Building Relationships & Trust with Dreamer Scholars & their Families/Caregivers
Parental involvement is widely viewed as one of the most effective, yet challenging aspects of programming for IHDF Programs. It is widely recognized as essential to establishing high levels of Dreamer participation over the duration of the Program. Promoting parental involvement requires patience, persistence, and flexibility. Dreamers come to the program as part of a family. Programs must recognize from the beginning that they must work effectively with Dreamers’ parents and family if they are to work effectively with the Dreamers themselves. This section focuses on general approaches and programming ideas that will help Programs attract parents and family members to IHDF programming, support their parenting efforts, and involve them in their children’s education.
The term “parental involvement” is defined broadly. “Parent” refers to the adult or adults responsible for the Dreamer’s care whether it be mother, father, grandparent, sibling, or guardian. “Involvement” is also broadly defined. It can range from making cookies for a Dreamer holiday party or tutoring in the after-school program to organizing a Parent Council or simply ensuring that the Dreamer attends IHDF activities and school. It is essential not to be limited or judgmental in how the Program defines parental involvement. For example, Programs commonly point to attendance at parent meetings and IHDF outings as the measure of parental involvement in the program and quickly become frustrated at the low levels of parent participation. This is only one indicator. Parents may also be active behind the scenes, providing transportation or assisting with homework and studying. Even with a broad definition for parental involvement,
The Program staff must be sensitive to each family’s circumstances and set goals for participation that adequately accommodate those circumstances. Be aware of the legitimate constraints that can prevent parents from being actively involved in IHDF activities. It’s the Program’s job to try to overcome these constraints rather than dismiss parents as uncaring or indifferent to their child’s education and the opportunity IHDF offers. Some possible obstacles include the following:
- Conflicting family commitments (such as small siblings at home)
- Conflicting work schedules
- A history of negative interactions with schools and other institutions
- Low expectations of the program’s effectiveness
- Misperceptions of the Program’s role or intentions
IHDF Programs have found that using a combination of approaches to promote parental involvement helps build relationships. Creating a variety of ways for parents to be active allows parents to choose the type of participation that is suitable for them.
Since IHDF formally launched the public housing-based Program model (PHDPs) in 1993, it has learned a few lessons that promise to increase the levels of parental involvement in IHDF Programs based both in public housing and in schools:
- Convenience and proximity to the Dreamers’ homes promotes closer parent/lHDF Relationships.
- Providing educational opportunities for parents increases their involvement.
- Promoting a sense of community among Dreamer parents encourages them to support each other’s involvement.
Because PHDPs are based where the Dreamers and their families live, IHDF becomes a daily part of parents’ and Dreamers’ lives. Local housing authorities often donate space for the Program’s offices so the PD is in the development on a daily basis and becomes a familiar face in the community. The proximity of the Program to the Dreamers’ homes and families is conducive to forming relationships between the parents and the Program staff. Attending meetings and activities in the housing development is convenient for the parents and personal ties form through the countless informal meetings and conversations that occur as parents and staff members see each other every day. The PHDP approach also promotes parental involvement by mobilizing resources for parents through the community partners that are elements of the PHDP approach. For example, the PHDP approach includes the College Partner, a local college or university that collaborates with IHDF, and the housing authority to deliver educational, cultural, and recreational support to the Dreamers. College Partners may offer parents services such as adult education courses, college admissions and financial aid counseling, or job search training while also providing a rich source of volunteers and resources for the Program.
Parent support groups have also become part of PHDP programming. Parents meet in each other’s homes or the Program’s offices to discuss their personal challenges and lives. The key to these groups is that they exist for the parents. They are not another forum for IHDF to talk with parents about their children. Parents direct the content and provide each other with support. This creates stronger relationships among parents that allow them to encourage and support each other’s involvement in IHDF and their children’s education.
