Overcoming the “catch-22” of parental involvement with underserved audiences—Part 2

Tips to keep in mind when working to increase parental involvement with underserved audiences.

As noted in “Engaging Parents in a Community Youth Development Initiative,” involving parents has been demonstrated as critical to success in youth development programs. The ultimate goal is to see greater outcomes for youth by facilitating parental interest and awareness of the programs the youth are involved with.

As discussed in part one of this series, learning to understand the community you are serving and leveraging strong connections are a great first step in building stronger parental/family engagement ties in youth development programs that work with underserved youth. If you’ve accomplished this feat and are still working to improve parental/family engagement in your program, consider these tips:

  • Have the goal in mind. Knowing what degree of involvement you are aiming for is important. If it is the inaugural year of a program, encouraging signatures on forms and informal conversations might be a good goal, whereas an established program might encourage regular conversations and attendance at events. You may also want to tailor your goals to why youth are involved in your program. If the youth have concerns or embarrassment about their families being engaged, consider that in your overall approach.
  • Provide clear expectations. Success for most youth programs is found when everyone involved—youth, mentors, volunteers, mentors and staff—is on the same page. Having documents that spell out the expectations of the program can give everyone a common understanding. Be sure to share this information in the most appropriate way for those involved, whether that is verbally, via email or hard copies.
  • Provide accessible opportunities. Consider what strategies to involve parents will be the most accessible and easiest to accomplish. If parents already pick up their child from your program, catching them at their car or asking that youth be picked up from inside the building might be an easy way to touch base. If the family has internet access, replying to an email might be easier than trying to connect via phone. When planning events that involve parents, guardians and family members, keep in mind factors like the time of day, travel distance and younger siblings so that as many can attend as possible.
  • Make engagement appealing. Getting creative with family involvement in programs will keep it fun and make it a priority (as long as it is accessible). Consider making the events that parents are invited to a celebration of what has been accomplished, in addition to a chance to check in. Small incentives work well too. Is the best time for an event during dinnertime? Providing refreshments makes your event more appealing and is considerate of family’s busy schedules.
  • Avoiding punishing the child. This is critical in making sure the program provides a positive experience for the young person and that the program doesn’t become a negative wedge between the parent and child. When deadlines and program requirements are looming, ensuring there is enough lead-time for registrations and adequate follow-up for turning things in can help to avoid difficult situations, disappointment and frustration.
  • Provide healthy boundaries. The caveat to all of this is maintaining healthy personal and program boundaries. It is often our responsibility to ensure program requirements and best practices are met and these can set boundaries for the direction family engagement takes. In addition, while improving parental engagement in any program can require more staff/volunteer effort, be sure additional time invested is met with a positive response from families.

Engaging the entire family in youth programs, whether they are the cheer section at a soccer game, the test subjects in a science club project, or supportive parents in a mentoring relationship, will lead to stronger outcomes. Michigan State University Extension encourages family involvement in children and youth programs including 4-H initiatives.

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