Parenting is a tough job in the best of circumstances. And if you’re anything like me, it’s been even harder in the age of COVID-19.
The shift to remote learning has been a big adjustment for my kids. And, to be honest, it’s been challenging for their parents too. Every day their mother and I wake up to teacher emails cataloging overdue assignments and a Google Classroom page brimming with new ones. Some days it’s relatively easy, and other days we wonder how we’re going to wheedle, cajole and coax another day’s work out of them.
Some recent survey data suggests that we might not be alone. One poll, from the nonprofit Learning Heroes, found that two-thirds of surveyed parents say they’re more involved with their child’s education today than ever before. A separate poll of parents in various school systems, conducted by Pearson and its virtual charter school network Connections Academy, reported that almost 80 percent of parents had taken a bigger role in their kids’ education in recent months. And in a survey by the data science firm Civis, more than a quarter of parents said they or another family member typically plans the education activities for their children each day.
Perhaps there’s some comfort in knowing we’re all in this together. But it did get me wondering: Now that we’re more involved, are we doing it right? Are we too permissive or too helicoptering? Too attentive or too focused on our non-childcare duties like our jobs? Are we communicating with teachers the right way? In short, what does that ideal balance of parental involvement actually look like?
For this week’s podcast, I tapped a trio of experts to help answer these questions. Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below.
Among those experts is Erik Black, an associate professor of pediatrics and education at the University of Florida, who wrote his dissertation on parental involvement in virtual schooling at the high school level way back in 2008. Among his findings: How students perceive parental involvement is important.
“Parents and children have very different ideas about their parents’ level of involvement,” he says. “Parents perceived their involvement at a much higher level than children perceived [it]. At least as far as we saw, it was really the child’s perception that mattered the most… and translated to outcomes in a positive way, rather than what the parents’ reality was.”
As you might expect, parental involvement is usually a good thing. But involvement is far from a monolithic concept. Black’s study was narrow in scope and didn’t look at trends over time. One finding suggested that when parents got too involved with instruction, student outcomes were poorer. But it didn’t answer when the parent got involved, meaning their involvement might not have hurt student progress in the end.
Overall, it did posit that some involvement, especially around encouraging students or modeling positive behavior, is a good thing.
“It’s important to remember that parental involvement works on a continuum from no involvement to turbo-helicopter parent,” Black says. “And somewhere in between is a perfect mix. That right mix is very much an individualized thing.”
One way teachers think of the ideal parent role is as a learning coach or tutor. That’s how it was described to me by Aileen Gendrano Adao, a National Board Certified Teacher, who teaches 12th grade English for Los Angeles Unified.
Adao is also a mom to a son in preschool and a daughter in first grade. Since school closed due to COVID-19, each day after lunch she starts juggling both her students’ workloads and that of her own kids. Her daughter’s teacher has been trying, but the daily checklist of work can be overwhelming. Too often, she says, it seems like there’s some new platform to log onto and a bunch of new activities to complete. Sometimes, she says, enough is enough.
“I’m like, oh no, no that's too much,” she says. “Let's just focus on three things. We're going to do our math in the math workbook. We're going to journal every day, we're going to read independently for 30 minutes a day. And then we're going to do a science project once a week.”
As a teacher, Adao admits her situation is a bit different. Her students are seniors, close to college or their first jobs, meaning she can expect more from them and less from their parents. And as only one of several teachers her students see, connecting with parents can get messy without a single point of contact. So, she says, they came up with a solution for that.
“That's been a joint effort,” she says. “As a faculty, we decided that we were going to do it by grade level teams and identify through a spreadsheet which students were not logging on and who we are concerned about—whether it's engagement or lack of submissions. And then the counselor in charge of that grade level team or an administrator will call them with enough information.”
Not every teacher is adjusting to online learning on the fly like Adao. A small minority actually teach online full time, and did so even before the pandemic. Jacqueline Jeffus is one of those teachers.
Formerly a traditional classroom teacher, a few years ago she began teaching third grade online for the company K12’s California Virtual Academies. Jeffus says she leans on parents to assume the role of a learning coach, guiding students, letting them know when it’s time to work or to take a break. Third graders, she says, still need a good deal of supervision, though she balances it with getting kids to work independently.
“Granted, you do want them to sit there and struggle through the work,” she says. “You don’t want the parent to sit there and tell their student, ‘Hey, you need to enter in ‘seven,’ instead of having them struggle through and figure the answer out for themselves. But there also has to be that line of them still being in the room or making sure that they're checking up on their student asking and answering questions.”
“Because sometimes kids are kids and they will not complete the work, or they will get distracted,” she adds.
At the start of the year, Jeffus hosts an orientation session with students and a separate one for parents using the video conferencing tools in her learning management system. She turns on screen sharing and walks parents through how to access all the different platforms students use and asks if they have any questions. She then follows up with a personal phone call to each family asking what she needs to know about each child, in addition to hosting quarterly parent-teacher conferences.
It’s all part of creating a partnership. “The biggest thing in this setting is reaching out in a way that works for families and making sure that that connection is consistent,” she says. “It can’t be where you reach out once a quarter for that parent-teacher conference because you really are working hand in hand with the parent in this setting. It's not majority teacher led. I like to see it as 50/50. It’s a lot of hand-in-hand work together.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Pearson and its Connections Academy surveyed parents across various school systems.