For parents, volunteering at school can open an important window into a child’s world, said Donna Henderson, associate professor of counseling at Wake Forest University.
“Volunteering can be a parent’s chance to participate in that joy, to feel the energy and see the amazing things that are being done at school,” Henderson said.
Volunteering at their child’s school can also help parents adjust their perceptions of what school is today. Spending time at the school can help them better understand how schools have changed since they were students.
“Research has consistently shown that parent involvement contributes to school success,” said Henderson, who has 12 years experience as a teacher and school counselor. Discipline problems are reduced and attendance improves when parents are involved in school. Parents can also provide an important link between education and the world of work.
By volunteering, parents send a message to children that education is a team effort, Henderson said. She offers some guidelines for making the school volunteer experience the most beneficial for everyone involved.
First, she said, ask about written policies and find out what training is available for volunteers. Pay close attention to crisis procedures, everything from what to do if a fire alarm sounds to how to handle sensitive information a child reveals to you. If policies and training are not already in place, volunteer to help create them.
“You want to know what to do ‘if’,” she said. “If something happens, you want to have answers.”
Next, parents must be willing to let the professionals do their jobs and offer the support that is needed. “Being willing to take direction from a teacher or administrator to do what needs doing is important,” Henderson said.
Sometimes what is needed is help with clerical tasks or one-on-one tutoring, but parents can also match other skills with school needs. For example, Henderson mentioned a parent volunteer who regularly brings his guitar to his child’s elementary school class and teaches children about music. Other parents have valuable language, computer, gardening or other skills that can benefit the class or school.
“The balance part is what’s important,” she said. “Parents should be involved, but not so involved that it interferes with rather than fosters the learning process.”
Make a commitment, said Henderson, who is president-elect of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. “Consistency is important. If you say you are going to be there at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, you need to be there.” Otherwise, teachers and children learn quickly that a parent cannot be counted on. Particularly for parents who volunteer to work one-on-one with a student, missing a scheduled time can send the devastating message that the child is not important.
Protecting confidentiality is a key requirement for school volunteers, Henderson said. “Take care what you say outside of school. Avoid gossip about teachers or students.”
Focus on the positive, she said. “Make a point of noticing what is being done well and spreading the news about something that is worthy of praise. We can be so quick to point out flaws. We need to be just as quick to point out what is going well.”
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