What Makes a Strong Family Engagement Policy?

Ensuring that every child can reach their full potential means investing in meaningful, inclusive and culturally competent family-school partnerships. By prioritizing policies that uplift the priorities outlined in the National Standards for Family-School Partnerships, PTAs can advance transformative family engagement in their local community and beyond.

What makes family engagement policy meaningful, inclusive and culturally competent? Here are some key characteristics of a strong family engagement policy. 

Model family engagement policies are inclusive of diverse cultural and linguistic practices.

Supporting the success of all students means cultivating meaningful family-school partnerships with families from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

For example, in Washington, state legislation implemented language access programs in schools so that family engagement resources could be accessible in diverse languages. The commitment to providing inclusive and culturally responsive resources to families in Washington’s statewide policy allows for language barriers to be broken down and increases the capacity for every child to reach their fullest potential.

Model family engagement policies are rooted in evidence-based family engagement research.

Referencing research-based statistics that demonstrate how family engagement practices support the wellbeing of the whole child showcases the validity of family engagement in practice.

The same Washington state legislation provides a powerful basis for policy implementation by referencing how family engagement has been shown to have positive impacts for children: “50 years of research has shown that family engagement has beneficial impacts on student grades, test scores, drop-out rates, students’ sense of competence and beliefs about the importance of education” (Orwall et al., 2021).

Model family engagement policies facilitate active collaboration between families, schools and community leaders in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of family engagement policy.

When school district leaders make important decisions regarding children’s education, families must have a seat at the table. Inclusive approaches to decision-making cultivate a community where all individuals are valued, seen and actively heard.

In Michigan, statewide policy through executive order established a Michigan Parent Council to empower parents from diverse backgrounds across the state to make education and budget policy recommendations to legislators.

Model family engagement policies provide opportunities for families to become leaders in their communities through engagement opportunities at school.

Quality family engagement invests in developing the leadership skills of families so that they can empower their children to do great work.

In Florida, state legislation called the Family and School Partnership for Student Achievement Act directs school districts statewide to provide parents with detailed information regarding their child’s educational opportunities. Through streamlined and effective communication practices between parents and families regarding children’s rigorous academic opportunities, scholarships, test accommodations and course of study choices, Florida is working to support student success by building meaningful family-school partnerships.

Why does this all matter?

Only when all families are respected, included, and given opportunities to shape their children’s education, can we ensure that all children can meet their full potential. PTAs can help break down educational barriers by advocating for policies that support culturally responsive, two-way communication and opportunities for underrepresented communities to share in decision-making and co-creating solutions.

As a member of PTA, you can help by…

  • Learning about the updated National Standards for Family-School Partnerships that will roll out in the fall
  • Encouraging parents in your community to run for a seat on their local family engagement council
  • Enrolling in the National PTA’s School of Excellence Program to strengthen family-school partnerships at your school
  • Scheduling meetings with your school district staff and board of education to share with them the importance of meaningful family engagement

About the Author

Lauren Manning is a senior at Gettsyburg College and was Summer 2022 intern at PTA through the Eisenhower Institute Public Policy Fellowship

How PTA Leaders are Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth

Across the nation, states are seeing a dramatic rise in anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and particularly anti-transgender legislation. LGBTQ+ youth need PTAs to help protect their rights and stand up to bigotry. As we celebrate PRIDE month, here are stories of PTA leaders who are using their influence to support and celebrate LGBTQ+ youth.  

Celebration & Allyship in Round Rock, Texas 

As students at Canyon Vista Middle School returned to school following the COVID-19 school closures, teachers noticed an increase in acts of bias including the use of slurs against LGBTQ+ students. To address this increasingly hostile environment and to help LGBTQ+ students feel supported, the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club set out to host their first annual pride parade in 2021. PTA president Aidan Larson got involved, partnering with teachers and GSA sponsors, including Paige Crain, to create safer spaces for LGBTQ+ students in their school.  

Their activism wasn’t free of pushback. Historically, the environment had been hostile, with educators opposing the use of rainbow safe space stickers in their school. Paige and the other sponsors didn’t let that stop them. With the PTA working hand in hand with Paige and the GSA, they marched forward with their plans to host the celebration. 

