Low-Income Mothers Want to Be Involved in Their Children’s Education but Face Structural Barriers

Low-Income Mothers Want to Be Involved in Their Children’s Education but Face Structural Barriers
Stephanie Lechuga-Peña, Daniel Brisson
The Qualitative Report
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When parents are involved in their child’s education—whether they help with homework or engage with teachers—their children are more likely to perform well academically, be well behaved, and build social skills. This parental engagement is critical for families who live in public housing, whose children must overcome underresourced and underperforming schools in their pursuit of academic success. But structural barriers often prevent low-income parents from having the time and resources to get involved with their children’s schools. Research shows that nontraditional work hours, lack of transportation and child care, and language and cultural barriers can prevent low-income parents from being involved at their children’s schools, especially when schools do not factor these considerations into the timing and structure of their parental engagements. Schools often misinterpret the resulting lack of parent involvement as a lack of interest in their child’s education. To help illuminate these barriers and elevate the voices of parents working to overcome them, this qualitative study explored the school-based barriers to parent involvement experienced by nine low-income mothers living in public housing.

The researchers interviewed nine mothers participating in the Your Family, Your Neighborhood intervention. Each mother had two or more children, received a housing subsidy, and lived in a housing development when the study took place. Four participants identified as Latina, three identified as Black, and two identified as African. Seven of the participants were born in the United States, one was born in Rwanda, and one was born in Central Africa. Eight interviews were conducted in English, and one interview was conducted in French with a translator. Researchers coded the responses and identified emerging themes. Though the study may not be generalizable because of its small size, the participants’ insights provide a better understanding of the barriers many low-income parents face and help fill the knowledge gap about the school engagement experiences of mothers living in public housing.

Key findings

  • Low-income mothers want to be involved with their children’s education and want to support them in their school-based activities.
  • Cultural differences within schools created barriers for engagement. Although parent involvement in the United States is a cultural expectation, other cultures don’t hold the same view. A few of the mothers reflected on this difference, noting they felt responsible for their children’s education when they were at home and that the school was responsible for their education when they were at school.
  • Language was a barrier to engagement. One of the mother’s first language was not English, making it difficult to communicate with the school or assist with her child’s schoolwork.
  • Several mothers shared that both they and their children had experienced undertones of racism from staff, teachers, and other parents at school that made them feel unwelcome. One mother noted examples of teachers and members of the parent-teacher association being less friendly and looking down on parents of color, especially those who did not have the time to volunteer or attend meetings.
  • During the interviews, many of the mothers shared how the responsibilities of being a single parent and/or the primary caregiver for their children made it challenging to be involved at school. They shared that although they loved their children, they could not provide adequate attention to all of them at the same time and often had to make difficult trade-offs, such as choosing one child’s field trip over another’s or buying groceries for the whole family over attending a school meeting.

Policy implication

  • To help overcome barriers to involvement, schools can develop new ways to engage and support low-income parents. Possible strategies include providing translators and child care for parents when they come to school, providing cultural sensitivity training for school staff, and asking parents how they can improve parent involvement at schools.

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