Multiple reasons exist for the increase in grandparents raising grandchildren, and studies have found that most grandparents assume primary caregiving responsibilities during a crisis.
At the same time, grandparents raising grandchildren are represented in all geographic regions, cultures, and socioeconomic levels. But regardless of socio-economic status, school-age students in grandparent-headed households often are at high risk for academic failure.
Studies on grandparent caregiving have suggested that school-age grandchildren face cognitive and emotional delays, have repeated at least one grade or are at risk of repeating a grade, earn poor grades, and experience behavioral issues that affect their school performance. In light of these facts, it is critical that grandparents raising grandchildren develop good relationships with the grandchildren’s school administrators and teachers. How can schools help facilitate communications between administrators, teachers, and grandparents?
In an article in the most recent issue of the journal Children & Schools, published by NASW Press, Tina L. Peterson, PhD, highlights the issues surround schools and grandparents raising grandchildren, and makes suggestions for easing communications between the two parties. Specifically, she recommends using school open-houses to begin the relationship process.
Open house events may offer a prime opportunity for schools and school social workers to intervene with grandparents raising grandchildren. Open houses can be beneficial to grandparents raising grandchildren because of differences in how grandparents, teachers, and other school officials prioritize areas of focal concerns. In general, grandparents place emphasis on grandchildren’s academic performance and emotional needs. At the same time, the focus of teachers is usually on grandchildren’s academic performance or behavior, while other school officials such as administrators, counselors, and front office staff tend to prioritize assisting with navigating systems within the school, accessing assistance with school-related issues, or assisting with required paperwork.
Although these focal priorities can serve a function, problems can emerge when groups are unfamiliar with or lack sensitivity to the priorities of other groups. Initial contact at an open house between grandparents, teachers, and other school officials can help to establish early relationships. The environment at an open house can provide an opportunity for all three parties to hear each other’s perspective. This initial contact with assistance from the school social worker can serve to bridge and reduce gaps in communication that may emerge during problem situations.
Meaningful connections are needed to help enhance the relationship between schools and grandparents raising grandchildren. School social workers can assist with helping to bridge gaps in communication and misconceptions that may arise among school-age grandchildren, grandparents, and school personnel.
School social workers can help grandparents raising grandchildren to understand how open houses differ from traditional teacher conferences. Teacher conferences tend to focus on teachers sharing feedback with parents or grandfamilies regarding students’ academic performance. Perceptions of teacher conferences may vary depending on the academic and behavioral progress of the grandchild and prior communication between the grandfamilies and teachers. If the grandchild is on target academically and behaviorally, the teacher’s conference may be perceived as positive and welcoming. However, a teacher–grandfamily conference focused on a grandchild’s academic or behavioral problems may be stressful when there is a history of strained communication between the custodial grandparent, teacher, and possibly other school officials. Also, students are usually excluded from the teacher conference.
In contrast to a teacher’s conference, an open house is a marketing tool for promotional activities, which schools use to achieve specific goals. Ideally, teachers and other school officials should view an open house as an opportunity for parents or grandfamilies to meet the teacher, establish mutual personal connections, and invite or advocate for parental involvement. In fact, the most prominent advantage of an open house seems to be the positive emotions and feelings experienced by attendees.
To increase awareness and participation at an open house event, a number of strategic approaches that may be useful to schools and school social workers.
Busy families need early notification; options for early notification include telephoning parent figures, mailing invitations, personalizing invitations from the student, and developing announcements of specialized services such as child care, inexpensive meals, and reminders through the loudspeaker before the end of the school day.
Compiling information packets for an open house event that should include material on curriculum, assignments, needed supplies, contact information, calendar events, or field trips is also recommended. Schools should consider mailing the information packets to parent figures who were unable to attend an open house. Personal contact such as a telephone call or a home visit by a teacher, school social worker, or other staff may encourage attendance or identify barriers to participation. Another strategy is to develop handbooks sent home from school with detailed information on report card and progress report expectations and delivery, available academic support services, after-school programs, disciplinary policies, and absences and tardies.
An invitation for grandfamilies to attend an open house is not enough. In addition:
- Schools should develop strategies to identify students in grandparent-headed households.
- Grandfamilies should have increased access to resources to help with the academic and emotional needs of school-age grandchildren.
- An information booth to increase knowledge of resources needed by grandfamilies can be set up at the open house.
- At the open house, teachers can mention procedures for scheduling a teacher conference early in the school year.
Meaningful connections are needed to help enhance the relationship between schools and grandparents raising grandchildren. School social workers can assist with helping to bridge gaps in communication and misperceptions that may arise among school-age grandchildren, grandparents, and school personnel. Families may lack knowledge about how to access information from schools and school staff may have limited exposure to families from diverse family systems.
School social workers are strategically positioned, and therefore possess professional knowledge and skills that can be useful in intervening in barriers occurring at multiple systemic levels. With this in mind, the school social worker’s expertise can be critical in assisting schools to plan an open house with sensitivity to the needs of grandfamilies.