The start of a new school year is overwhelming to families.

There’s a war that’s been taken to social media.  On one side is a camp of funny posts offering to give teachers anything they want to take the kids back. The other side is a camp of parents that are exasperated at the growing lists of demands: expanding supply lists and an exhaustive number of meetings/screenings that are frequently scheduled at times that are burdensome for working families. All of the comments sections are blowing up.

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A friend recently incredulously posted on Facebook that her kindergarten son had 8 boxes of crayons on his school supply list. That’s practically one new box a month!  Immediately her post was attacked by people accusing her of not supporting teachers.  She eventually deleted her post.  Another friend expressed the frustration of meet the teacher being scheduled for 1-3 in the afternoon, a time slot that is impossible for both 1st and 2nd shift workers.  One year, my biggest complaint was that the school wanted us to come to a curriculum night, but we were asked to not bring our children. That would mean we needed to hire a babysitter in order to attend curriculum night!  If I’m not hiring a babysitter for our anniversary, it’s not likely I’m going to hire a babysitter for curriculum night.

For the 2019-2020 school year, we have two 6th graders, a 4th grader, and a 1st grader. There are some weeks early on where we’re invited to be at different meetings at the school almost every night of the week. It’s easy to become overwhelmed at the number of requests that we receive: to download, register, and monitor multiple apps, the paperwork, the additional fees, the donation requests, the extra anxiety as the kids adjust, and the overwhelming feeling of failure as you inevitably drop the ball on one more item on your to-do list.

The easy takeaway is that education is not a priority for families. This response is too easy, and too shallow.  The truth is that most families lie in the middle of those two social media camps: we’re grateful and overwhelmed at the same time. Life doesn’t magically slow down for the start of the school year. Jobs need to be done, bills need to be paid, medical needs must be addressed, family issues are amplified, and already hectic schedules are stretched to the max with the addition of back-to-school activities.

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Understanding that families have limited time and resources, if you could only get parents to commit to one thing, what would that be? Would it be a bake sale? Would it be a school carnival? What one task would have the greatest impact for academic gains? This is a conversation worth having in a staff meeting. Once that one priority is identified, a school can shift its focus to making that one parent/family initiative successful. The school’s message school be, “We know your time is limited, we want you to focus on doing this one thing really well.”

I am a sucker for online comments. I can’t help myself.  I imagine for an article like this people will be saying, “Parents should commit to MORE than one thing. Education is the most important part of a child’s life.  Parents would commit to more if they really cared.” But the truth is life is complicated.  Life is hard for a lot of people and worrying about food, and medical care, and clothes, and bills take up so much space in parents’ lives. They don’t have time to volunteer because they care; because they’re expending so much effort to meet their child’s basic needs.

In education, we talk a lot about learning objectives.  Do kids know what they’re supposed to be working on? Are we extending the same courtesy to our families? Do they know what we want them to be doing? Or are they drowning in a sea of meetings, memos, newsletters, and busy-work? If you tighten your focus and make sure that that time families give you is meaningful and impactful, you’ll see family engagement increase.