By Linda Kekelis and Ron Ottinger
These are challenging times as we deal with the COVID-19 health crisis and disruptions in work, schools, and community affairs. Social relationships are more important than ever while we maintain safe distance. We thank you for your efforts to adjust and find new ways to support youth and families in your communities during these uncharted times. We recognize that you are doing this work while being impacted personally and professionally.
STEM Next Opportunity Fund has been committed to quality STEM programming for all youth, both as a funder and advocate for out-of-school-time programs and professional development for national youth-serving organizations. As part of our commitment to closing the opportunity gap in STEM, STEM Next is investing in family engagement with research, resources, and advocacy.
With the closure of schools, libraries, community centers, childcare facilities, and out-of-school programs, families are left to care for their children’s physical, emotional, and educational needs in unprecedented ways. This is hard for every family; it’s especially hard for families that were struggling to meet their basic needs before COVID-19 hit. Circumstances vary greatly and impact how parents can support their children’s learning. Not all parents are working from home. Not all families have home computers and Internet access. In a survey conducted by Education Week, 41 percent of school leaders reported they could not make remote learning accessible to every student for even one day. Families are having to step in to support their child’s learning when they don’t know how they will put food on the table, pay the rent, or return to work.
Organizations are stepping up and offering support to youth, parents, and educators. We are seeing lots of great educational resources shared through social media. It’s a big challenge to navigate through these online offerings, STEM activities, and parenting advice. We want to make sure that we work hardest for those families most impacted and most vulnerable. We offer five practices to support families. Let’s commit to making sure that every child and every family has access to the resources they need.
1. Empower parents by conveying this message; it’s their encouragement that matters. Parents don’t need to be an expert or have the answers; they don’t need to be the teacher during these stay-at-home times. STEM can be intimidating for parents. Many parents don’t feel confident enough to help their child engage in hands-on STEM activities. Parents with less formal education are even less confident. Now more than ever, we can help parents understand the many ways in which they are already supporting their child. These include inviting their child to show them what they are learning and sharing a skill like cooking, sewing, or working with tools. What holds many parents back is thinking they need to be an expert. Parents don’t need to know the answers. They can support their child by talking with them, asking questions, and searching for answers together — especially in response to their child’s interests. Activities like these are expressions of encouragement that build confidence and sustain interest. Digital Youth Divas has figured out how to engage with families and lift up how they are already supporting their child. Here’s a handout from Digital Youth Divas that highlights strategies that parents play in their child’s STEM learning. These can be applied to other areas.
2. Listen to parents. The programs that most successfully engage families embrace listening to and learning with families. During challenging and uncertain times it’s more important than ever to ask parents what they want and need. Go back and ask for feedback as you roll out resources and services. Feedback from parents can help with course corrections and refine what we offer and how and when we deliver support. This is our opportunity to prioritize listening and learning with families. Here are some awesome examples of teachers listening to parents. In one small school, teachers hosted a parent Google Meet before beginning distance learning so they could present their plans and ask for feedback. Another school hosted a “practice e-learning day” first and then shared a community Google feedback survey to gather feedback before designing a long-term solution. The Ohio Statewide Family Engagement Center offers an important reminder, “In times of crisis, we often jump to quick solutions. Let’s not forget some basics of family engagement: Ask families for their input, provide routine personalized communication, and give choices to families (and students) for how they can engage. Make a simple plan to keep improving!”
3. Go easy on helping. Avoid resource overload. The abundance of ideas and activities for learning at home comes from good intentions. And, imagine what it’s like for parents to navigate the flood of resources coming at them. Imagine what it’s like for families who aren’t able to access them. We advocate that you curate a simple set of resources for families in your community. EdNavigator does a beautiful job with its One Great Thing for Tomorrow. These daily messages offer a few great ideas — like one question for dinnertime, one simple activity to do together, and one e-learning resource. Think about how you can get a resource like this to every family in your community.
4. Relationships, first and foremost. As you look to support families, we encourage you to put relationships first — your relationships with families and relationships within families. We can learn from bright spots created by educators like Mr. Gupton, a teacher at Louisburg High School, who called every parent of his students. His initial calls were meant to check on the well-being of his students and families. He discovered that parents weren’t aware that teachers would be available during the day. Mr. Gupton’s lesson: “Call as many as you can. Parents were excited to talk to me.” During these personal interactions, we can explore how parents might like to spend time with their children and how we can support them — retelling family stories, trying family recipes, walking, talking, reading, and being together.
5. Be vigilant and support families in most need. Last and most importantly, prioritize your efforts for families who have the least social capital and the most to lose during these times. Families in rural communities, in communities that are marginalized, families with youth with disabilities, families without access to technology for computer-based learning. We must step up and work together to make sure these families are not left behind. Think outside-the-box to develop and deliver resources to these families. Highline School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Susan Enfield, is on the forefront of equity and access. This District’s promise to know every student by name, strength, and need is essential now more than ever. Staff are supporting families during school closures, providing meals-on-the-go, getting devices to students who need them, and offering at-home learning packets available in multiple languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali and Amheric) at schools, parks, food banks, and apartments. We encourage you to follow this District on twitter (@HighlineSchools) for ideas to support families in equitable ways.
While we didn’t have much time to prepare for COVID-19, we must start planning for the future. When youth return to schools and afterschool and summer programs, we need to be ready to address the long-term impacts of school closures, especially on the most vulnerable.
In the coming weeks we will shine a light on programs and people that apply these five practices in their family engagement. We invite you to share your successes and lessons learned on social media and tag @STEMNext. #TogetherAtHome
Linda Kekelis, PhD, is an advisor for STEM Next Opportunity Fund and founder and former CEO of Techbridge Girls. Family engagement has been a passion for Linda and at the center of the research and programs she has led. firstname.lastname@example.org @LindaKekelis
Ron Ottinger is Executive Director of STEM Next Opportunity Fund and former co-chair of the national STEM Funders Network and the National STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative. email@example.com @STEMNext