Helicopter parents can be a good thing

Parents and students walking down a primary school corridor. the parents are looking at some paperwork and the children are talking.

Overprotective and overinvolved parents generally get a bad rap, but they can be a teacher’s ally and asset.

By Julie Hiltz

I work at an elementary school where helicopter parents are as ubiquitous as gold
stars and untied shoelaces. There are parents who arrive for Meet the Teacher night
an hour early before you’ve gotten the chance to change out of your grubby work
clothes. Other parents come to kindergarten orientation ready to discuss the process for enrolling their child in the Gifted and Talented program — armed with a four-inch binder of their child’s work to speed the process. These are the parents who are at your classroom door almost every morning and the ones who will likely to be your last email contact each night.

A helicopter parent is a parent, guardian, or caregiver who is deeply involved in his or her child’s educational experiences, particularly at school. The term describes these parents’ interactions on school campuses — the behavior of hovering and waiting for an opportunity to land. This type of acute attentiveness has a negative connotation for many, but teachers and administrators can learn how to recruit these parents for the greater good of a school.

The phrase “helicopter parent” wasn’t familiar to me until I began teaching, but the term has become part of the parenting lexicon through countless news reports and magazine articles. As a public school student, I recall frequently seeing the mothers (and sometimes fathers) of my peers at my elementary school. These special “classroom helpers” would quietly sit in the back of the room and cut out laminated materials, hand out birthday cupcakes, and assist with three-legged races on field day. I remember being a little jealous that my parents were never working in my classroom since they both worked full-time. But friends said I was “lucky” since I could do whatever I wanted at school as long as the teacher didn’t catch me. (It’s likely there was some truth to their observations — sorry, Mom.)

The parents I once knew as classroom helpers have evolved into today’s helicopter parents — whom I shall call HPs. In my experience, HPs are part advocate and part critic. HPs are vocal and efficient networkers within and outside the school community. They often use social media channels and interact with a wider range of community members
than other parents whose children attend the same schools.

HPs also believe they’re working for the betterment of education — on behalf of both their child and other students. They tend to be better informed about education policy and their legal rights. Like many parents, they want their children to be successful. What distinguishes HPs from other parents is their willingness to step in and take action to ensure their child’s success.

The need for parent advocates

While the research about the long-term impact of parental involvement on academic performance is still developing, the reality is that parents and other adult caregivers do have the greatest potential effect on students. Students spend 70% of their waking hours outside of school. Not only is a parent a child’s first teacher, but he or she is their first role model and usually their first advocate.

In the current state of education reform, many schools have had to shift to viewing parents as customers. It’s no longer a given that Johnny or Sara from across the street will attend your neighborhood public school. With school choice and the expansion of charter and private schools, Johnny and Sara’s parents can choose from a number of schools.

Helicopter parents are part advocate and part critic so teachers and administrators should learn how to recruit these parents for the greater good of a school.

The issue of student attendance has a profound effect on public schools because much of their funding is based on per-student allocations. Today, many schools find themselves in the unenviable position of finding ways to attract and retain students. As parents tour schools and make decisions about where to send their children, they have a wealth of information to draw upon, including social media, blogs, web sites that aggregate parent reviews and ratings, and anecdotal information from real estate agents.

But outside of state assessment scores or “school grades,” most of these decisions are influenced by word of mouth — and that’s where HPs can really help. They tend to be better socially connected, visible, and highly engaged in the community and are therefore afforded a higher degree of credibility. HPs can burnish or tarnish a school’s reputation through a conversation at the baseball field or discussions during PTA functions.

Inviting parents into schools

For schools and teachers, the decision to cater to HPs is not just a financial one; it’s also a matter of what’s right for students. Parents not only have a right but a responsibility to be involved in their child’s education. The presence of HPs on campus holds teachers, schools, and districts to a certain kind of accountability. It sends the message: “We are watching.” As a parent and educator, I acknowledge that parents actually have a bit more power and influence on education policy and legislation outside of the system than I do from within it, and I appreciate their support.

No matter how teachers feel about HPs in the classroom, we need to acknowledge that they’re not going away anytime soon. Teachers and administrators must learn how to work with HPs — and all parents — by better understanding what motivates them and how to make that work to everyone’s advantage.

I’ve done quite a bit of work with parents as the chairperson of our school advisory committee. One of my jobs is to work with parents and community members to collaborate on ways to support the social, emotional, and academic development of our students. During those conversations, I’ve learned that some parents know little about the process of education. Often parents are only focused on the outcomes: “Is my child learning?” or “How does school make my child feel?” They may not understand the legislative, financial, or time restraints and guidelines that influence a school’s daily operations.

What distinguishes helicopter parents from other parents is their willingness to step in and take action to ensure their child’s success.

Teachers have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to educate parents about the everyday happenings in schools. At a minimum, teachers should encourage two-way communication with parents, sharing anecdotes from the classroom to help parents understand the daily minutiae of teaching and education. Smart teachers take the time to ask parents to advocate on behalf of teachers and students through the PTA and business partnerships. Savvy teachers also recruit parents to be classroom or school volunteers where they can get an insider’s view of the school.