The 2021 Pride parade was a success, engaging folks from across the school district and a variety of exhibitors. The team had recruited a variety of partners including the Texas Freedom Network, Out Youth, and a local church who came to distribute pride flags. While families from around the district showed up, there was not universal support. 

To ensure the 2022 Pride parade could take place without issue, the PTA again partnered with the GSA. Aidan also met with the school principal to show support for the GSA’s ideas for Pride week.  

When a neighboring middle school PTA promoted Canyon Vista’s Pride parade, not only did executive board members voice their opposition, several resigned due to their discomfort. The PTA president stood her ground, understanding the importance of supporting LGBTQ+ youth. She even managed to find a silver lining to the situation. “It was a lot of pushback,” she shared, “but I think the important part is [that] it made room for people to see that this is what PTA is, and finally, maybe a place that we can be a part of — not a high school girls club.” 

Listening to LGBTQ+ Youth in Lynbrook, New York 

So often students are talked at, by parents, teachers, and coaches, and we forget how important it is for us to take time to listen. Ivy Reilly serves on the Lynbrook High School PTA and received a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) grant from National PTA’s Center for Family Engagement in 2022. She also worked to ensure LGBTQ+ youth thrive by offering them an opportunity to share challenges, barriers and concerns of being identified as part of the community. Ivy decided to focus on the LGBTQ+ community after noticing that many students transitioned during the COVID-19 quarantine. She wanted to make sure that LGBTQ+ students and transgender students in particular, were being supported by the PTA. 

Ivy coordinated with the school administration and the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) advisor to speak with GSA members. She approached the first conversation with a learning mindset. She knew she didn’t have all the answers and that she might not phrase everything correctly, but she didn’t let the desire for perfection stop her. Instead, she saw engaging students as a learning opportunity. “My job is to learn from you so I can help you,” she told them.  

Most of the conversations revolved around ordinary teen issues from extracurricular activities to homework, highlighting the commonalities LGBTQ+ students share with the wider student population. But occasionally more serious issues arose, including a child worrying about if their parent was embarrassed of them because of the way they look, and another student worried about their family sending them to conversion therapy. 

These conversations have motivated Ivy to work on getting LGBTQ+ resources added to the district’s website. She informed the principal about some of the needs that arose from these conversations. She’s also hoping to bring Challenge Day to the Lynbrook community to help build bridges of understanding at the high school. She shared that she remains dedicated to using the PTA platform to support LGBTQ+ youth. “Our goal is to take care of the kids,” she said. “Maybe we’ll get to the parents later, when they’re ready, but the kids need our support now.” 

What can you do? 

If these PTA leaders have inspired you to start advocating for LGBTQ+ youth, there are lots of things you can do to get started! Explore this map to find LGBTQ+ community centers near you, and consider partnering with them on programs, services or events. You can also connect with your school’s GSA. If your school doesn’t have one yet, help create one!  

For more ideas and inspiration, visit www.pta.org/LGBTQ for more resources, including an LGBTQ+ glossary and our podcast episode featuring leaders from the Human Rights Campaign.  

The Achievery, Created by AT&T

Connecting students to a new world of digital learning

Student learning at The Achievery

AT&T launched a free digital learning platform that aims to make online learning more entertaining, inspiring, and accessible. The Achievery, created by AT&T, is a growing online library of learning activities for students in grades K-12 to use wherever they are – at home, in the community, or in the classroom. Lesson plans are paired with engaging videos featuring popular Warner Bros. Discovery characters (think: Wonder Woman, Craig of the Creek) to help connect students to a new world of digital learning through stories that spark curiosity.  

AT&T developed The Achievery as part of a $2 billion, three-year Connected Learning Initiative created in 2021, to help bridge the digital divide in underserved communities through investments in broadband access, low-cost internet service, computers, and education and mentoring resources. The Achievery supports this initiative by providing access to high-quality online learning content at no cost.

