How we choose to be involved in our children’s lives constantly changes, and as our kids start elementary school, staying connected to what happens day-to-day can be tricky. Many schools have family organizations, usually called Parent-Teacher Organizations (PTOs) or Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs), and they are a great first stop for parents wanting to stay involved in their kids’ academic lives. When your child starts school, ask if there’s a PTO or PTA, and get connected. Many schools have strong and active family associations; if your school does not, visit the national PTO and PTA websites, and ask the school principal and other families about getting one started at your school.
You will find, however, that involvement in a PTO or PTA is all about involvement! For many of us, with too many commitments and too few hours in the day, spending time doing volunteer work at our kids’ schools can be a tough proposition. Of course, the benefits of doing so are powerful — research overwhelming correlates lasting school success with family engagement, and it’s a great way to get a glimpse into your kids’ school lives. But on a practical basis, how is it possible?
Here are a few ways to participate in your children’s school lives that are relatively low on time commitment and high on value and meaning. I’d love to hear readers share their own ideas in the comments below.
– Read those notices that come home from school. Many schools rely on notices sent home to convey what’s happening; your children’s backpacks and homework folders can be the best source of information. Get in the habit of reviewing what your kids bring home each day. You’ll find out about school events, field trips, assemblies, parent workshops, and much more. Same goes for school newsletters, phone calls home, and email notices. A tip for managing the paper avalanche: give your kids an in-box somewhere in the house, preferably near where they dump their backpacks when they first come in, or where they do their homework. Then you’ll know what they bring home at the end of the day, and you can review it when you have a few minutes.
– Everything counts. It’s just not possible for many family members to take on big projects. But nearly everyone can give a couple of hours to the school at some point during the year. So try to do what is realistic for you. You may wonder if it’s worth it to volunteer once to clean up after a school event, or show up for a few hours for field day, or chaperone a field trip, or attend the one PTO/PTA meeting all year that fits into your schedule. Don’t wonder — it’s totally worth it. Even minimal involvement makes a huge difference in terms of your feeling like a part of the school community, and for the school community to feel like there’s a broad base of family support. Do what you can, be proud of it, and don’t worry if you can’t do more this year.
– Bring your friends, or make some new ones. If you know other families at school, get involved with them. Ask a friend to join you at a PTO/PTA meeting, or to work together on a school project with your kids, or to spend a few hours volunteering at school. Or use that time to make new friends. Yes, it’s all about the kids, but realistically, it’s nice to have time to hang out with adult friends, and if you can do so as you volunteer for a couple of hours on a sunny spring morning on playground clean-up day, all the better.
– Listen to your kids. Find time in your day to listen to what’s happening in your kids’ school lives. This can be tricky — we’ve all gotten those infamous one-word answers. “How was your day?” “Fine.” “What did you do today in school.” “Nothing.” Learn the art of asking open-ended questions, and most of all, make yourself available to listen. You’ll find out amazing things. Of course, getting these conversations going is tricky, and I’ll be doing a future Kidoinfo.com post on how to get your kids to talk with you about school, and how to listen and act on what they tell you.
P.S. — For the curious who are wondering, “What’s the difference, besides a vowel, between PTOs and PTAs?” here’s the scoop. PTAs are part of a national organization that, in exchange for annual dues, provides some basic services and acts as a national advocacy organization for children. PTOs are independent; some have the 501(c)3 status of not-for-profit organizations, and all are based directly in and work directly on behalf of the school with which they’re affiliated. Different school systems in Rhode Island tend to be PTA-centric or PTO-centric; either way, a strong PTO/PTA means that families and school staff are working together to make their school the best place it can be.
Mom to Elias, Leo, and Henry, Jill Davidson is the president of the MLK Parent-Teacher Organization, serves on the Providence Public Schools’ Nathan Bishop Middle School Steering Committee, and works on education issues nationally as the publications director of the Coalition of Essential Schools.