SEL is for all students. Every single child can and will benefit from an integrated approach to SEL; one that is comprehensive in nature and utilized across curricula and across every environment. This means that SEL should be used throughout the school day and then followed up in after school activities and at home. However, we know that engaging some families can be tough.
Empathizing with Families
We understand that educators often feel that the engaged families who always come in and participate in school functions are not the ones that need to hear these messages. While the other families may be harder to reach, it is ALL families that we need to consider when helping to spread SEL outside of school. It often happens that our neediest students / the ones that could benefit the most from SEL reinforcement are those whose families are the hardest to engage. However, we have to be cognizant of our own biases and beliefs – we can’t always assume it’s because the family doesn’t care or believe in the education system. There can be a whole host of reasons that parents are not engaged just a few being:
- They are afraid or nervous based on their own experiences with school
- They are not educated themselves and don’t want to feel inadequate
- They do not have the means – work several jobs, not enough money for transportation, have language barriers
- They are struggling to get other needs met – where will food come from, how will they pay next bill
- They have different values and cultural expectations – feel their children need to be more independent at younger ages, need to do more on their own, and they do not want teachers telling them how to raise their kids
None of these reasons signify the parents do not care. It just means we have to do a better job at welcoming them and making them feel comfortable and want to engage.
Don’t Lose Hope
It can be frustrating when it seems we do so much work for our students while they are with us, only for it to be “undone” when they get home. It’s easy to doubt the effectiveness when they are with their families most of the time and all the work we put into SEL is not reinforced. But on the other hand, should we just give up? Is a student not “worth it” because they cause us stress? Is it fair to the student if we don’t even try because we think their parents don’t care? Have we ever thought maybe the parents don’t want to keep hearing that their child is not behaving or is failing? Do we ever think that the parents themselves might be overwhelmed, not have the answers and don’t know what to do? They may not want to talk to us about it especially if they feel they are being blamed.
It IS important for SEL to be reinforced at home, but just because you rarely hear from some families doesn’t mean the work isn’t happening. They may not be using the same words/language and sometimes the messages can be different; this is why we believe it’s so important to include the families in as much as possible.
What You Can Do
The most important thing schools can do is reach out to families (prior to the school year starting, if possible) and learn about them. If they can’t come in to the school, reach them through email, phone call, or text. Whatever it takes. Make sure they know you are reaching out to learn about their likes, their dislikes, what they do for fun and to understand their lifestyle. Allow them to be involved in the goals you set for their children since the family goals and values may be different than what yours. The biggest mistake many people make here is to be condescending without realizing it. Let them tell you things they have done to help their child reach a goal and give them some examples of how you will help them reach a goal. Let them know you will be following up with progress and help them understand this is a TEAM approach.
It is also important that you tie your students’ goals into your school wide system and language. Send home letters and emails to keep the parents informed. Also, sending home activities that families can do together to improve SEL and work toward the goals they’ve helped to develop will build trust. When you are able to get parents in for events, have SEL activities planned where they can participate. Help them see that the actions they are already doing (correcting misbehaviors, encouraging respect, responsibility, spending time together, etc) are also being taught in school. Help them see if they use the same words to reinforce these behaviors, the bigger and faster the improvements will be.
Make sure families know you value their differences, beliefs and cultures. Create a welcoming environment where you celebrate these differences and incorporate them into your school and classroom. You may begin to see more families willing to come in when they realize it will be a positive experience and not so negative. The more comfortable they are, the more engaged they will be, and the more likely your messages will be reinforced at home.