Making online learning accessible… and fun

The Achievery was developed with feedback from parents and educators who suggested that lessons featuring popular entertainment media would be a great way to keep students engaged in digital learning, which most believe is here to stay. AT&T collaborated with Warner Bros. Discovery to feature clips from films, TV shows and animated series and then worked with leading education groups to develop activities that spark a sense of fun while helping students advance in important academic and social-emotional skills. (Every activity is linked to specific Common Core and CASEL standards.)

Families can use The Achievery to support distance learning, as a homework supplement, or as enrichment to keep kids’ minds active during school vacation and prevent summer learning loss. Activities are searchable by grade level, academic subject, and specific standards to help children and adults find the content that meets their interests and needs.

Learning Made Lively

Sample Activities from The Achievery

Make a Jumping Game

Students learn how to use block coding to design and create their own interactive online game—with their own unique characters, obstacles and rules.

  • Grades: 3-8
  • Academic focus: Language, Media & Technology
  • Social-emotional focus: Self awareness
  • Collaborator: Scratch

Your Story Matters

Students learn about the elements of a story and find inspiration for story ideas from your own life.

  • Grades: 3-5
  • Academic focus: Writing
  • Social-emotional focus: Self awareness
  • Collaborator: Young Storytellers

Parents take The Achievery for a test drive

To provide early feedback on the platform in action, National PTA recruited a diverse set of more than 250 parents to preview several learning modules from The Achievery with their kids. Parents then provided robust feedback through surveys and focus groups. The goal: Help AT&T understand how The Achievery’s content and site design can meet families’ at-home learning needs.

Overall impressions of the platform were positive. Most notably, parents expressed appreciation of the quality content, and that their children were captivated by the familiar characters. Parents said they were happy to see young, diverse, and relatable people featured in many videos as well—individuals who their children didn’t see as a traditional “teacher.”

AT&T Assistant VP of Corporate Social Responsibility Mylayna Albright says, “We’re grateful for our collaboration with National PTA and for their help gathering this comprehensive parent feedback. The Achievery is designed to provide quality educational content everywhere children learn, and we’re eager to make the platform an engaging, easy-to-use resource that families can count on to support their children’s advancement and love of learning.”

The Achievery is live!

PTA’s cohort of “early adopter” families showed a lot of enthusiasm and engagement in exploring The Achievery. Now, it’s your turn! We invite you to set up a free account and try out some activities with your kids.

Get started: theachievery.com

What Parents are saying about The Achievery

Toia Elliott, Indianapolis, Indiana

Toia Elliott tested The Achievery with her youngest child, a sixth-grader who she describes as a unique learner. “She likes to think of things on her own,” Toia says. Her daughter was especially drawn to the Scratch coding lesson which allowed her to unleash her creativity. In fact, she enjoyed the lesson so much that she’s continued using Scratch on her own.

Toia sees The Achievery as an especially helpful tool for “breakaway time” in the evening when her kids are ready to take their minds off of school.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re in school. You’re having fun, and you’re doing some entertaining activities. But she’s also clearly learning something, which is great.”

Michelle Grenell, Muskegon, Michigan

Michelle Grenell is homeschooling her two children who have special health needs. Before the pandemic, they’d tried using standardized homeschool curricula, but she says, “My kids weren’t thriving. I was stressed out. We weren’t learning anything.” Now, she aims to keep a variety of activities on hand so she can be flexible with her children, whose needs vary daily. So far, The Achievery has been a great fit. After a successful preview of the poetry hunt and another module on storytelling, they’ve begun using The Achievery as a part of their at-home learning diet.

What Michelle appreciates most about The Achievery is that it doesn’t feel like “school,” so her kids are happy to engage on days when learning feels like a struggle or she can’t supervise them as closely.

“So many times parents think: I’m not the best teacher right now, I’m not the best mom—especially post-pandemic—and you feel a little bit better [with a platform like The Achievery]… I felt like I was okay to have a migraine that day. Because they were still learning something.”

Nicole Alexander, West Linn, Oregon

Nicole Alexander’s seventh-grade daughter is very creative but remote learning during the pandemic was a big challenge. Now, that she’s back at school, things have improved, but her mother is still eager to find activities to make summers and evening screen time more productive. The combination of watching the video and physically holding a book, pencil and paper really worked.