All IHDF Programs can apply these lessons in their own parental involvement efforts. Like PHDPs, school-based Programs should recruit local colleges and universities to become formal partners with the Program and encourage them to provide services for parents. PDs, even if their offices are not physically located in the Dreamers’ neighborhood, should know the community well. Starting parent groups and other forums for parents to form supportive relationships with each other can open pathways of communication and information flow.
DESIGNATE A PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT COORDINATOR
A successful strategy for some Programs has been to elect, choose, or hire someone dedicated to working on promoting parental involvement. Often, this person is called the Parental Involvement Coordinator. Some Programs have hired a Dreamer parent to fill this role. If the Program decides to hire a parent, it is extremely important to select one who is well liked and trusted by most of the other families. A well-chosen parent can be a role model, encouraging other parents to get involved. Initially, parents may trust and respond to a fellow parent more than to the PD or Sponsor, so a respected and supportive parent can be an invaluable ally to the Program in forming good relationships. On the flip side, however, a poorly chosen parent can be a real liability to the program. He or she could alienate parents who would otherwise be active or raise concerns about the confidentiality of parents’ interactions with the program. Take time to make a selection. AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA, two federal service programs, may provide Programs with the resources to hire parents or others to work in areas such as parental involvement, volunteer recruitment, tutoring, and community service.
CREATE “PARENT-FRIENDLY” COMMUNICATIONS
Solicit parents’ input. Gather information about parents’ interests, concerns, and ideas through parent questionnaires, home visits, suggestion boxes, Parent Council meetings, and informal conversations.
Provide all information about IHDF activities, events, policies, and meetings in English and any other languages predominant in the Dreamers’ homes.
Make telephone calls to remind parents of events and meetings. Some parents may not read English well enough to understand Program announcements so reinforce written communications with a follow-up contact. A personal invitation from the PD may also be more encouraging than a generic announcement.
Keep regular drop-in hours when parents can stop by the Program offices to see the PD or Parental Involvement Coordinator privately. Some parents may be uncomfortable expressing their concerns in front of other parents.
Praise the Dreamer to the parents. Create occasions for positive communications with parents about their child. All too often the only contact parents have with other authority figures in their child’s life and education is in a negative context.
Many Program Coordinators use home visits as a way to build relationships with parents. Most PDs make formal home visits when the Program is launched or soon after, and then annually throughout the lifetime of the program. The purpose of these initial home visits is to develop a rapport with the Dreamers’ families and to promote and explain the IHDF Program. Through home visits, the PD will also learn about the Dreamers’ home environments and can assess more thoroughly what types of services each Dreamer needs the most.
Veteran PDs stress the importance of setting a positive and non-intimidating tone when making home visits. This is especially important when the PD visits the Dreamers’ homes for the first time:
Always have a positive approach to conducting a home visit. The PD needs to be sure that the parents understand the concept of 11 Have a Dream” and the PD’s role. They may be used to social workers coming into their homes for negative reasons. I always came in positive, saying things like “Isn’t this an exciting opportunity for your child? We are here to help him graduate from high school.” I never met a parent who wouldn’t open their door to that opportunity.
When conducting home visits, PDs need to be organized, flexible, and persistent. The following steps may help make the first visits easier to schedule and complete.
- Send a letter or text of introduction to the families, make it bilingual if necessary, in which the PD requests a home visit to talk to the parents about IHDF.
- Call the family to confirm that the letter was received. For families who don’t have telephones, include the options of stopping by the office or returning a signed notification of receipt in the introductory letter.
- Schedule an appointment to meet parents at home. PDs must be willing to schedule home visits according to the parents’ availability. This may mean that visits occur in the late evenings or on weekends.
- If the parent is not home when the PD arrives for the scheduled visit, leave a card or a form letter suggesting a time to reschedule.
- Make the PD’s office available for individual meetings with parents who do not want a home visit.
During these initial visits try to determine the parents’ concerns about their child’s education and the IHDF Program. Ask what types of support they want for their child, and offer concrete suggestions for how IHDF can facilitate the Dreamer’s participation in the program. Also discuss how the parents can be involved.
