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  • Dillon Knight Kalkhurst

Building School Culture Through Generational Family Engagement

For most of my career, I have had the opportunity to work in and around schools developing programs that boost family engagement and student success. I've seen several generations of parents and students rise through the K-12 education system. Most recently, I was overseeing family and volunteer engagement for Scholastic Book Fairs. Scholastic relies on over 2.5 million, mostly Millennial parent volunteers to run literacy access programs in their schools. In that role, I started to notice some real challenges in the way schools were communicating with today's younger, busier, tech-savvy parents. I began to study and research Millennial parents and their Gen Z kids and noticed some real differences in the schools compared to the mid-'90s.

A 2016 Gallup study of superintendents found less than 6 percent feel they have a strong understanding of how to engage their Millennial staff, and parents. In my family engagement and communications consulting travels, I quickly discovered multigenerational communications and family engagement was a hot topic with k-12 educators. I authored GENERATION EVERYONE! A Guide to Generational Harmony at Work, School, and Home and now manage an "EdCom" consulting firm. I conduct generational communication strategies for districts, educators, and parent groups with a goal to build effective communications and increase generational family engagement.

The Challenge:

For the first time in history, there are five generations active in the economy. In 1910 the life expectancy was just under 50 years of age. There were young people and older adults, so communications were reasonably straightforward. Today, we are living well into our 70s and working much later in our careers, creating "age diversity" issues in the workplace. Most K-5 schools today have parents and caretakers from at least four generations. The majority are Millennials (born 1978-1994) and Gen X (born 1965-1978). There is a small but growing percentage of Gen Z parents who are just leaving college and entering the workforce. The most interesting is the rise in Baby Boomer parents (born 1949-1964). Principals are welcoming grandparents back to school for the first time in decades as grandparent caretakers due to a variety of life and family circumstances. An example is the more than 2.5 million grandparents raising grandchildren due to the nation's opioid crisis. Their grandkid's parents are either addicted, incarcerated or dead from an opioid overdose.

Parent Communications:

My son is 22 and studying to become a high school ESE teacher. When he was in elementary school, we knew we had to check his backpack every Tuesday and check the folder for important things parents needed to know. If you want to increase family engagement and have effective communications today, a one-size-fits-all communications strategy no longer works. You have to use multiple communications tools to engage today's multigenerational families.

Parent communications start on day one by asking parents how they prefer to receive school communications. You will be surprised by the variety of responses. As a rule, Boomer caretakers prefer phone calls and face-to-face conversations. They may be uncomfortable with your school management software. Gen X parents were the first generation to hear AOL's "You've Got Mail." They are masters at managing vast amounts of emails and most likely have an electronic folder for every aspect of their career and parenting. While they prefer email, they also like texting and visiting school websites. Older Millennial parents, those in their 30s are the heaviest users of Facebook. They are the sharing generation, so providing "sharable moments" from your family engagement activities works very well to promote your positive school culture and attract more families. Younger Millennials and your Gen Z students prefer Instagram, YouTube, Facetime, and texting and rarely uses their mobile phones as a "phone." Only 14 percent actively participate on Facebook, but they do use it to see what's going on with their older relatives, friends, and favorite brands, including your school's PTA.

You must replicate your family engagement communications across all mediums to reach everyone. You must also keep it short and to-the-point. Millennial parents have an 8-second attention span. That's one second less than that of a goldfish. Make sure you outline the key points you want to get across in the first eight seconds of your webpage, social media posts, or even printed letters.

Is Your School Culture Millennial-Friendly?

Millennials are not the passive parents Gen X'ers experienced. "The teacher is always right" is a Boomer parent mindset. Millennial parents want to be part of their child's education process. Teachers need to ask parents for regular input and keep them informed on "why" they are assigning specific projects and homework. Today's parents will question everything and have hundreds of parent and education “experts" at the swipe of their finger. If you don't successfully answer their questions, they will find the answer somewhere else.

PTA memberships have been declining consistently over the past decade. So have churches and service organizations. Millennial parents question the value of dues-based-memberships when they feel they can get the same benefits online for no charge. It is essential to understand Millennials don't JOIN things; they START things. Don't expect new parents to come to school ready to jump on the train that is already moving. They want you to stop the train and ask them what new cars they want to add to the train. It's not just schools, take a look at the Millennial freshman US representatives. They did not go to Washington to join in; they went there to start something new. Your young parents are the same way. Engage them early and often.

Effective communications are the foundation of great school culture. It is critical to engage and embrace your school's "age diversity" internally and externally to ensure everyone who wants to contribute is given that opportunity.

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