Nicole is eager to start matching lessons from The Achievery with specific learning standards where her daughter needs support. She sees The Achievery as a way to bridge the gap between home and school.

“There’s a lot of catch up [when they bring home a school assignment], trying to figure out, are you helping your child in the right way? This would be far easier… You could just send them to The Achievery, look for the standard they were working on in class and find a related lesson.”

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Katie Bayerl is a contracted writer for National PTA, helping bring stories to life about sponsored PTA efforts and the impact of these efforts on families, schools, and communities. Katie has degrees in education from Brown, teaching from Tufts, and writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has worked as editor of a teen-generated magazine, led the communications efforts of a Boston nonprofit, and helped hundreds of writers and nonprofit leaders tell their stories.

National PTA does not endorse any commercial entity, product, or service. No endorsement of AT&T or The Achievery is implied.

Helping Families Navigate Today’s COVID-19 Environment

National PTA hosted a virtual town hall May 18, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to support families in navigating today’s COVID-19 environment. The event featured CDC COVID-19 Response Principal Deputy Incident Manager Dr. Greta Massetti, White House Senior Policy Advisory Dr. Cameron Webb, American Academy of Pediatrics Spokesperson Dr. Ilan Shapiro, National PTA President Anna King and PTA leaders Christel Wesley and Sandra West. The town hall was moderated by Spectrum News National Health Correspondent and mom Erin Billups.

“At PTA, we remain committed to making sure that our students, families, schools and communities have what they need as the COVID-19 environment evolves,” said Anna King, National PTA president. “We’re continuing to provide communities–through virtual events like the town hall and in-person events like pop-up clinics–with important information, resources and professional expertise, especially as we move into the summer months.”

During the town hall, Dr. Massetti, Dr. Webb and Dr. Shapiro spoke about being parents themselves and how research and science can help inform parent and caregiver decision making around COVID-19 and vaccinating children. 

“The past two years have not been easy, but our parents, educators and children have shown remarkable innovation and resilience. The health of our children has been at the forefront of my mind, in my role at the CDC and as a parent. Research and science played a critical role in our guidance and recommendations, specifically around vaccines,” said Dr. Greta Massetti, CDC COVID-19 Response Principal Deputy Incident Manager.“Vaccines continue to play a leading role in our health strategy and enable students to return to in-person learning. By allowing children to learn in safe and healthy environments, vaccines not only protect children’s physical health but also their overall health.”

“I’ve been approaching the pandemic not only as a policy advisor to the White House but also as a parent,” said Dr. Cameron Webb, White House Senior Policy Advisor. “My number one goal is keeping my kids healthy and safe, and the first step in doing that was making sure that I was only engaging with data-based, truthful information. The data shows that the COVID-19 vaccine, specifically for children 5-11, is safe and works. Harnessing data and science and applying that to your decision-making process is key. It is our responsibility to not only protect ourselves, but also the more vulnerable members of our community.”

“In addition to my job as a pediatrician, I also have the job of father. I wanted to make sure that my kids are safe, happy and protected–and this was accomplished by getting them vaccinated,”said Dr. Ilan Shapiro, the medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Service and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.“Honest, fact-based conversations like this National PTA town hall provide parents and caregivers with the necessary information to make them comfortable in this changing landscape.”

Moderator Erin Billups also spoke with PTA leaders Christel Wesley and Sandra West about PTA’s ongoing efforts to keep children healthy and in school by building vaccination confidence in local communities.

“We wanted to make sure that we were providing reliable, science-based information to enable families to make the choice around vaccination that’s best for them. The next step was the proper dissemination of this information to communities of all shapes and sizes,”said Christel Wesley, vice president of Adams Elementary PTA in Norman, Okla. “Our pop-up clinic gave parents and caregivers a safe space to speak with a pediatrician, which is not something all families have routine access to.”