Each Program should exercise its judgment to determine who, if anyone, should accompany a PD on home visits. Conducting home visits is a professional task accomplished by the PD or trained staff members. Several PDs have also commented that having a Sponsor along on home visits is not necessarily a wise practice because both the Sponsor and the families may feel self-conscious. It may be more comfortable to have the Sponsor(s) meet the parents on more festive occasions such as family dinners and holiday parties. If there are special safety concerns, it may be preferable for an additional staff person to accompany the PD on certain home visits. The possible disadvantage of sending more than one person on the home visit is that it will compromise the privacy of the visit and the family may feel more intimidated. Each Program must determine what arrangements are best for its particular circumstances..
Once the Program is underway, PDs continue to conduct regular, formal home visits at least once a year and more frequently if they have a special concern about a particular Dreamer such as a marked decline in attendance at IHDF or school. If a parent does not want a home visit, try to meet the parent in a neutral place or at IHDF, whichever the parent prefers. While home visits are an important way to develop a deeper understanding of the Dreamers’ situations, it’s more important to meet individually with the parents. Communication channels must be kept open even if a home visit is not possible. Over time, as the program becomes more familiar, parents may become more open.
Usually the best time to make home visits with each Dreamer’s family is toward the beginning of each school year. This allows for each initial visit to be nothing more than a friendly visit to tell the parents about the upcoming school year, have them re-sign the Parent/Dreamer Agreement, review the past year’s successes and challenges, and to develop goals for the upcoming year. It’s recommended to share something positive about their Dreamer. Making a positive visit will help parents be more responsive to any future home visits that may not always be as pleasant.
Informal visits with parents can be just as important in building relationships and support for the IHDF program as the formal ones. The informal visits are the real golden opportunities–dropping the Dreamers off after an event or stopping to talk when driving through the neighborhood. Give the parents a few updates and friendly words. Gradually, parents become more accepting of you and talk more. You become less of an outsider and more of a
familiar face in the neighborhood. If you take that extra step–drop the Dreamer off at the door instead of the corner-you will get a positive response from the parents.
MAKE INVOLVEMENT EASY
More parents will participate in IHDF programming if the logistics are convenient and involvement is not too burdensome. Consider the following elements when planning parent meetings and functions.
Time. Survey parents to determine the best time for parent meetings. Usually early evenings on a weekday are convenient but parents may also prefer a Friday night or Saturday meeting.
Place. Select a location accessible to parents. For example, public housing-based Programs have the benefit of being located in the Dreamers’ housing development so meetings can be held at the Program’s offices or at a parent’s apartment. School-based Programs may find that their Dreamers are scattered over a broader geographic area, making a central meeting location more difficult to find. Usually, the school or community-based organization is used.
Child Care. Provide child care for younger siblings. Recruit AmeriCorps members, parents, older siblings, or the Dreamers once they are old enough to watch the young children during the meeting. Plan a Dreamer event to occur simultaneously with a parents’ meeting or function and allow younger siblings to take part so that the children are occupied while the parents meet.
Refreshments. Always provide refreshments for parent functions. The Program can supply these or plan a potluck supper. This makes the meeting a “fun” occasion.
More Than One Meeting. Consider holding more than one session of important meetings, varying the time and/or location to increase overall attendance.
HOW TO ASK
Logistical barriers are only one type of impediment to parental involvement. While recruiting parents to get involved, be aware of other possible barriers such as parents’ insecurities about their ability to contribute to the Program, negative feelings toward authority figures, and feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of getting involved. To overcome these barriers, start small. If parents seem hesitant to help, ask them to do something quick and simple or something familiar such as watching younger children, fixing snacks, or running an errand. As they gain confidence, encourage them to participate in more challenging ways.
We have found it helpful to involve the parents spontaneously, thus not allowing time for the parents to realize the significance of what they are doing and become intimidated. For example, our PD would casually ask a parent to hold some flash cards for a group of Dreamers without formally asking the parent to “tutor.” When parents realized what they were doing, they were proud of themselves and had confidence to do more.
