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New Skills for New Schools: Preparing Teachers in Family Involvement

A new report looks at promising methods in preparing teachers to understand the family's role in a child's education and to effectively involve the family.

Parent participation in children's schooling is so important that it was established in 1994 as a National Education Goal. Yet "Teacher preparation in family involvement lags far behind school efforts to promote family involvement," according to a report released November 5 by Vice President Gore and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley at the "Partners for Learning: Preparing Teachers to Involve Families" teleconference.

The 65-page report, New Skills for New Schools: Preparing Teachers in Family Involvement (1997, Harvard Family Research Project), examines reasons for -- and the status of -- teacher preparation in family involvement. It also provides a framework that illustrates various kinds of teacher training for family involvement. Unlike other family involvement typologies, this framework focuses not on actual family involvement activities carried out in schools, but on the attitudes, skills and knowledge teachers need to work effectively with parents.

Below are the framework and an excerpt from Chapter 4 ("Promising Methods for Teacher Preparation") of the report.


Teachers need to have general knowledge about family contributions to child development and school achievement. The following should be among the goals of any teacher preparation program:

  • General Family Involvement. Provide general information on the goals of, benefits of, and barriers to family involvement. Promote knowledge of, skills in, and positive attitudes toward involving parents.
  • General Family Knowledge. Promote knowledge of different families' cultural beliefs, childrearing practices, structures, and living environments. Promote an awareness of and respect for different backgrounds and lifestyles.
  • Home-School Communication. Provide various techniques and strategies to improve two-way communication between home and school (and/or parent and teacher).
  • Family Involvement in Learning Activities. Provide information on how to involve parents in their children's learning outside of the classroom.
  • Families Supporting Schools. Provide information on ways to involve parents in helping the school, both within and outside the classroom.
  • Schools Supporting Families. Examine how schools can support families' social, educational, and social service needs through parent education programs, parent centers, and referrals to other community or social services.
  • Families as Change Agents. Introduce ways to support and involve parents and families in decision making, action research, child advocacy, parent and teacher training, and development of policy, programs, and curriculum.


The nine programs featured in this report shared common innovative practices. These practices focused on developing prospective teachers' problem-solving skills by exposing them to challenging situations that required them to negotiate sensitive issues. The programs also provided them with opportunities to work in schools and communities -- often under the guidance of experienced professionals -- where they were able to gain valuable communication and interpersonal skills, especially when dealing with families with very different backgrounds from their own.

These community experiences also gave prospective teachers the opportunity to develop collaborative skills with professionals from other disciplines. In addition, the programs emphasized the application of research skills to develop a better understanding of families and communities. They encouraged the use of information about families to develop family involvement activities and to create supplemental materials for classroom use.

These programs utilized guest speakers, role play, the case method, community experiences, research with families and communities, self-reflection, and interprofessional education.


Attending guest lectures and discussions led by parents, practicing teachers, experts from other disciplines, or co-instructors in teacher education courses provides prospective teachers opportunities to learn from and interact with key players in children's education. Program faculty and researchers alike attested to the benefits of drawing upon the expertise of parents, school personnel, and faculty in other disciplines to enrich teacher preparation.

Examples of guest speakers include:

  • Program graduates, who researched family involvement during their own teacher preparation programs, talked about what they had learned from their projects and how they had applied that knowledge to their first weeks of teaching.
  • A parent-school coordinator, parents with special needs children, social work faculty, and special educators described how Individual Family Service Plans are developed with families. A home-school coordinator spoke to prospective teachers about her work and discussed ways in which teachers could promote family involvement.
  • A human development counseling specialist presented a parent effectiveness training model and discussed skills to use in parent-teacher conferences.


Role play requires students to act out situations that they might face when working with parents. Role play gives prospective teachers simulated experience in communicating, handling difficult or threatening situations, and resolving conflict. By dramatizing situations, prospective teachers become emotionally engaged and learn in a "hands-on" manner about the situations that they will face in their classrooms.

Because role play usually takes place in the university classroom, teacher educators can analyze their students' reactions and responses, and peers can give feedback. By alternately playing the roles of teacher and parent, prospective teachers can gain a better understanding of each perspective.

Examples of role play scenarios include:

  • Negotiating differences of opinion with a parent.
  • Communicating with a parent about his or her child's poor performance or behavior.
  • Conducting a parent-teacher conference.
  • Discussing a student portfolio with a parent.
  • Explaining a new curriculum to a parent.
  • Talking with a parent who is angry or upset.


In the case method, prospective teachers read about dilemmas or ambiguous situations that could arise in working with parents. After reading the cases, these students analyze and discuss them, referring to their own relevant experiences and to the theories and principles covered in class.

Because the case method approach encourages prospective teachers to examine many possible responses to a particular situation, and to evaluate the merits and drawbacks of each of these responses, they are able to understand the complexities of home-school relationships. Students' analyses of these situations help them develop crucial problem-solving skills. The case method also offers students the opportunity to integrate their beliefs with known theories as they respond to complex and problematic, real-life situations (Hochberg, 1993).

