Parent Involvement vs. Parent Engagement

Parent Involvement vs Parent Engagement

By Sunny P. Chico

In April 2014, The New York Times published an opinion piece, “Parent Involvement is Overrated,” by Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris in which they discuss the findings from their parent engagement study. The opinion piece and research study set off quite a stir that denounces parent involvement and its validity. I am not surprised by the reactions, since the headline and first few paragraphs of the opinion piece do renounce the effectiveness of parent involvement.

As an educator with over 34 years of experience, I agree with this research. Why? The study’s conclusion supports my professional and personal opinion that there is a big difference between parent involvement and parent engagement. 

Robinson and Harris write, “We believe that parents are critical for how well children perform in school, just not in the conventional ways that our society has been promoting.” While parent involvement may be ineffective according to this study, I know that parent engagement is the key to a child’s success. The differences between involvement and engagement are critical to this discussion.

The study reports that parent involvement is measured through parental attendance at school-mandated functions such as school open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and classroom visits, to name a few examples. A parent showing up to mandatory appearances at their child’s school does not mean that they are engaged in their child’s education. It means that they are doing what is asked by the school in order to keep their child moving along the system.

Parent engagement, on the other hand, is much more than simply “showing up.” It means parents are present in every aspect of their child’s life, from providing a roof over his or her head and food on the table to having open communication and showing affection.

A child has four basic needs for success in school and in life: physical health, social well-being, emotional well-being and academic achievement. To oversimplify, they must be healthy; know how to get along with others; know how to deal with situations; and continually make progress in their education. When parents are engaged, they address all of these needs simultaneously in order to raise a balanced and healthy child who can grow up to be a productive member of society.

Parents can evaluate whether they are practicing engagement by considering the following questions. As a parent, how do you talk to your child? How do you discuss the stresses and issues in his or her life? Do you show your child how you value education? Do you have dinner without any technology present so you can focus on each other? Ask yourself, how are you embedded in your child’s life? Do you focus on just “getting by” and hope your child will turn out well on his or her own?

The best way to teach a child is by modeling behavior. We know a child may hear what you say, but he or she watches what you do a lot closer. Share your personal story with your child and have him or her share with you, even as your child is building it along the way.

Give your child choices; remember that parenting is not a dictatorship. When your child is young, provide him or her with options between outfits and meals and as he or she gets older, grow those options to include responsibilities and accountability.

Don’t try to be your child’s best friend, you are the parent first and friend second. But you should be open-minded to your child because a parent is the embodiment of unconditional love.

These fundamentals at home will teach your child how to navigate the world beyond school. Academic achievement and testing are some of the ways we measure a child’s knowledge, but they do not measure or dictate the success that a child will have later on. That lies in the hands of the parents and stems from the foundations they set.

If you’re an involved parent, that’s a wonderful place to start. Now incorporate these practices to become an engaged parent and set your child up for success both in school and in life.

Sunny P. Chico has spent over 34 years in education. She began her career as a special education teacher, later serving as a principal and an administrator in higher education before being appointed to both state and federal education positions. She is the author of the parental engagement program, YOU: Your Child’s First Teacher and is a co-founder of Penedo Charitable Organization, helping mentor and support at-risk girls in the Chicago neighborhood where she and her sisters grew up.