Sandra West, president of Miami Dade County Council of PTAs said, “Data became really important to us because it allowed us to prioritize the areas of need to concentrate on. Access to vaccination sites, even in a big city like Miami, was a challenge, and it forced us to come up with solutions. Our pop-up clinic was initially drive-through only and didn’t take into account how many residents don’t have access to a car. When we created a walk-up section, we were able to reach a whole new group of people who wanted to get vaccinated but didn’t previously have access.”

The impact of the pandemic, both physically and mentally, has been felt by families nationwide. Now, as most localities have lifted their mask and COVID-19 restrictions, many parents are now faced with a new set of decisions about how to best protect their children against the virus. A recording of the town hall can be watched on National PTA’s Facebook page.

How PTAs Can Prioritize Student Safety and Privacy Online

Happy female teacher assisting school kids during an e-learning class at elementary school.

[Content warning: This article contains discussion of self-harm and suicide.]

Across the country, young people are experiencing a concerning increase in mental health challenges—so much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. But in Neosho County, Mo., the number of students requiring hospitalization for mental health crises has dropped significantly and no student has died by suicide in three years.

Neosho County students face the same set of stressors as their peers. One key difference is that the district has invested in a robust suicide prevention plan—and it’s making a big impact. A core component of Neosho’s student support plan is GoGuardian Beacon, which helps schools identify online activity on school-managed devices and accounts that indicates a risk of suicide, self-harm or possible harm to others. Beacon notifies designated responders to quickly activate a school’s response plan and get students help.

“I find the Beacon alerts incredibly helpful, not only for active-planning situations, but also for the kids who are just reaching out and need a little bit of help,” says Neosho Director of School Counseling Tracy Clements. “It has saved the lives of so many kids and improved the quality of life for countless others.”

Student Safety vs Privacy: Can We Have Both?

While Clements, like many other educators, views online safety tools as an important component of their suicide prevention program, these technologies aren’t without controversy. Parents and educators want to protect young people from self-harm and other threats, but they also worry about student privacy—not wanting sensitive information about their children to land in the wrong hands or be used inappropriately.

Micki Young, a parent and PTA volunteer in Grove City, Ohio, wants strong security set up on her children’s computers. “Especially with the rise in depression and suicides, if my kids were to type in something that was potentially triggering, I would expect them to be approached in a way that was appropriate for the situation,” she says. “I have no concerns with it being monitored. It’s your school computer.”

Nicole Perretta, a PTA leader in New York and mother of four, describes herself as a fan of online monitoring and, in particular, is concerned by the real-life impacts of online bullying. “We do a lot of talking about how to be accepting, but that barrier of a screen really does empower some people to say the nastiest things,” she says. “I think that if we could just pay attention to our kids’ mental health as it relates to what they’re doing online, we would be in a better position to head off some of that negativity that follows them throughout the day.”

That said, Perretta is generally cautious about sharing personal data online and wants her children’s school to involve parents in deciding what information is shared beyond school walls. “The school respects FERPA, but sometimes I’m like, I really would have preferred you have asked my permission to share that. I would just like to be able to police what goes out.”

Mary Sotomayor, another New York State PTA leader and mom of two, believes districts have a responsibility to monitor activity on school-issued devices. “If it’s a school-given laptop or computer, there should be no privacy,” she says, but as far as who sees the data, she says, “This should be a conversation between the guidance counselor and the parent. And it should end there.” She doesn’t think that schools or vendors should hold onto records. “All kids make mistakes. They’re children, they’re learning. If you’re going to hold something against me that the school found out about because of my computer when I was 12? Mmmm. That’s kind of scary.”

“There’s going to be some contention around this type of issue,” says Tennessee PTA President Dwight Hunter, “And there should be.” Tennessee PTA successfully advocated for a resolution on data privacy several years ago based on parental concerns about the data privacy policies of outside vendors. They are also supporting and encouraging families to communicate more with their children about online safety and mental health. “Having an open conversation is so key,” says Hunter.

Our Belief: It’s Not an Either/Or

National PTA believes that student safety and privacy don’t have to be in opposition. We support clear privacy and security policies that maintain the confidentiality of sensitive data that students and families share with schools and via online services. At the same time, we believe that technology can be a powerful tool in keeping students safe. The question we think every community should be asking is, “How can families and schools partner to ensure student safety and privacy at the same time?”