Examples of the case method include:

  • One program used a case study example in which a young girl in a program for migrant workers had difficulty being understood because she always held her hand over her mouth when she spoke. A month into the program, the girl's teacher met the mother and discovered that she also spoke with her hand in front of her mouth, to hide the fact that she had no teeth. This case demonstrated that the child's communication problems were the result of her modeling her mother's behavior. The class looked at this case from multiple perspectives. The goal was for students to avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions about children or families.
  • Another program presented a case in which a parent and teacher had different agendas for a parent-teacher conference. To analyze the case, students wrote a 15-page response to the parent, drawing from one of the developmental frameworks presented in class. Responses were read aloud to classmates acting in the role of the parent, who then gave feedback from that perspective.


One way to learn about children from diverse ethnic backgrounds is to live as they do. Cultural immersion is especially helpful when the teaching force and student body come from different cultural and/or economic backgrounds.

Examples of cultural immersion include:

  • In a former program at Clark Atlanta University, prospective teachers, along with social work students, had the option of living in housing projects with the children and families whom they would one day serve.
  • At Northern Arizona University, prospective teachers in special education can live and student teach on a Navajo reservation.


During placement in community settings, such as human service agencies, children's homes, and community centers, prospective teachers can learn about services in the community and form relationships with family and community members in a nonschool context.

In programs that prepare teachers to work in urban schools or in communities with linguistic and cultural diversity, community experiences tend to be emphasized. These experiences allow prospective teachers to see children in a variety of settings, become more visible in the community, and understand children's sociocultural contexts.

Examples of community experience include:

  • At the University of Texas (El Paso), the community experience component was designed by parents who were asked what they thought teachers should know about their children's community. The experience began with a tour of major service agencies in the community, including libraries, urban leagues, and community centers with educational components.
  • Community experiences can also include helping families and communities. Working in a neighborhood center, teaching ESL to parents, and providing weekend respite care for a family with a disabled child are some of the numerous ways in which prospective teachers are able to assist families and communities.
  • The "Parent Buddy Project" arranges for prospective teachers to visit a family's home several times a semester. Sometimes "buddies" will offer to babysit so that parents can go to PTA meetings. In this way, the project not only helps prospective teachers learn about family life, it also helps parents become more involved with their children's education.


Research with families and communities can range from parent surveys to in-depth ethnographic interviews with families. This method offers teachers the opportunity to understand issues from the perspective of families and communities and to utilize their expertise and insight. Teachers can learn from and interact with families of different cultural and economic backgrounds as they conduct their research.

According to one program respondent, this method sends the message: "I want to get to know you," rather than "I'm here to teach you something."

Examples of research projects with families and communities include cases where prospective teachers have:

  • Developed a parent questionnaire or entrance inventory after working with at least five parents of children with special needs and written a summary of findings.
  • Interviewed their own parents about their respective childhood experiences.
  • Interviewed families who had a child with special needs.

The prospective teachers then reflected on what they had learned from the family and on the implications for working with children. They

  • conducted ethnographic interviews in children's homes to gather and document household knowledge. The information collected was then used to develop lesson plans.
  • "shadowed" a child to gather information about the child's health, physical education, and social development and asked parents and family and community members for information.
  • produced a book of research abstracts based on the prospective teachers' research with parents.


Self-reflection techniques include journal writing and other assignments that ask teachers to think about their own family backgrounds, their assumptions about other families, and their attitudes toward working with families. The goal is for prospective teachers to consider how their own perspectives will influence their work with families, especially those very different from their own.

Self-reflection can be combined with other methods used to teach family involvement. It helps teachers process what they are learning and make the experiences personally meaningful. Self-reflection is also useful for addressing cultural differences.

Finally, this method helps prospective teachers uncover any negative feelings and assumptions that they might have which may inhibit them from building positive relationships between home and school.

Assignments for self-reflection include:

  • When discussing social development, prospective teachers in one program reflect on their own social development and on the ways in which their teachers influenced them. This introspection helps prospective teachers examine their own beliefs and learn how these beliefs might influence their future work with families.
  • One faculty member teaches about issues of power in society (gender and minority status, for example) by asking students to analyze their own cultural perspectives (such as their cultural history, language, and literacy).
  • In one program, prospective teachers are asked to look at their own cultural experiences and history, think about the match between their family community culture and their school culture, and then discuss ways in which some children's home and school cultures differ.


Interprofessional education is a new trend in preparing human service professionals. Schools of nursing, social work, and other disciplines join with schools of education to prepare teachers and other professionals working with children and families. The purpose of this strategy is to train a range of human service professionals to work more closely with one another, to work in an increasingly collaborative environment, and to deliver services more effectively to families by placing them at the center of the human service system.

Examples of interprofessional education include:

  • One program unites a school of education and an anthropology department to find new ways of working with families.
  • Another program brings teachers, administrators, and counselors together in an intensive family involvement training experience.

Comprehensive interprofessional training programs have the potential to prepare teachers and other human service professionals to work effectively with families. For example, teachers involved in such training programs will be better prepared to identify children's and families' nonacademic support needs and refer them to appropriate outside agencies and personnel. Promising models are currently being developed at Ohio State University, the University of Washington in Seattle, and Miami University in Ohio.

Source: U.S. Department of Education. The views expressed in this report, developed with contractual support from the U.S. Department of Education, do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Department, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World