Parents may also hesitate to get involved because they feel their children are learning about things they don’t know themselves. For example, a Program takes all the Dreamers to the library to get their own library cards but the parents don’t have cards themselves. These parents are unlikely to take their Dreamers to the library in the future. Always ask parents to come along. For some activities such as going to a play or museum, a “parents-only” trip first may motivate parents to take their children on similar outings in the future. It’s also an opportunity for parents to socialize and enjoy each other. Emphasize that getting involved does not necessarily require an extensive time commitment. For example, a parent can volunteer for one-time activities such as chaperoning an afternoon outing or stuffing envelopes for a fund-raising event. IHDF-Miami capitalized on the heavy involvement of their Dreamer parents by holding their IHDF meetings at the school cafeteria just prior to the PTA meeting. Seventy Dreamer parents stayed on for the PTA meeting. The principal was thrilled!
A Program in New York is trying a parents’ grant program. The Program awards small grants to parents who plan and organize educational and cultural outings for small groups of Dreamers. The parents plan the logistics, which the PD reviews and approves. Parents are also responsible for allocating the funds that pay for things like admission, snacks, and transportation. One pitfall this Program has encountered is the tendency of staff members to take over planning rather than simply providing guidance. This undermines the goal of motivating parents to take the initiative. With some adjustments, however, the staff still hopes the program will be successful.
RECOGNIZE PARENTS’ CONTRIBUTIONS
Recognize parents’ contributions to the program and their support of their children. Everyone likes to be acknowledged. Parents are more likely to stay motivated and excited about their involvement if they feel appreciated.
Here are some suggestions:
- Thank parents by name in the Program newsletter.
- Hold a Parent Appreciation Night and present parents with awards made by the Dreamers.
- Send personal notes or cards from the PD and Sponsor.
- Make gifts for parents on Mother’s and Father’s Day. Some New York Dreamers decorated ties for Father’s Day.
- Say “thank-you” to parents and explain how much their support means to the program and the Dreamers.
Offering programs for Dreamer parents is another way to promote their involvement in IHDF. Programs can be designed for all IHDF parents, for a subset of IHDF parents (such as single parents or fathers), or for parents and Dreamers together. As suggested previously, use parent questionnaires to solicit parents’ input about the types of programs that interest them most and the best times for programs to be held.
Planning parent-focused programming in addition to all the work that Dreamer programming requires may seem overwhelming; but the payoffs in terms of parental involvement make planning even just occasional parent programs worthwhile. Having a Parental Involvement Coordinator or a Parent Council is extremely helpful for organizing parent programs.
- Familiarizes parents with the Program and Program staff in a positive, non threatening manner
- Provides a means of “giving back” to the parents for their contributions to the Program
- Provides an opportunity for parents to set a good example for the Dreamers by attending IHDF events and supporting IHDF activities
- Provides a forum for helping parents learn tools to improve Dreamers’ lives, such as proper nutrition requirements, efficient studying habits, effective discipline techniques, and good communication skills
In general, the following structures are implemented at each site:
- Parent committee (consists of all parents in a Dreamer Class) – monthly meetings
- Executive Council (parents elected by parent committee to meet between committee meetings, and with the PD as needed, to provide support and feedback.
- Parent contributions to CSAs and to parent organized or sponsored activities.
- Parent volunteers at Dreamer programming, sports teams, etc.
- Parent education (topics determined by parents, and sometimes suggested by PD)
- Parent leadership in community (support for parent voice in school, or other)
General Parent Support Strategies
- Provide parent meetings and workshops
- Home visits
- Parent Council
- Support parents at parent-teacher meetings
- Encourage parent events (potlucks, etc.)