Parents can play a role in supporting online safety and privacy practices by speaking up about where school or community communication is lacking on these issues and by advocating for policies that protect both their children’s health and their data.

Does Your School Practice T.A.C.T.?

Teddy Hartman, Head of Privacy at GoGuardian, suggests we think about online safety the same way we think about safety at school. Parents can and should expect schools to keep children safe while in a classroom or on a field trip—that they will be in the company of vetted adults, aboard school buses that have passed inspection, etc. Hartman asks, “If we extend that thinking to the digital learning environment, what sort of expectations do parents have for the school?”

Hartman, a parent and a former educator himself, suggests that parents and PTA leaders start by focusing on four elements collectively known as T.A.C.T.

  • Transparency
    Make sure your school system publicly shares a list of all technology vendors, the data privacy protections each vendor (and the school) has in place, the specifics of when and on which devices the technology will be active, and how these technologies are being used to support student safety. (With GoGuardian Beacon, schools can activate the School Session Indicator, an additional layer of transparency that displays on any device being monitored.)
  • Access
    Schools must be careful in deciding who has access to sensitive student data, and parents have a right to ask who has authorization to view their child’s information at the school and through the vendor. One way to check on a vendor’s data practices is to see whether the vendor has signed into the Student Privacy Pledge or has been certified by a third-party like iKeepSafe.
  • Communication
    Schools should provide information on what parents can expect if their child’s online activity generates an alert. Schools and parents can also help one another by holding community dialogues about suicide and self-harm prevention and by sharing tools to support better mental health. The National PTA Healthy Minds program has resources and guidance for both families and PTA leaders.
  • Teamwork
    Technology is only one piece of student support. Schools should have clearly articulated protocols for how to handle a self-harm notification and a team of mental health professionals trained both on the software and how to respond to alerts.

Protecting students online doesn’t need to be a polarizing issue. Start a conversation with your principal about how your school is putting student safety and privacy into practice. We owe it to our children to take a thoughtful, nuanced approach to their privacy and safety—together.

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GoGuardian is a Proud National Sponsor of PTA. National PTA does not endorse any commercial entity, product or service. No endorsement is implied.

Plan Your PTA Day of Service on BAND

PTA has been making a difference for 125 years, and there’s still so much work to do to make every child’s potential a reality! That means working together to meet the diverse needs of families and school communities. National PTA is inviting all PTAs to register, plan and host a Day of Service event before June 30 in celebration of the association’s milestone anniversary.

Participate to …

  • Show your community who you are and what you do!
  • Connect your work to the PTA network!
  • Elevate the PTA mission by showing our collective impact.

Planning and hosting a Day of Service event should be easy and fun! We know that PTA leaders already have too much on their plate—and handling everything on multiple platforms can be disorderly, which adds to the stress. You need a tool that will help you succeed.

Enter BAND, the one-stop-shop app PTA leaders are using to communicate with their board and members, plan events and increase parent involvement.

Plan, collaborate and keep track of all things Day of Service in one place. Invite your PTA members and start planning on BAND!

1. Create your BAND!

Customize your BAND with your school group and your own photo!

2. Invite Your Planning Committee & Volunteers

Send them a QR code or Link

3. Set Up a Pre-Planning Meeting

Enter details of your meeting into the calendar: share a location, a photo, a file, and even a link! Then set a reminder for people to join. Click done and share it as a post.

4. Vote on Your Service Project

Click into ‘Post’ and select ‘Create a Poll.’ Customize to allow for secret voting, single or multi-selection, and even set a deadline.

5. Promote Your Project

Plan together by deciding on messaging, scheduling meetings and events, posting task lists, and uploading materials for promotions.

6. On the Day of

Capture photos and videos and organize them into an album to share!

Want to see how the app works? Watch how BAND helps real PTA leaders stay organized with their Board and members!

