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School Health: Empowering Parents to Push for Change

Laura E. Saponara serves as a Senior Communications Consultant for Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit.

This post has been adapted from a report about parent engagement compiled for Thriving Schools by Ad Lucem Consulting.

Students with parents engaged in school life are more likely to have better behavior, higher attendance rates and enhanced social skills, according to researchers who focus on elementary-age children.  Other studies show that parent engagement may serve as a protective factor against adverse behaviors that can negatively impact the academic achievement of children and adolescents.

Staff and students of Kaneohe Elementary School cheer each other on in Playworks' structured play curriculum

When it comes to promoting health and wellness, parental engagement is equally important. Informed and engaged parents are motivated to push for changes that make school environments healthier.

One accomplished educator-advocate told Thriving Schools, “Parent engagement is the holy grail of healthy eating, physical activity and obesity reduction.”

It may seem obvious that parents exert influence over the behavior of their children. But let’s take a deeper look at why parent involvement can make a real difference when it comes to shaping choices, expectations and policies that affect the health of the entire school community.

 The Power of Parents

  • They know their children better than anyone. Parents are at the critical intersection between a child’s life at school and at home – and they are aware of the challenges their children face in both environments.
  • Parents project a powerful voice. Parents have credibility among their social networks, coworkers, neighbors and even political leaders. Parents can leverage their voices within their networks to promote healthier schools.
  • Parents bring personal expertise. Parents bring a range of personal expertise that can be leveraged to support a school’s health and wellness program. Any number of useful skills can help, including meeting facilitation, graphic design, cultural expertise, interpretation/translation, carpentry or training in physical education, art or dance.
  • Parents stock the fridge. Parents often purchase their family’s groceries and have the ability to directly impact their children’s nutrition through smart purchasing decisions.
  • Parents are powerful role models. As the saying goes, “like mother, like daughter.” Parents set an example early on for life choices and behaviors that can set their children on a healthy, or less healthy, path.

WLB07d022-620x360Of course parents can be engaged in health promotion efforts in different ways and with different levels of commitment or activism within the school community. This Framework for Parent Involvement, adapted from the work of Joyce Epstein, Ph.D., illustrates five levels of engagement with specific examples.

Many regional and national organizations – including Action for Healthy Kids, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Parents United for Healthy Schools (Chicago), Together Counts and Safe Routes to School National Partnership, to name a few – have engaged parents successfully for years. Thriving Schools gathered insights from some of these organizations to arrive at the following list of best practices, which we hope may helpful to you or to others in your school community:

  • Make the case to parents that healthy eating and physical activity are key to academic success.The message that health is key to children’s academic success must be communicated to parents often and compellingly for wellness to become a top priority.
  • Don’t leave parents in the dark – frequent communication is key. Clearly communicate the goals of healthy schools efforts with parents at orientations, open houses, parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings. Notify all parents of any new school wellness policies or program changes.
  • Encourage participation from all parents. Engaging parents from all of the cultures that make up the school community adds valuable insight and expands programming reach.
  • Meet parents where they are. Parents want their children to be healthy, but putting the pieces into place on a daily basis can be challenging. Provide easy-to-understand information and offer small steps to change. Partner with community-based organizations that are already engaging parents.
  • Switch it up. Vary meeting times and volunteer activity times to accommodate parents with different work/childcare schedules. It’s important to put in the extra effort to get as many parents as possible involved in healthy schools programs.
  • It is a digital world – communicate to parents through technology. Even if families do not have computers, parents use smart phones to connect. Use text messaging and social media to reach parents. Build the capacity to communicate in all the languages needed to reach parents and invite and sustain their involvement.
  • Train parents on the school wellness policy.  Policy work can be intimidating. Help boost parent confidence and skills by holding trainings on how to take action on local school wellness policies. Evidence from a California Project LEAN evaluation showed that parents who participated in wellness leadership trainings used their newly acquired knowledge to talk with key school administrators about school nutrition and physical activity changes.

Schools and parents both care deeply about their students. Lasting parent engagement models allow for school leadership, parents and community members to work together to make permanent, sustainable changes to the school wellness environment. Parents acquire valuable confidence and skills and feel empowered to make changes in their children’s lives. Schools gain invested partners. But most importantly, students become healthier, more physically active and more connected to school because of the parents’ engagement.

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