and evenings.
The 5th grader is fiercely proud of his mom. The police frequently park in front of their rowhome, and he’s not sure why. He is resilient and takes care of school on his own. He knew not to give his mom the instrumental music paper because he knew she wouldn’t attend the meeting or take care of the other requirements. This mom doesn’t attend parent-teacher conferences, respond to school emails, or check her son’s backpack that comes home from school each day.
She’s proud of her son and wants nothing but the best for him, but she is in survival mode.
But how can we remove barriers?
This is a sad scenario, but I could write a similar (and many times worse) paragraph about ¼ of the population of this school. When we have a program that has enough students signing up to fill a band room, the program appears to be successful. We assume the kids who didn’t sign up just weren’t interested. Let’s think about the barriers that were unknowingly put in place that eliminated students without home support.
Here are five tips for making your programming more equitable for students lacking home support:
Look for Communication Barriers and Remove Them
Is communication with parents mandatory for student participation or success in your program? If so, how can you remove all possible barriers so that it is equitable for all students?
Tip: Make sure to provide support(s) for students without involved parents so that they can still participate.
In the above instrumental music situation, parents didn’t need to attend that after-school meeting, but if they missed it there was a lot of reading for them to do and they had to reach out to request information. This automatically eliminates parents that speak another language, lack literacy skills, or have mental health/substance abuse problems.
- Let’s think about other options for sharing that information. Could you place simple, informational signs near the car rider drop off, or other places families frequent?
- Families, especially families in crisis/survival mode, show up for free food. Could you obtain a grant for a pizza dinner or a donut breakfast and share information while families eat? This has worked with non-traditional families at my school. Even if they don’t follow through with the presented material, we have bridged one more home-school connection.
- Utilize the expertise of your social worker, guidance counselor, and/or ELL teacher. They may be in close contact with families that need communication support and could offer ideas or pass along information verbally for you.
Let the students do as much as possible
In my instrumental music scenario, parents had a lot of responsibilities. Much of this happened over the summer so that band could start at the beginning of the year. How can we let the students do that work?
Tip: Reevaluate your procedures to see if they are equitable. Do you simply follow them because you’ve always done it that way?
In my scenario, our music teachers may need to look at their procedure for joining band in a non-traditional way. Rather than sharing the information with parents over the summer, the first few weeks of school could be devoted to education about choosing an instrument – for all students, not just those who had a parent attend a meeting. Schools could partner with rental companies and provide rental scholarships for students who have signed up without parent support.
Changing practices to be more student-centered instead of relying on parents is actually good for all students, not just those living in crisis.
Just Because the Information is Available Doesn’t Mean Families Have Seen It
Tip: Be careful about directing people to a website.
I’ve heard educators say, “Well, it’s on the website/in my newsletter,” which translates to, “I offered the information, so I’m covered. It was their responsibility to look at it.” When we have a mindset like this, it only hurts our students.
A website filled with information is very helpful for some families. However, many of our lower socioeconomic families lack WiFi. They instead use a mobile device for their internet needs. It is difficult to access some websites on a mobile device, cumbersome to read .PDF files, and sometimes impossible to fill out forms. Some families run out of data minutes before the end of a month and school communication moves to the back burner.
Those parents in survival mode need information in a quick and easy way so they can devote their energies to more immediate needs.
Technology can be a wonderful tool for reaching families where they are. We just need to make sure it is accessible as possible, and that it is not the only form of communication. This is a challenge when you have hundreds of students to reach.
- Think of non-traditional to reach families. Could you make a video of the information to share on social media or post on YouTube? For ELL families, apps like Seesaw will translate notes for you. However, families may not sign up for these apps – another barrier.
- If you send material for parents to read, make sure to write simple, easy to read directions with bold headings and picture cues.
Change your mindset
Tip: Refrain from complaining about/judging family involvement as a barrier to student achievement.
Bypass the lack of family involvement. If you have done everything you can to reach a family and there is no reciprocation, invent some workarounds. Most of the parents with these communication obstacles want the best for their children, they just have something in the way. Help to make it easier for them even when they are not able to provide it – for any reason. Find the kids in need and be champion that is crucial in their life. Our goal is to reach ALL students — of all levels of academics and family support. School is not equitable if some students have more access than others to school programming. Life is already hard for those students. We shouldn’t make it harder.
Consider how your assignment affects students without home support.
Tip: When you assign anything, always consider what it would be like to complete it with a parent involved (even just a parent reminding their child to do it) and without a parent involved.
If you know that a child has a home life that doesn’t have an involved adult, provide scaffolds, just as you would for a student with learning difficulties.
Would my 5th grader complete his homework every night without me nagging him? Probably not. Would my 5th grader remember that he has a lesson every Tuesday? Sometimes.
A possible scaffold is to provide school time for homework or practicing an instrument. It levels the playing field and allows all students to participate, with or without their family being involved.
Remember that equality is not equity.
It is ok for students to have different ways to access the curriculum and programming. The goal is for them to learn! We need to change our mindset when it comes to thinking about families that are not involved in their child’s education. If family involvement is a barrier, we need to find a way to bypass it so that we still reach the child. It is important to constantly assess whether we are unknowingly creating barriers for anyone. ALL aspects of education should be equitable to ALL students, not just those who have supportive parents. We need to do whatever it takes… and then some.
- Equity and Equality Are Not Equal
- Equitable, Purposeful Homework
- Don’t Leave Mobile Only Families Behind
- Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap
- The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris
- Teaching to Strengths
Dyan is a third grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.