BAND is a one-stop-shop group communication app for PTAs to collaborate with members, plan events, and get parents involved. PTA leaders can effortlessly streamline communication and stay organized in one place. Through BAND’s alliance with the National PTA, they are on a mission to help build on strong partnerships among parent volunteer leaders, teachers, and students. To learn more about BAND, visit this webpage.

BAND Proud National Sponsor of National PTA. National PTA does not endorse any commercial entity, product or service.

Russian and Ukrainian Adopted Children Impacted by War

This is part two of the blog series about the Russia-Ukraine War and the effects on children and youth across the country and around the world. You can read part one here. 

Sasha, adopted from Ukraine 14 years ago, was unable to sleep, pay attention in school or want to do anything with her peers. Last evening, her mom found her wide awake in the middle of the night, on her knees praying. This teen was immobilized by anxiety, fixated on the children she once knew from her orphanage and everyone’s safety.  

Robert was adopted 10 years ago from Russia. He came home this past week, stormed into his room and did not want to talk. Kids at school had told him he was evil because he was Russian. He felt so mad at Putin, embarrassed that he was Russian and worried about his birth family. Were they fighting in the war? Are they safe? Is he bad because he is Russian and what if everyone hates him now?  

“Sasha and Robert’s stories are reflective of the huge spike in anxiety, sadness, guilt, fear, shame, and worry we are seeing among Ukrainian and Russian adoptees,” reports Janice Goldwater, founder and CEO of Adoptions Together, one of many American agencies who supports families who have adopted children from Russia and Ukraine. 

Understanding why war happens is challenging and managing feelings related to war is complicated. With the Russian aggression toward Ukraine, two countries steeped in a collective history, it is even more thorny. For many children in our school and community this is personal because they were adopted from these countries. Latest numbers available from the State Department document that more Americans adopted from Ukraine than any other country in 2020. While Russia has banned all current adoptions to the U.S., Russian adoptees over the last two decades number 60,000.  

“Children who are now thriving as members of families may have a deep connection to their homeland,” Goldwater adds. “Helping these children navigate the complicated feelings about this war requires adults to be attuned to their needs.” 

Debbie Riley, LCMFT, CEO of Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE), told me adoptees from these two countries are struggling to manage resurfacing feelings of loss re-triggered by the losses they are witnessing on TV minute by minute. Many were seeking support to heal from the psychological losses of their birth family and now they fear the finality of these losses. Questions swirling in their minds are, “Are my biological families dead? Have I lost any hope of reconnecting with them in the future? In this massive evacuation, will I ever find my family again? Will my birth father, brothers, uncles will be harmed as soldiers? What will war and sanctions mean for their survival? How will they pay for food and housing?” 

Local news reports across the country report the interruption of adoptions in process for Ukraine, one of the greatest fears or adoptive parents and orphans. There are also media reports of adoptive parents fleeing Ukraine just in time.  

Many adoptees worry if the other children still living in orphanages will survive. They ask, “Will the orphanages they came from be bombed? If evacuated, where will the children be cared for? Will they ever be able to come to America now that all flights are canceled, and travel has stopped?” 

As we watch Ukrainian parents taking their kids to safety at the border and returning to fight, or when we see dead Russian soldiers lying in the snow, they wonder, “Will even more children become orphaned when parents are killed by the war?” 

Some adoptees are young and still trying to make sense of the whole concept of adoption. They worry they could be sent back to their home countries—that they may worry that they do not belong here after all.  

As an adoptive dad, I am well aware of adolescent adoptees struggling with their identity, a necessary rite of passage for all youth, but even more so for those with cultural and family heritage they have not experienced first-hand. 

Adoption agencies deal with this identity formation all the time in their support groups. These adoptees may be asking, “Am I Ukrainian, Russian, American? How does this all fit together? What should I feel at this time of international crisis?”  

“Some adoptees feel suddenly very patriotic or protective of their birth countries without having words or understanding why, explained Riley. “Others may disengage fearing being associated with their national identity if there is a sense of wrongdoing or shame in events occurring in their country of origin. They do not want to be seen as aligned with something that others see as bad. Some may feel they do not fit anywhere but are outsiders, foreigners. ‘Where is my true foundation? Who will claim me? Who do I want to be claimed by?’”   