Not all HPs are alike 

Perhaps the most common example of HP behavior is overprotectiveness. These parents don’t want their child to fail or suffer consequences. They may drive back home after the morning drop-off to retrieve forgotten homework assignments, sometimes at the expense of making themselves late to work. They might email teachers or call other parents in an attempt to moderate playground disagreements. They request teacher conferences before the first day of school. I’ve even seen parents who complete their children’s homework assignments for them.

Most of the teachers I’ve worked with find this type of HP behavior — overprotection — the most challenging. Schools are designed to support the growth of the whole child: academic, social, and emotional. When HPs step in, it can conflict with a teacher’s classroom philosophy of building independence and self-regulation. A student who forgets an assignment and cannot participate in a club activity or has to sit out of recess for five minutes is paying a relatively low price for a lifelong lesson on personal responsibility.

A word of caution: Teachers must explain classroom policies to parents without sounding critical of their parenting skills. Ideally, a teacher would develop classroom rules and consequences with input from students. Teachers can then share this information with parents to let them know that their child was a part of the process and has buy-in to the consequences. Teachers also can provide examples of behavior they want to reinforce. The kindergarten teachers at my school have signs on their doors that say, “We are practicing independence. Please say your good-byes at the door.”

Not all HPs are looking to find problems — they just want to be involved. Particularly those with young students, these parents are looking for ways to be an active part of their child’s education. These are generally stay-at-home parents who have spent countless hours with their child at sporting events, music lessons, public libraries, or play dates. Just like the student, many of these parents are making a big transition in their own lives when their child starts school. Teachers who ask the right questions and find ways for these parents to participate in the classroom frequently find themselves with loyal advocates. These parents are great to recruit for recurring roles such as storytime reader or snack parent.

Other HPs aren’t into controlling their child’s outcomes; they just want to be heard. They’ve had experiences where they feel that they or their child were treated badly, and their concerns were not met satisfactorily. Remember: A parent’s perception is their reality. It doesn’t matter what their motivation is or whether they have an accurate understanding of the situation. Teachers need to remember that some HPs just need to be heard.

I have found that simply listening to these parents talk, without taking sides, goes a long way toward mending their hurt feelings and making them your allies. Teachers and administrators can make gains with this type of parent by asking, “Do you have any other concerns?” after each interaction — and then making time to truly listen.

Recruiting HPs

Once you understand the motivation of HPs, you can make plans for incorporating them and other parents into your classroom community. Here are some easy tips for forging relationships with parents:

  • Be direct. One of my colleagues told me about a mother who tried to engage her in a rapid-fire Q&A session every morning. The parent grilled her on all the classroom activities of the previous day. Then one day, my colleague simply asked, “I get the impression that you’d like to be my homeroom parent. Can I count on you?” The mother happily agreed and started volunteering in the classroom several times a week. The questioning stopped.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Most conversations with parents allow opportunities to dig for more information. Whenever parents bring problems to the table, a teacher can help them craft their own solution. Ask questions like, “What would be your ideal outcome for this situation?” or “How can we work together to prevent this problem from recurring?” These types of questions show parents that you care about their concerns and want to work with them to find a solution.
  • Make time for unasked questions. When pressed for time, teachers often only answer the questions they are actually asked. A good way to invite parents to voice all their concerns (or ask for clarification if they are confused) is to end conversations like a customer service representative. “Are there any other questions I can answer for you?” This question shows that the teacher is open to future conversations and wants an ongoing relationship with the parent.
  • Don’t judge. This should go without saying. But if teachers are honest with themselves, many of us will admit that we have been guilty of doing this at one time or another. Just as teachers are trying to make the best decisions for their students
    based on their experience and knowledge, so are parents.

As a teacher and a parent, I’ve found myself in situations with my son where my teacher training and parental instinct were at odds. For the most part, students at my elementary school are grouped in heterogeneous ability groups. My son is a high achiever in most subjects, and my husband and I have not always felt like he’s been challenged in his classwork. My parent side wants him to be constantly enriched. However, as a teacher I understand the social and emotional benefits of mixed ability grouping, especially for younger students. I know he is building a solid foundation of basic skills and will be exposed to a variety of challenging curriculum in the next seven years of his secondary education. I also know he needs to learn to work with others who think differently or learn in different ways. My teacher side supports the lifelong learning. As long as teachers and parents are working together in the best interest of students, good enough can sometimes be good enough.

The level of parental involvement in schools is as variable as the composition of families those schools support. For a number of reasons, many schools won’t have enough parent volunteers to support their programs. There are also students who don’t have an advocate and teachers who don’t have a partner in home learning. Teachers and administrators in these schools work every day to find ways to engage parents and guardians in their community. They would probably welcome the “problem” of having to turn away some people.

Helicopter parents get a bad rap. Teachers and administrators should view them as a resource — not a nuisance. By encouraging open communication, teachers can begin to understand the motivations of these parents and find creative ways to connect them with opportunities to promote their students’ academic success and the school’s overall effectiveness.

JULIE HILTZ (@juliehiltz) is a National Board Certified media specialist at Lutz Elementary in Lutz, Fla., and a Teacherpreneur through a district partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality.

This article originally appeared in Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 96, No. 7 (April 2015).

JULIE HILTZ (@juliehiltz) is a National Board Certified media specialist at Lutz Elementary in Lutz, Fla., and a Teacherpreneur through a district partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality.

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