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Helping Families Ask Questions Could Be Your Most Powerful Engagement Tool

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For many parents, learning a technique to generate and categorize questions about their child's education is empowering. (emagic/Flickr)

Fifth-grade teacher Deirdre Brotherson has been teaching long enough that she knows how parent-teacher conferences will likely go. Parents will come in feeling uncomfortable and a little ill at ease; she’ll have a general conversation with them for 15-20 minutes; and they’ll leave. Neither party will get much useful information about the student out of the conference, although it’s a good relationship builder either way. She knew this precious face-to-face time with parents could be so much more.

“Parents might be concerned about some test scores, but it was never a time when either one of us could gather any information on the student -- who they were, and how they worked at home,” Brotherson said.

She has been using the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) with her students and thought it might be useful for parents, too. The QFT is an exercise to practice asking, categorizing and reflecting on questions. Many educators have found that students are out of practice when it comes to asking their own questions, but when they do, they’re often more engaged with class content.

Brotherson thought the process could help parents get more out of their interactions with the school, too.

Since she doesn’t have a lot of time with parents at each individual parent-teacher conference in November, Brotherson lays the groundwork in the first few months of school. She teaches her students the QFT and uses it in class a few times. Then she asks them to take a question focus home and teach their caregiver the technique while coming up with questions about their family heritage. Right before parent-teacher conferences, she sends a note home reminding parents of the technique and asking them to use it to generate questions for their meeting.


“It’s kind of a nice way to have them take control of the parent-teacher conference,” Brotherson said. “And I’ve actually had parents say, you know, this has been so nice.”

It’s also been helpful for Brotherson because it takes time to get to know each new group of students -- and parents can provide valuable insights into who they are, what challenges they face and their learning history. For example, Brotherson had one student who she’d noticed was having issues with reading. After sitting down with her a few times, Brotherson had identified comprehension as a big issue.

When the girl’s parents came in for their conference, all their questions were about reading. But they also had other concerns about things they were noticing around their daughter’s memory and comprehension, things Brotherson hadn’t noticed because she doesn’t spend as much time with the student one-on-one.

“It drove us to refer her for testing, which then identified some really unusual and rare issues that had been missed,” Brotherson said.

She’s also found that if she has already had contact with families because of behavior issues earlier in the year, using QFT-generated questions at the conference gives parents the chance to ask about how different strategies are working or voice concerns over her communication style. It opens space for a different type of interaction.

“I've found that it helps me understand the student a lot more,” Brotherson said. And, although she’s had good relationships with parents for the most part, she thinks this question-based conference style has deepened those relationships.


Although the Question Formulation Technique has become more common in classrooms as a way to stimulate student curiosity and deepen their questions, the technique actually started as a way to help parents advocate for their children. In the 1990s, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana were working to get low-income parents involved in their children’s education. They heard over and over that parents were intimidated in front of teachers and administrators because they didn’t know what to ask. That jump-started years of research into simple ways to empower people to ask their own questions, culminating in the Question Formulation Technique.

“They named a fundamental problem in parents participating and a fundamental problem in education,” said Dan Rothstein.

Now, the Right Question Institute is going back to its roots, leading workshops with parents and districts around using the QFT to learn about three important parts of parenting in the American education system: supporting, monitoring and advocating for one's child in school. Additionally, they’re helping parents to look beyond simple answers in order to question how decisions get made at the school and district level.

Many schools struggle to engage parents with school. It’s a tricky problem with a complex web of reasons ranging from busy parents to fear and distrust. Some schools even have active parent communities willing to raise money and volunteer, but who don’t know how to support their students’ academic work in the classroom.

“I was very resistive to the school and what they would tell me I needed to do,” said April Ybarra, a mother of two daughters in Sacramento, California. “They represented this institution that failed me, so to me, they didn’t know what they were talking about."

Before she started making better connections with teachers at her daughters' school, Ybarra thought her job was to parent and the teacher’s job was to teach. She didn’t trust teachers or administrators because she’d had negative experiences in school herself. Forming relationships with teachers helped her let down her guard and actually listen to what school staff were saying.

"I learned that we have to be co-educators,” said Ybarra, who didn't come to this realization through QFT, but participates in programs that advance improved parent-teacher relationships.

