How to engage parents online more effectively

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has teamed up with North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools to make its digital content and interactive learning tools accessible at home as well as at school.

Parenting is the toughest and most important role most adults will ever have. Yet, far too many feel ill equipped to handle the job. Others are simply too busy making ends meet, or so overwhelmed by life that parenting simply takes a back seat to more pressing concerns.

As someone raised in a “survival of the fittest” family, with few rules, multiple crises, and modest expectations, I can relate to other parents who feel inept when confronted by the litany of things educators expect parents to know and do.

It’s as if teachers and other suspiciously together parents have a secret codebook that tells them how to handle every situation and explains educational mysteries. Surely all parents are not born knowing why it’s important to read to infants, even though they are clearly not interested in books—or that teenagers who seem to hate your very presence really covet more time with caring, competent adults.

Telling parents like me that we need to “support the educational process at home,” or that you want to “partner with me” in addressing school concerns about my beloved child, is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. I might not know what to do with my child, but I sure recognize condescension when I hear it.

To help parents feel more confident in interacting with school personnel, and to bridge the knowing-doing gap, organizations like GreatSchools Inc. and companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) are teaming up with schools and districts to offer free, online learning opportunities for their families.

For more information about parent engagement, see:

Engaging Your Community with Effective Communication

GreatSchools (, a national nonprofit headquartered in San Francisco, is partnering with Miami Dade Public Schools, Hillsborough County, Fla., Public Schools, Denver Public Schools, and Los Angeles Unified School District, among others, in leveraging digital media for parents as part of its College Bound online learning program.

Easy to log onto and use, College Bound helps unpack the middle-class codebook for families, starting in kindergarten and continuing through fifth grade. The goal is to build parent knowledge and skills that foster greater student success.

Designed with low-income families in mind but suitable for all parents, the program combines short lessons with an online community and personalized coaching—all in English or Spanish.

By combining short videos, animation, parent-friendly text, social media, and interactive activities, the program builds parent confidence and shows them how to support learning at home and at school in meaningful and constructive ways.

Because parents can log in 24-7 from home, work, church or synagogue, the library, or while “on the go” using smart phones and other mobile devices, they can take advantage of the learning opportunities when it is most convenient for them.

The program’s flexibility allows parents to skip around the various units, exploring content that interests them and skipping over content that doesn’t meet their needs. Parents can work online with their children, in small group settings at schools or community locations, or by themselves. Parents also can get tips and suggestions from GreatSchools’ online experts, or tap into other parents nationwide for advice.

Similarly, HMH has teamed up with Miami-Dade County Schools and North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools to make its digital academic content and interactive learning games and tools accessible at home as well as at school.

Guilford County currently has more than 2,000 parents using the online system, which includes academic content from preschool through grade eight in reading, mathematics, and science. (To explore the system yourself, go to, click on the “Parents” tab, then go to “Guilford Parent Academy.”)

For more information about parent engagement, see:

Engaging Your Community with Effective Communication

Thanks to the online content, which is provided free to parents, families can research high-quality web sources through netTrekker, dissect a frog online through Science Builder, or check their understanding of algebraic concepts and equations.
Community tutors and mentors working with Guilford County students at public libraries, after-school clubs, and nonprofit organizations also can access the content, which reinforces the knowledge and skills students learn in class.

In addition, parents can access award-winning digital video content on a wide range of social-emotional issues, from parenting toddlers to understanding stress and depression in teens. Produced by Active Parenting and Connect with Kids, these digital programs are also broadcast on Guilford County’s cable television channel, GCTV-2.

With more than 50 research studies showing a link between parent engagement in learning and student success, such digital initiatives seek to remove common barriers, such as distrust of school officials, language differences, and lack of time.

Just as students often learn best from other students, parents often learn the most from other parents, which is why the most powerful programs leverage digital media to show real parents struggling with—and overcoming—real issues.

Simply posting great content online isn’t enough, however. Typically, parents have to hear about these new resources from a friend or other trusted source before they’ll take the time to log on; others will need a note from a teacher, or personal, hands-on experience with the new tools before feeling comfortable enough to fly solo.

As with any other innovation, educators need a plan that will bring parents through all the various stages outlined in the diffusion process, moving from initial awareness and interest to evaluation, trial, and adoption.

Because mass media and information distribution work best at raising awareness and generating interest in a new idea, service, or product, it’s OK to start with fliers, letters, website announcements, and other typical tools. To move from interest to action, however, parents probably will need some face time and one-on-one encouragement.

This is where community partners and other trusted messengers come into play. When parents get to try out new tools in a safe and comfortable environment, such as their church, temple, synagogue, community center, or public library, they’re more likely to engage.

As they experience success online, motivation—and learning—builds. Soon, parents are able to work with their children and their children’s teachers with greater confidence, laying the foundation for a true partnership built on mutual respect

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

For more information about parent engagement, see:

Engaging Your Community with Effective Communication

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