Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

Schools Can Help Parents by Setting Clear Expectations

In March, schools started to roll out school closure plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For families, the last few months have felt like a roller coaster as they tried to adjust to the everchanging new realities.

In May, we interviewed 33 parents, including 7 who were also educators, to gain insight into these and other challenges. We thought professional teachers would be better equipped than most parents to manage the sudden shift to a new role as co-educators, and this might give them greater insight into the ways school systems can support families more effectively. We also felt that these professional teachers could better explain how teachers are working with families.

The teacher-parents we interviewed had important insights into the need to provide more clarity and support to families. Even among these teacher-parents, responses regarding parent roles, how much time students should be spending on school work, how much screen time is required to do the work, attendance expectations, and many other critical questions varied depending on where their children went to school.

These teacher-parents told us that if they did not receive clear communication from schools about these issues, they had to develop their own ways to hold their children accountable and keep them engaged. Because of their backgrounds in education, this was not overly difficult, but what does it mean for parents who assumed new roles as co-educators with far less experience?

The hard reality is that district decisions about grading and attendance had more impact on parents than many had considered. This spring, only 27 percent of districts in CRPE’s nationally representative sample were tracking attendance. Just 41 percent were doing any grading; of those that were, only 23 percent had traditional grading policies.

The teacher-parents we spoke with all agreed that less work was being required of their children than before the shutdown. This was especially true among parents whose schools were late in providing instruction and guidance materials.

Some of the teacher-parents we spoke with had filled the vacuum by inventing their own supplemental academic or enrichment activities, something that seemed natural given their profession, but would likely be hard for parents without an education background. As schools ramped up their own instructional efforts, these parents tried to juggle their own initiatives and school demands.

As school plans evolved, it became harder for parents to keep these efforts up. A lack of school expectations left them guessing how to manage time. But worse, schools sometimes undermined even these parents by communicating lower expectations for academic work than teacher-parents had set for their own children.

When one parent we spoke with hadn’t heard anything from his son’s school district, he developed a full homeschool-like plan. Things were going well until the district, much later, launched its remote learning plan—which was much less demanding than the parent’s homeschooling setup. “So, [my son] would do a fifth of what he normally would do and consider himself done, because that was all that was expected. Some of his teachers were slower than others to come online. It was a mix and you couldn’t predict.”

School-designed instruction was intended to take family circumstances into account and limit burdens on parents who did not have the time or experience to supervise their children’s instruction, but the result was more confusion. The system also did not take into account that each student had different needs. For some students, what the school provided was not enough; for others it was too much. 

Teacher-parents shared that, in their professional capacities, it has been incredibly difficult to judge what students’ needs are or whether they are grasping academic content when they can’t see them in person. They can’t adjust their lessons on the fly based on students’ reactions. For those teachers doing live instruction, this is easier when cameras are on, but still very difficult. One-on-one checks-ins and strong family communication are strategies that seemed to work for some of these teacher-parents.

For parents newly in charge of instruction, schools’ hesitation put the burden on them to say what a reasonable amount of effort was and how work could be judged. Not surprisingly, teacher-parents told us this caused new tensions within families, most notably how to establish screen time restrictions and how to determine the amount of time their children should focus on chores and other non-school activities.

Parents who are not teachers may even need more guidance and clarity about how to support learning at home, especially as they return to work and have less time to devote to co-teaching. 

Thinking ahead to summer and fall, when at least some learning is likely to be remote, parents need more clarity on expectations so that they can tend to their family’s needs effectively. This should result in more predictability and family satisfaction. It will also require problem-solving on the part of schools to ensure they are meeting the diverse needs of all families, including those whose children may need disability accommodations, or help overcoming language barriers, or have home conditions that make it impossible for every child in their household to get online and complete school work at the same time.

Districts must find ways to engage all students, not just by attempting to re-create the school day online. Schools should set clear expectations so the burden of enforcing them does not fall solely on parents. They should also set up systems that ensure parents who want to set higher expectations for their children are reinforced, rather than undermined, by their teachers. Setting clear expectations while also accounting for the hardship many families are continuing to deal with—thanks to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn—requires a strong partnership between parents and schools.


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