“We have to work together. My child is with me more than she’s with her teacher. That helped me understand that if I don’t support what the teacher’s doing in the classroom, my child’s not going to get ahead. I wouldn’t have known that before because of the barrier that was up."

Ybarra also said it’s human nature to talk about what’s happening at the school, the good and the bad. When parents spread a positive message about their interactions with staff or the progress their child has made, it’s the most effective outreach a school can have.

“The first thing that you’ll hear from schools is that ‘we try to reach the parents, we try to get them here, we reach out to them. But basically it’s not working,’ ” Rothstein said.

Rather than trying to get all parents to engage with school, he and Santana recommend deepening engagement with parents who are already willing to visit the school using the QFT. If those interactions become fruitful and positive, word will spread.

“Teachers and administrators are able to have more productive conversations with the parents,” said Luz Santana. “The parents feel more comfortable about communicating, interacting and participating.”

Those parents are also the ones that start seeing results. As they become more confident in their roles as supportive figures who monitor what their kids are doing in school and who advocate on their behalf, they start to ask different kinds of questions. There is often a move from questions about the reasons for a problem or decision, to process-oriented questions, and finally questions about the role a parent can play in solving the issue. That move is a powerful one and often signals that a parent has become comfortable as an advocate.

“There’s a lot at play here and our focus is very sharply focused on parents feeling more confident,” said Rothstein.


Rothstein and Santana described one example they detail in their new book, Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions, about a teacher who noticed that a student suddenly stopped turning in homework. She wanted to engage the boy’s mother on the issue, but was aware that if she called a meeting and laid out the problem it was likely the mother would feel defensive, as though the teacher was accusing her of doing something wrong.

“One simple shift changes that dynamic from one of obvious defensiveness to one of actually working collaboratively,” Rothstein said.

The teacher called the meeting and quickly taught the parent the QFT. The teacher guided the parent through the process of asking her own questions, categorizing them and choosing the ones that were most important to her. Initially the mother focused on behavior issues, but then started asking questions like: When did this start? What will this mean for him? And, crucially, what should I do to make sure he does his homework?

That last question was likely the one the teacher hoped they would get to, but when the mother came up with it herself after all her other questions, it became a real “need to know” for her.

“Because she was the one who named that, it’s more likely that she will follow through,” Santana said.

There are many opportunities for schools to work with parents on the QFT. It could be worked into every parent workshop, back-to-school night, or other event at the school. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and once parents get used to the process they start doing it automatically in all aspects of life.


As Rothstein and Santana worked with parents to bolster their question-asking skills, they began to see patterns in the ways they engaged.

“We would notice they had lots of questions about the reasons,” Rothstein said. “They had fewer questions about the process and they had very few about the role they could play. That speaks to, or reveals, so much of the issue. They don’t even see themselves as having a role in these decisions.”

To try to change that dynamic, the Right Question Institute started leading workshops about how to ask questions about the ways decisions get made in schools, at the district level, and even at the state level. They’ve found that when parents understand that what’s happening to their child is a decision -- not the only way it could have been -- and that they can ask questions about how that decision was made, they become more effective participants in the school system.

In their book, Santana, Rothstein and Agnes Bain share an example of a group of English Language Learner parents who were concerned for their children’s safety after a school shooting. The parents turned to a trusted community-based organization, which in turn taught them the QFT.

The parent group called a meeting with the principal and superintendent to get some answers. Staff at the community-based organization were worried that the district would brush aside the parents’ important questions, so they also taught them the Framework for Accountable Decision-Making. That allowed parents to ask their leaders followup questions about who made decisions around school safety and how to fund alternative options. With more confidence in their questions, their right to know and their ability to push for more information, the parents became much more effective advocates.

Teaching parents to question might sound like the last thing a principal or teacher wants if they are accustomed to angry parents in their office demanding answers. But if it’s a true collaboration, parents will also learn the challenges that educators are up against. While they may start out asking questions about decisions made around their child, it could open up a better understanding of the testing environment, class sizes and limitations that schools face. And when parents are informed about those things, they can push for change at even higher levels.


And for districts interested in taking on big cultural shifts that require the buy-in of the community, the QFT could be a powerful way to surface questions and concerns that could derail the project down the line. Several states in New England have moved toward competency-based grading, but they’ve encountered challenges making deeper shifts because parents are confused and pushing back. Without transparency, clear communication and a commitment to understanding parent concerns, big changes often lose momentum.

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