- Explain and model importance of two-way communication channels between PD and parents
- Model high expectations of high school graduation and college attendance for parents
- Integrate workshops and information sessions into portions of parent meetings
Assessments of Parent Support
- Teacher evaluations
- Program director evaluations
- Parent and Dreamer surveys
One of the best ways to involve parents in the Program is for them to take on the authority to make decisions. When the parents know that they have a voice in the organization and direction of the Program, they are more likely to commit time and energy to the day-to-day implementation of programming.
Developing a core group of active parents will help lessen the work the PD needs to do as well as increase the success of the parent involvement program. This core group can do its own planning and decision making and the PDs can offer support, input, and training.
A Parent Council is the typical vehicle Programs use to incorporate parent decision making and program planning into the Program’s governance. Ideally, the Parent Council is run entirely by the parents from the planning and announcement to the execution of meetings and the implementation of the programs and events it undertakes. At first it may be difficult to find enough parents prepared to take on this responsibility. A few motivated parents, along with the PD, should take the lead role in facilitating meetings until the parents’ group is ready to function on its own.
At least one parent should serve on the Affiliate’s Board of Directors to ensure parental input in Program decision making.
Common Programs that parent councils undertake include:
- Preparing a parent newsletter
- Surveying parents’ interests and recruiting parent volunteers
- Planning family fun days
- Organizing parent workshops and discussion groups
Workshops and Support Groups for Parents
We have found that parents prefer workshops over general meetings. For example, we held a series of workshops to provide parents with information and strategies for discussing sex with their teenaged Dreamers. The parents were given hands-on activities and also did a lot of sharing with each other. Parents with older children had advice and ideas for parents who had not gone through this stage of parenting. We could tell the parents enjoyed these meetings because they kept coming back.
Designing workshops for parents is a great way to get parents involved in the Program. Common workshop topics include parenting skills such as effective discipline techniques and conflict resolution, HIV awareness, financial workshops on credit and debt management, continuing education opportunities for parents, and job-search and resume-writing skills.
Always take into consideration the parents’ needs and interests when planning a workshop. Don’t hold one just because you think you have to. Give the parents suggestions and listen to their ideas. Then, gather the information or get an outside speaker to facilitate a workshop on a topic that interests the parents.
Frequently, a local professional will volunteer his or her time to lead a workshop. Look to the Program’s board members, business contacts, and Dreamer parents as sources for recruiting workshop leaders.
Programs increasingly report that parent support groups are especially popular among parents. Parents of Dreamers at one Program meet weekly in a parent’s apartment or at the CBO. A volunteer counselor facilitates the group, but discussions are really driven by the parents’ concerns. Important aspects of the support group are that it is parent-focused and confidential. Parents socialize and talk about their own lives, relationships, and worries. This may or may not include talking about their children or the IHDF Program. At the same time that the parent support group is meeting, Dreamers meet with their counselors or Dreamers and siblings can play games, do homework, or read. One IHDF Program found parent support groups facilitated by a trained psychologist to be one of the most popular parent activities. The Program can also offer fun activities that the parents are unlikely to take the time or spend the money to enjoy otherwise. For example, at one IHDF program, a Mary Kay beauty consultant volunteered to give free consultations and makeovers to Dreamers and their mothers. Sometimes Programs receive donated tickets for a movie or play that is not appropriate for the Dreamers so they organize a group of parents to go. Because the activities are fun and undemanding, they may help put parents at ease and lower their inhibitions about becoming more involved in IHDF.
Potential Problems with Parental Involvement Efforts
Every Program encounters parents who are unresponsive or uninterested in the IHDF program despite repeated efforts to engage them. They may never respond to invitations, return phone calls, or attend a meeting. It is possible that these parents are also uninvolved in their child’s education, and the Dreamer may need the Program’s support most urgently. PDs and parent leaders can become frustrated when they expend lots of time trying to contact these parents to discuss their child and the program.
If a parent is persistently unresponsive to the Program’s efforts to establish lines of communication, try following these guidelines:
- Be sure to ask them specifically if there is a reason they cannot participate or are not interested. Their seeming lack of interest may be the result of other circumstances working several jobs, illness, or financial stress. Like their children, parents may also feel uncomfortable participating because they don’t have stylish clothes, speak the “right” language, or simply are shy.
