The notion that apathy and individualism are widespread dampens our efforts to mobilize parents and guardians with a fatalistic sense of defeat. We need to dig deeper to find the core of caring, concern and commitment that often lies beneath.
Parents and caregivers may believe that “bullying does not concern them” because their child is neither being bullied nor actively engaging in bullying behaviour. They may not be aware that if their child is a silent bystander, they may be inadvertently supporting the bullying. They may not understand that simple actions on the part of a witness can transform the situation. An important precursor to stimulating concern and involvement around these issues is to educate parents and caregivers about the power dynamics of bullying.
From the collective body of concerned parents and guardians, individuals with leadership abilities will emerge. Leaders are those who are focused on the wellbeing of the school community. Though their initial involvement may be instigated by concern for their own children, they are subsequently drawn to the bigger purpose of supporting the whole school community. Schools can find many ways to galvanize the concerns and interests of individual parents and guardians.
Initial indications of the motivation to become involved may be simple questions or expressions of interest. One parent or caregiver can build awareness in the whole community by asking questions and our open response can help to build that momentum.
If a parent or caregiver expresses interest in an event, a discussion group or an initiative focusing on equity, inclusion or bullying prevention, this can serve as a catalyst for collective action. That individual or small group of parents or caregivers will be more likely to take ownership of their initiative and help make it happen. Their involvement will influence and mobilize other parents and caregivers. When schools initiate activities or programs, the impact is less than when the initiative and interest come from a parent or caregiver. Schools may have a pre-existing idea, but the parent’s or guardian’s interest can provide an opportunity to bring it to fruition.
COPA’s problem-solving tool for empowerment offers an approach to ensuring that parents and caregivers are fully engaged in shaping and creating the initiative. (See Problem-solving.)
Of course, schools have many limitations imposed on them due to financial and bureaucratic restrictions. These can be taken into consideration as part of the planning process, with active input by the parent or guardian.
The following strategies can help schools nurture parents’ and caregivers’ leadership and involvement in developing a safe and inclusive school culture:
Fully involve and equip parents and caregivers who are active leaders by providing them with realistic information about the school’s strengths, resources, capacities, limitations and challenges.
When a parent or caregiver is particularly demanding or has unrealistic expectations, we may be able to channel their energy into a leadership role. Rather than resisting, avoiding or repressing the parent’s or caregiver’s motivation, we can seek to involve them in a positive way. The more the parent or guardian understands the school’s limitations, challenges and realities (as well as its strengths, resources and capacities), the more unlikely it will be for them to push against those limits. By inviting them into the school and providing them with guidance and information, we may transform a problematic though energetic person into a dynamic leader.
Provide positive models of collaborative shared leadership between parents or caregivers and school staff.
Many of us did not grow up with images and models of parents and caregivers playing an active role to play in schools. Schools can seek opportunities to highlight positive models of parent/caregiver leadership. This strengthens the sense that initiative and direction are coming from the home and the school. For example:
- Have a teacher or staff member co-chair a safe schools committee with a parent or caregiver.
Involve parents and caregivers in activities with concrete outcomes.
Parents and caregivers will feel motivated and rewarded for their involvement when they clearly see and understand the results of their efforts. People usually need to have the sense that they are working toward achievable goals, not just talking about them.
Demystify school involvement by breaking it down into small achievable steps.
A common tendency in any human group or institution is for one individual or small group to take on the lion’s share of work and responsibility. While we may be relieved and grateful to those reliable and devoted individuals, this phenomenon may have negative consequences. The overly involved individuals may experience burn out, while other parents and caregivers who feel they cannot contribute as much may feel intimidated. They may hesitate to join knowing they can’t give as much as appears to be needed. It is important to clarify that even small contributions are valued and important. For example:
- During the planning process, we can break down the stages into smaller steps and contributions.