Paula Mirk

Parents Want to Think About What's Right

Ethics is a great topic for thinking about parents and their role in the learning process. Most parents are conscientious individuals who want to do a good job for their children in complex and fast-moving times, even those parents you never hear from. They're likely asking themselves on a daily basis, "What's the right thing to do here?"

As educators, any tools or deepened understanding we can provide about core values and ethics is usually warmly received. We can and should respond to parents in the same way we respond to students—asking, "What do they need?" and, "Why am I observing this in them?" We should do this not just because it helps our students in school, but also because parents are just like us—people juggling jobs and personal lives often under very stressful conditions and trying to do the best they can.

One of the most powerful ways to engage families in the education process is through slightly formal ethics interactions that provide tools for getting along together better. We find parents are yearning for these! There are lots of ways to engage parents around the topic of ethics, and as you might imagine, all take deliberate effort and coordination. Appoint someone as "parent coordinator"—it really helps.

The main question asked in the following sample parent engagement plan is, "What can we try next to reach all of our parents?" Consider using your shared concern about today's ethical landscape as a question series to get parents talking and learning.

Step One: Evening Forum

Invite parents to an evening activity on "Building Ethics Awareness: Parent Adaptation" to increase parent awareness that ethics is all around us and a part of everyday life. Serve food!

  • Results: 20 percent of parents attended.
  • Learning:
    • Each parent learned that he or she is not alone.
    • All parents learned to express ethical issues and to counter concerns with ethical values and understanding.

Step Two: Focus Groups

Send invitations to a targeted group of parents. Make it clear that you want to learn from them. Focus groups engage in similar conversations as the evening forum but in a smaller group for a shorter time. Serve food! Make sure to stick to a time limit, such as 45 minutes, and don't go over it. If you finish early, that might be helpful to some busy parents.

  • Results: 20 percent more parents attended a focus group at a time that works for them, extending total reach to 40 percent of parents.
  • Learning:
    • Some parents do better in a non-threatening discussion at a time that fits their work schedule.
    • Attendance improved by providing a series of focus groups at a variety of times across the day.
    • These parents are just as conscientious as those showing up at evening forums.
    • They seemed to really appreciate being asked to participate.
    • They seemed to take away a clearer understanding of the importance of core ethical values to guide behavior and choices.

Step Three: Family Focus

Resend invitations to ask if another family member could attend a focus group. Remember the food and the time limits.

  • Results: 10 percent of siblings, grandparents, spouses, and other family members attended. Configure the sessions respectfully—young people with young people for the most part.
  • Learning: These were fun sessions and provided a better understanding of what life is like for some parents and families. They have so much on their plates!

Step Four: Off-Site Repeat Round

Set up a schedule of both parent focus groups and family focus groups in areas of the community that had low response. Keep at this for two months.

  • Results: 20 percent of those not previously heard from eventually joined a session.
  • Learning:
    • Reaching these parents was a first.
    • Many parents and family members mentioned never being involved in a school activity before.
    • "School phobia" and past negative experiences with school were a big barrier to getting involved.

Step Five: Interviews

Spend another two months chasing other parents who have not participated yet to gather their questions and feedback. Use a variety of methods for contacting: notes home, e-mail, phone calls, speaking to friends, and so forth.

  • Results: 10 percent eventually speak up.
  • Learning:
    • A large majority of our students' parents have been heard from.
    • Students' parents who are not responsive to getting involved have been identified.
    • Be aware of this because these students and their parents deserve as much of your respect and attention as everybody else.

Plan to repeat this process next year and to see if, over time, there is an increase in participation and stronger trust results.

Paula Mirk worked at whole child partner the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) for 17 years. For the majority of her tenure, she oversaw IGE's education department. IGE collaborates with national and international organizations and with school districts large and small to integrate ethical literacy into classroom practice, school culture, and systemic reform. Connect with IGE at

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