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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information on the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

Although welfare policies primarily target behaviors of adult recipients, the restructuring of adult lives brought about by these initiatives ripples through households. The research literature indicates that families play a critical role in creating successful educational trajectories for their children. Given the reorganization in family roles, responsibilities, and shifts in resources associated with new employment and training, the nature of parent involvement in education will likely be affected.

Participation in work, education, and training influences parents' time, resources, and cultural capital in ways that may in turn influence their involvement in a child's education. Employment affects the amount and quality of discretionary time parents have to devote to children's education (Hochschild, 1997; Smrekar, 1996). In the context of education, "cultural capital" refers to the cultural and social resources families have at their disposal to meet the expectations of schools (Lareau, 1989). The knowledge, experiences, and social networks that unemployed parents gain through employment, education, and training may alter a family's cultural capital in ways that contribute to more effective home–school interactions and support.

Research Method

To explore the influence of welfare reform on parent involvement in education, this case study was conducted in a low-income urban Tennessee community during 2003. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with parents, elementary school educators, and welfare service providers. Secondary sources included field notes, key informant interviews, and documents. Triangulation and constant comparison were used to analyze the data. Interview transcripts were coded to identify themes, patterns, and inconsistencies.

Twelve mothers were recruited through a federally funded welfare-to-work program housed at a community-based organization (CBO). Parent interviewees had a child enrolled in elementary school, were current recipients of public assistance, and complied with welfare's work requirements, which could include employment, career training, and education. Eleven were single parents. Follow-up interviews were conducted 3 to 4 months later with 9 of the 12 parents. Interviews focused on work and family obligations, and explored how changes in time and cultural capital affected interviewees' beliefs and practices regarding their children's education.

Interviews were also conducted with welfare and school staff working with this population of parents. Five welfare service providers were recruited from the CBO and eight educators (four fourth grade teachers, three third grade teachers, and one home–school coordinator) were recruited from two elementary schools in the vicinity of the CBO. Interviews focused on impressions and knowledge drawn from the staff person's professional vantage point.

Research Findings

Instability of Work and Training Lives
Parents' work and training status changed frequently. At the first interview, 5 out of 12 parents were engaged in their work/training activity for 2 months or less—a pattern of instability that continued among parents who participated in a follow-up interview. Of the 7 parents working at the time of the first interview, only 3 were employed in the same job 4 months later. Employment/training status was frequently precarious. Factors included poor health, transportation difficulties, child care arrangements, and job dissatisfaction.

Impacts of Schedules and Flexibility
Parents wanted work and training schedules that mirrored their children's school schedule. Many parents employed part-time resisted transitioning to full-time employment if the schedule included nonschool hours. Employed parents varied in their flexibility to respond to school requests during work hours. Flexibility was particularly challenging for parents frequently contacted by the schools to address children's behavior or special education needs.

Some parents and teachers reported an unexpected benefit—work schedules provided structure to family routines. Children of working parents were more likely to arrive at school on time, and parents were more likely to keep appointments, according to those interviewed. No teacher found working parents less able to carry out these responsibilities.

Changes in Knowledge, Experiences, and Social Networks
Parents applied relevant work and training-based knowledge and experiences to involvement in children's education. Enrollment in adult education fostered a home environment in which learning was valued and discussed. Parents and children completed homework together, discussed education goals, and increased enthusiasm for school. Parents with less formal education applied content knowledge and pedagogical strategies from adult basic education classes to assist children with specific homework assignments. Parents with day care experience applied child development knowledge and resources to their own parenting. Several parents cited increased comfort with parent–school communication as a benefit of employment.

Parents varied in their willingness to turn to work and training social networks to address child-related concerns. CBO staff strongly encouraged clients to access available networks of social service professionals and fellow clients to address problems. Fellow clients offered advice and resources during impromptu class discussions facilitated by CBO staff. Parents also exchanged ideas before and after class. Staff informally advised clients on parent–school interactions—negotiating special education services and resolving conflicts, for example. To a lesser extent, employed parents exchanged resources and parenting advice with coworkers.

Limited Communication Between CBO Staff and Teachers
Teachers and CBO staff believed increased parent involvement was a priority, yet teachers expressed frustration with limited parental support. CBO staff, who had regular contact with many of the same parents, strongly encouraged clients to assume a proactive role in children's education. However, teachers appeared to have limited awareness of CBO efforts. Communication pathways between the organizations existed primarily through nonteaching staff at the schools and a liaison at the CBO. Reliance on these few fragile linkages compromised sustained communication and coordination of efforts.

Implications for Teacher Practice

  1. Initiate communication with parents. Often parents living in low-income communities are hesitant to speak with teachers even though they care deeply about their child's education. Create nonthreatening situations that facilitate two-way conversations and trust between parents and teachers. For example, seek parents' ideas and talents to decorate a class bulletin board or plan a class event.
  2. Be flexible to maintain parent communication and support. Parents working in low-wage, inflexible, and unsteady employment are challenged to remain consistently involved in their child's education. Be flexible when scheduling communication with working parents in terms of the time of the day, day of the week, meeting location, and mode of communication (i.e., face-to-face or telephone). Recognize that family routines must be rearranged to adapt to changing work schedules. The disruption is often stressful and may temporarily compromise parents' ability to respond to school requests.
  3. Listen to parents for strengths and skills that can be used to support their child's education. Explore how parents' work, training, and education lives contribute to their parent involvement beliefs and practices. Help parents connect their skills and experiences to the ways in which they assist with homework, identify educational resources, encourage children's academic pursuits, and volunteer at the school.
  4. Develop and sustain relationships with neighborhood organizations that serve the same families. Schools can acquire valuable information and partnerships through ongoing conversations with neighborhood organizations about parent involvement needs and strategies, and family priorities. Through these linkages, educators can also encourage increased parent involvement in forums where parents are likely to be present, such as career training, meetings, and education classes.


Hochschild, A. R. (1997). The time bind: When work becomes home and home becomes work. New York: Henry Holt.

Lareau, A. (1989). Home advantage: Social class and parental intervention in elementary education. Philadelphia: The Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis.

Smrekar, C. (1996). The impact of school choice and community: In the interest of families and schools. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Catherine Dunn Shiffman, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Leadership, Policy & Organizations
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, TN
Mailing Address: 7 Snowden Road, Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

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