Teachers, how many times have you had this conversation with colleagues on parent-teacher conference evenings? 

“Hey, did so-and-so’s parents show up?”

“Nope, no sign of them. You know, the parents I need to see the most are the ones who never come”.

As educators, we are familiar with the Lawnmower parents, sweeping obstacles from their child’s path, and the Helicopter parents, hovering overhead. But hanging back in the shadows are the Ghost parents. These parents are largely absent from their child’s academic life, and their absence matters.

Ghost parents and their children are missing out on connections crucial for student success.

Most teachers can tell you that parents’ engagement in their child’s schooling is one of the biggest predictors of student success. Research backs that up, demonstrating that when parents and teachers work together, children display fewer behavioral issues, better social skills, and more positive attitudes, which in turn influences their work habits and grades. The problem is that for many parents and teachers, this relationship is sometimes missing or troubled. 

Ghost parents are absent for many reasons – and it’s rarely because they don’t care about their child’s education.

Ghost parents don’t show up for meetings. They don’t respond to emails, phone messages, or notes. They may not read newsletters, and often need reminders to initial tests or sign permission forms. It’s easy for educators to assume that this is due to lack of love or care, but often this is far from the truth. Here are just a few of the reasons Ghost parents aren’t as involved as teachers would like:

Traumatic history:

Some Ghost parents have negative experiences from their own schooling which make them reluctant to get involved.

Mental health issues:

Parents may have social anxiety about face-to-face meetings or depression that makes it difficult for them to be involved. Low self-esteem may cause them to feel they bring nothing to the table.

Overwhelmed with negative reports:

Some parents have received so many critical reports on their child they shut down and avoid school as much as possible.

Self-conscious about their own abilities:

Teachers and schools are threatening for some parents who dropped out, struggle with literacy, or just feel inadequate when it comes to their own education.

Language barriers:

English may not be the parent’s first language, so emails and letters are overwhelming. Attending meetings and struggling to understand can be embarrassing and frustrating. Here are5 adjustments to consider making when communicating with your students’ families this year.

Race and economic hardships:

There can also be race, cultural and socio-economic differencesbetween parents and teachers. Research shows teachers tend to be predominantly middle-class and Caucasian. Ghost parents may worry teachers won’t understand the lived experiences of who deal with racism, poverty, discrimination, and other hardships.

Special needs siblings:

Perhaps the student has a sibling with special needs. The parents might be forced to use the majority of their resources on that child.

Family crisis:

Perhaps the family is going through a divorce or loss of income. Maybe they’ve recently become full-time caretaker to an ailing grandparent. Or the parent could be dealing with medical issues themselves.

Work obligations:

Many ghost parents are working long hours – sometimes with multiple jobs – that leave little time for them to be involved at school.

Teachers rarely fully know a family’s circumstances. However, simply helping students within the classroom may not be enough to minimize inequities without parental involvement. With this in mind, it is important educators make an effort to understand and empathize with the situation, making accommodations as much as possible, to help ghost parents be involved.

How to help Ghost parents be more involved:

1. Have empathy first and challenge your own biases and beliefs.

When “that parent” doesn’t show up, ask yourself why instead of defaulting to, “They just don’t care”. What steps have you taken to develop a relationship with them? Positive phone calls, one-on-one Zoom meetings, celebratory notes home – all of these start the process of a solid relationship.

2. Be aware of your privilege.

Don’t assume they’re too lazy to come in, or too scattered to sign a form. Does it take three city buses to get to school? Is the parent working more than one job to make ends meet? Can they read the forms? Do they have childcare for their other children? Ask parents about their challenges – resources and solutions might be more easily available than they think. Communication goes a long way in understanding other perspectives and building healthy connections.

3. Look for and challenge institutional racism.

Is the parent fed up with their child being disciplined and suspended over and over? Is the child being targeted unfairly? Does your school attempt restorative practices in addition to traditional discipline? If a parent is complaining, rather than justifying the school’s actions, listen carefully to what the parent is trying to tell you. Racialized parents who speak up can be cast as troublemakers. Flip the script, let go of your defensiveness and replace “troublemaker” with “change maker”.

4. Meet parents where they’re at.

Not all parents have the resources to help their child the way teachers might expect. Make sure that you tell parents specifically what they are doing right, and praise them, even if it doesn’t seem like much to you. “That is wonderful that you make sure the babysitter does the home reading! It’s so beneficial to have a child read aloud every day”.“I love how you’ve taught your children to fill in their own trip forms – it really helps with independence!” “Of course we can extend the deadline so your child can work on the project on Saturday when you’ve got a day off”. And most importantly, “I can see that you care so much about your child. You are doing a good job with him/her”. Ghost parents need to be seen and respected… and when this happens they often become more involved.

5. Think outside the box.

Ghost parents become ghostly because of the obstacles in their way, not because they don’t love their children. Brainstorm with your admin to see if these obstacles can be removed. Transportation problems or a pandemic in the way? Set up Zoom meetings or phone calls. Anxiety? Make it clear to the parent that you are on their side, and most importantly, that you see all that is good about their child. Childcare issues? Provide snacks and entertainment for littles so you and the parent can chat. Literacy or language barriers? See if paperwork can be translated or presented verbally. Systemic policies that lead to discrimination require someone to take charge with leadership and creative thinking to make changes.

The bottom line? When parents and teachers work together, the child benefits – and so do parents and teachers!