- Keep the parent on the mailing list and continue to send him or her all Program information and meeting announcements. Try to identify another adult or older sibling who is active in the child’s life. Encourage them to participate in the program.
- Keep an open door. If parents approach the Program, welcome them and address their concerns. Invite parents to participate in some way, however small.
- Encourage the Dreamer to stay involved in all activities. As long as his parents do not object to his participation, the Dreamer should be included.
- If the parent(s) have not provided written, signed permission for the Dreamer to participate in IHDF, the Dreamer cannot attend IHDF activities or events. Keep track of these Dreamers and periodically re approach the parents to obtain their permission.
Programs may also encounter parents who get involved in negative ways. A parent may disrupt meetings with unreasonable demands; have a personality conflict with the PD or other staff member; or try to undermine the program by accusing the PD of not fulfilling his or her promise to the Dreamers. The Program staff can be caught in the difficult position of not wanting to alienate a parent but also not having the time or energy to devote to an over demanding individual. Too much time spent with a disruptive parent takes time away from other parents and the Dreamers. A few suggestions for dealing with a parent in this situation follow:
- Always try in good faith to address parents’ concerns in a timely, relevant manner. Don’t avoid a historically difficult parent. It will only add fuel to the fire.
- Always be professional and respectful to parents, and make it clear that respect is expected in return.
- Document all discussions with parents and keep a record of all infonnation distributed to parents, including signed copies of Dreamer and parent agreements, the tuition policy, permission slips, and so forth.
- If a parent repeatedly disrupts a meeting, arrange a time and place to meet individually to discuss the parent’s special concerns. Ask the parent to leave the meeting if the disruptive behavior persists. The parent should meet with the ED directly to discuss persistent problems.
- Don’t cater to unreasonable requests. Helpful, constructive parents will resent the special treatment, and it discourages their continued participation.
- Except in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, the Program cannot interfere in a parent’s decisions about raising his or her child.
HANDLING CASES OF SUSPECTED ABUSE OR NEGLECT
Responding to cases of suspected abuse or neglect in a Dreamer’s home is one of the most difficult and sensitive issues a Program may have to manage. Every state has its own laws that define who is a mandatory reporter required to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect. However, each state’s laws are different. For example, doctors, teachers, social workers , and day care providers are typically mandatory reporters. PDs are very likely to be mandatory reporters as well. Program volunteers and other staff members may also be included in the state’s statutory definitions. The Sponsor, board members, and PD should know in advance who the mandatory reporters are. The Program should establish clear procedures for handling a case of suspected abuse or neglect. All employees and volunteers who work directly with children should be trained in these procedures and in recognizing signs of abuse or neglect. Contact the state agency in charge of handling child protective services such as the Department of Social Services or Child Welfare for information on training.
LINKING DREAMER PARTICIPATION TO PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT
It is tempting to make parent participation a requirement for the Dreamer to participate in special events or activities. For example, a Program may require a Dreamer to bring a parent on an outing. No parent, no trip. But this approach punishes the Dreamers who have little control over their parents’ actions by excluding them from an IHDF activity if they cannot convince a parent to come with them. Try to provide incentives for parents to participate that don’t punish the Dreamer if the parent declines. Offer a variety of ways to participate and accept whatever a parent can give. A little participation in the beginning may grow into more if the parent feels welcome.
Here are some ideas Programs have used to accommodate all forms of parent participation:
- Give parents the choice of contributing a small “copayment” ($5) or volunteering an hour of their time so that their Dreamer can participate in special trips and outings.
- At a home visit or individual meeting, ask parents to select a level of participation and stick to it. For some, it might be once a week. For others, it may be twice a year. This sets clear expectations for each parent and avoids comparing parents who are not as involved with those who volunteer all the time.
- Signing a permission slip is implicit parent support for the program. Take heart in the little signs of parent involvement!