Phases of parent involvement
In the first two years at school, parents and child still form a unity. The teacher is the gateway to the world for the child. They mostly imitate the teacher with devotion and are full of trust that everything has to be as the teacher does and says. The relationship between parents and teacher during this time is, as a rule, shaped by reciprocal trust and the optimism that the years together will be managed. They still discuss what goes on at home and school and the sensitivities of the child.
During the third and fourth year at school, a development-based crisis often occurs, the so-called Rubicon, in which the connection of the child with the adult declines. The teacher becomes more clearly aware of the child’s strengths and weaknesses and will articulate them to the parents. The latter often become unsure as to whether the school and teacher were right for the child, whether the child is wrongly assessed or addressed. If the discussion about this can be maintained in mutual acknowledgement and understanding, it can form a good basis for the relationship in the future time at school.
After their insecurity, the child will find a new standpoint and adopt a more self-confident attitude towards the adult. The parents withdraw to a greater extent in line with the motto that if there is no news everything is going fine and they are seen primarily at the parents’ evenings. The latter are no longer attended with such reliability, information is obtained through the information folder. The parents’ jobs mostly expand again and in about a third of the children the parents have separated.
In the subsequent years of school, the growing child unconsciously poses the question of the teacher: do you merit that I follow you? Are you an expert and skilled in your specialist field, are you an authority in the best sense of the word? The time arrives when boundaries are tested and claimed. The young person seeks points of reference. In these turbulent times it is not easy for parents for form an anchor because they are frightened of losing the love of the child through strictness and rules. It is easier for teachers to set clear standards here and also demand them of parents, something that can lead to conflict between the two. As middle school progresses, the bond increasingly loosens: both look at one another in a more distanced way.
Just as the children become more autonomous towards their parents, the latter become more autonomous towards the school and no longer speak about everything – to the extent that sometimes the truth suffers.
In upper school the pupils largely organise their affairs themselves and increasingly become the information carrier between school and home. Parents mostly and in agreement leave the young person to organise their school commitments and also their leisure time themselves and rely on their common sense. Alongside the continuing decrease in coming to parents’ evening and school events, the direct contact between teacher and parents is largely only sought any longer if there are individual difficulties.
Conditions for a successful parent-teacher relationship
Every good relationship lives off trusting and respectful dialogue. This requires time and the spaces for personal encounter. Active work with parents and the involvement of the parents in the learning process of the child which is guided by the subject matter and is not problem-related provides a very good prerequisite for an education partnership.
In first place the regular parents’ evenings should certainly be mentioned at which the respective developmental phase of the children is discussed. Also experiencing examples from lessons allows parents better to understand the situation of the child. The parents get to know the teacher and the latter’s relationship with the class through the way they talk about it. No instructions are given here as to how to do things but food for thought which can serve as a decision-making tool. Parents are not a homogonous group. The teacher is faced with a diversity of life plans which all have to be respected.
Lessons which are open for parents are generally well received. Here parents can watch the teacher in (inter-)action with the pupils. Experiencing one’s own child in the class community is a special situation. All parents are occupied with the question: is my child socially well integrated, are they laughed at and can they follow the lesson with concentration. As a result, not a few take the child as far as their seat in the morning and remain standing outside the classroom door for some considerable time in order to see how the teacher creates calm among their flock and how the child allows themselves to be captured. This can become a burden particularly for new and young teachers.
The provision of a parent surgery at which there can be individual conversations between teacher and parents is happily made use of in most cases. Here the focus is completely on the child and parents can ask about anything and raise any worries and concerns. It should be remembered that the subjects and content can only be shared with colleagues if the teacher has been released from confidentiality.
If a child is conspicuous in their behaviour and disruptive in several subjects, if none of the measures taken by the teacher lead to any improvement, and if questions about the child and their home environment become pressing, then a class meeting is useful in which the parents should also take part. Here all colleagues describe their observations and experiences. The parents describe the home situation. Precise and joint consideration and description of the child in its surroundings frequently means that new ways of dealing with and handling them can be arrived at. Joint arrangements are agreed which should be adhered to. It should also be monitored whether the joint endeavours lead to success or whether there is a need for further meetings.
When the project for the year is presented, when there are reports about class trips or also at monthly celebrations, parents can experience how their own child has worked their way into a subject and they can obtain a picture of the standard in the class and see their own child in relation to that. This is meaningful in quite a different way from a report and affects the parents directly in their feeling life. Often it can trigger a new way of looking at their child. Some are reassured by what they have experienced, for others it is a wake-up call and they seek support.
Parents as a rule are happy to contribute their skills and support the teacher in class and school projects. For the children it is something special to experience parents in “their” learning environment not just verbally but in action.
Other parents accompany their child’s class on excursions and class trips. Here it is a particular challenge for the parents to find the balance between attention for all children in the class and the special connection with their own child.
Organising school festivals and the Advent market is an activity that is often spread across the whole year. There are regular meetings, parents from the different classes meet one another and gain an insight into the subject matter of the other classes. The same applies to involvement in the parent-teacher meeting which concerns itself intensively with questions of the structure and content of a school. In order to create a common knowledgeable base on which to develop strategies for action, it can make sense to organise a training event with speakers and working groups for parents and teachers. It should be a matter of course that parents have a say on all topics. Not directives and instruction but own activity and thinking lead to understanding, insight and support.
Parents are needed for the school board who are able to put themselves at the service of the school community with their skills in the economic and legal field. This presumes that they identify with the guiding principles of the school.
The members’ meeting is open to all parents and a good opportunity to inform oneself about the current situation and the vision for the future. This is also where often the willingness to become involved has its beginning.
The opportunity for parents to participate in the school life of their children and to help shape it leads to great satisfaction and a connection with the school. They receive an insight into the structures of the school and can support it with their voluntary activity.
The “ideal parents”
But parents can also experience that their commitment is not taken up or is, indeed, rejected. For successful interaction everyone involved is called upon to reflect upon their own motives and actions.
The unspoken agreement to fulfil the educational task together offers a solid foundation for success. Good collaboration is possible with parents who bring an understanding of the developmental process of their child, support the teacher and trust that the latter knows what they are doing. When teachers and parents work hand in hand in their own area of competence (and not the other’s) and together form a ring around the child, everyone is weaving the same “carpet”.
No one is infallible. We learn and develop constantly in interchange with our environment and are dependent on feedback. Positive feedback gives us wings and increases motivation. Accepting critical feedback also needs to be learned. Here the way it is done is important. “Professional feedback means formulating it not as a judgement but as an observation; asking constructively (Socratic principle), i.e. knowledgeably asking open-ended questions with the aim of supporting independent organisation and learning; […] trusting someone to do the right thing rather than focusing on shortcomings; (not least) also identifying own possible shortcomings” (Spychiger & Cada 2019).
In the joint endeavour to educate the child and support their development and with a culture of encounter which strives positively for resonance and dialogue, the education partnership can succeed.*
*The complete article can be read in the book Elternstudie, edited by Heiner Barz.
About the author: Regine Basfeld is a eurythmy teacher at the Frankfurt am Main Free Waldorf School, member of the independent Frankfurter Eurythmy Ensemble FEE.