Parent-Teacher Home Visits Break Down Barriers, Shift Mindsets

By Anne O'Brien

New study reveals a promising strategy to address the implicit biases that can hinder student achievement.

I’ve long been a fan of the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project and their model for home visits (see, for example, a post I wrote for Edutopia highlighting it back in 2015). This model, developed by parents and teachers, includes a structured opportunity for teachers to visit the families of students in their home (or another location, such as a library or park, if desired). The goal? To build trust, communication and common goals between key partners in supporting children.

The PTHV model, which consists of an initial home visit in the summer or fall and a second in the winter or spring, with ongoing follow-up, allows families to share their expertise on their child and educators to share their expertise on the classroom and learning. As a result, families can better support their child’s academics, and teachers can better understand their students.

While the model is adapted to fit the wide variety of settings where it is implemented across the U.S., there are five non-negotiable core practices that govern the home visits:

  • They are always voluntary for educators and families, and they are arranged in advance.
  • Educators are trained, and they are compensated for visits outside their school day.
  • The focus of the first visit is relationship-building, with the conversation focused on hopes and dreams.
  • There is no targeting—participating sites schedule visits for all or a cross-section of students so there is no stigma attached to them.
  • Educators conduct visits in pairs and, after the visit, reflect with their partner.

I’m a fan of this approach for a number of reasons, including simply that it works. A number of independent evaluations, case studies and testimonials show its impact. Among other findings, evidence suggests that home visits following this model result in students who are more engaged, with better attendance, behavior and test scores. Educators report increased connection with students and families and collaboration with colleagues. Families report being more engaged in their child’s academics and increased trust and communication with teachers.

And the evidence base is growing. Earlier this month, a new study reported on an interesting aspect of this work: its potential to impact implicit bias (the automatic and unconscious biases that people hold).

As the study points out, culture plays an important role in how individuals teach and learn, and dissimilarities between school, home and community culture can play a role in discrepancies in student achievement. Research has linked educator’s implicit biases to achievement gaps, with students of color and students from low-income households held to different expectations and in general treated differently than their white and middle/upper class peers, in ways that negatively impact them.

While PTHV was not initially designed as a program to reduce implicit biases, as it has been implemented its leaders realized that it appears to help break down barriers of racism and other socioeconomic dynamics that hinder student learning. And this study agrees.

Based on interviews with 175 PTHV participants (principals, teachers, other staff and family members) across four large school districts in different states, researchers found that almost all reported positive outcomes from the visits. Related to the issue of implicit bias, regardless of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, both educators and family members reported shifts in their assumptions or perceptions after the visits. For example, family members realized that interactions with educators did not have to be negative or uncomfortable, and they began to see educators as relatable, rather than distant authority figures. They reported increased confidence in reaching out to educators and communicating about students’ needs.

Among the findings on educators was a recognition of pre-formed assumptions (in most cases negative) about students and families—for example, about negative family dynamics, a lack of positive influences, or a lack of interest in education. After home visits, many educators shifted to an asset perspective focused on families’ and students’ strengths (though some did maintain deficit perspectives). Their definitions of “care” and “involvement” broadened to include the cultural and economic contexts of the families at their schools. Most educators reported both increased and improved communication with family members.

Educators also reported changing classroom behaviors as a result of home visits, using what they learned about students’ interests, skills and culture to connect activities to students’ lives and motivate or encourage learning. They also reported positive changes in their reactions to behavioral issues because of empathy developed through home visits.

Why is this important? As the report points out, the demographics of America’s public schools are changing. Students of color and low-income students are now the majority. However, the teaching force remains overwhelmingly white, middle-class and female. Addressing implicit bias among educators is a critical component of ensuring all students have the opportunity to learn. We now know this model offers one strategy for doing so.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

 

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"After home visits, many educators shifted to an asset perspective focused on families’ and students’ strengths."