Our children need us to understand how complicated this is. It is hard to navigate this journey of identity formation under normal circumstances. It is imperative that we as adults understand how this search becomes compromised and complicated by the current tragic events unfolding day by day in Ukraine. The severity of the impact is related to the degree of trauma (adverse childhood experiences) the child has experienced, how long the adoptee has lived in his/her birth country, whether the adoptee has met or connected with other members of his birth family, if the adoptee has had the opportunity to visit their birth country and the adoptive parents’ level of commitment to honoring the home country’s national identity and culture.  

What can we do to help? 

“During challenging times, the presence of aware and empathic adults can make all the difference,” Goldwater told me. “Parents and teachers need to be aware that while all children are impacted by war, children from these countries are exceptionally vulnerable and historical trauma may be ignited. During this time, I recommend that you handle these children with extra care, kindness, empathy and recognize the extra level of stress they are experiencing. Being curious about what is behind the behavior will help keep the door open for communication and help to manage the traumatic nature of the situation.” 

Both experts encouraged the necessity of finding the fine line between caring and being invasive. As community leaders, fellow parents and educators, we must show a quiet sensitivity that lets someone—the student, or the parent—know that we care. We should be mindful and not allow our curiosity to overwhelm our concerns for the people we care about.  

Unfortunately, some of our kids will face bullying which often feeds on finding some presence of “otherness.” Just being adopted is different, but one’s national heritage can be another source of “otherness” especially during times of international stress like we are now experiencing. In the days ahead, we need to be aware that Russian adoptees may be faced with adverse experiences directed to their nationality and culture. They may be subject to slurs and bullying about being Russian and may be blamed for the war. One Russian adoptee shared that he worried that he would be bullied like his Asian peers during the COVID pandemic who were taunted and blamed for the virus. He wondered would his friends say, “Russian people start wars; they kill people for no reason.” 

The mere anticipation of bullying affects children’s mental health surfacing their feelings associated with depression, anxiety and stress. (You can find PTA’s anti-bullying efforts here.) 

These experts share, “Instruct children to tell someone if they are being bullied. Be proactive, anticipate with them how in times of these types of crisis people often due pick out someone to hurt, to blame when they themselves feel sacred or afraid or threatened. Share some comments or ways others might bullying them so they can prepare. Role-play ahead of time on how they can respond.” My younger children knew it well: tell an adult, walk away, stand up for yourself and move to a crowded area where other people can observe and assist.  

As a National PTA community, we are always grateful for our partnerships with experts in the field like Goldwater and Riley. May our commitment to every child bring out our most empathic response for the adopted children from Ukraine and Russia. May they and their adoptive and birth families know that our hearts bend to theirs during these challenging days. 

To learn more about support for children, families and school professionals please visit the Adoption Together’s website and the Center For Adoption, Support and Education (CASE) website. 

To assist Ukraine in their humanitarian crisis, please go here. 


Nathan R. Monell, CAE is the executive director of National PTA and the adoptive father of two teenagers. 

Parents, Kids and Talking About Ukraine

This is part one of the blog series about the Russia-Ukraine War and the effects on children and youth across the country and around the world. You can read part two here. 

“What is happening in Ukraine can be frightening for both children and adults. Ignoring or avoiding the topic can lead to children feeling lost, alone and scared, which can affect their health and well-being. It is essential to have open and honest conversations with children to help them process what is happening.”

— Ane Lemche, Save the Children

As I write this, Russian troops are accelerating their drive into Ukraine and all of America sits watching the events unfold with a mixture of emotions. We shed a tear with the Ukrainian father whose family cries as he leaves them at the border and heads back to fight. We marvel at the resistance of a strong people who are heroic in their resistance. We dread what it may cost them. We see a young pianist—and a Ukrainian choir choose music as their response. We can also imagine the costs in terms of life, liberty and finances for Russian families who may have had no say in this conflict with their neighbors. While we may cheer the rousing voice to promote democracy over autocratic rule, we know in our hearts that the cost may be too high a price for families abroad.

As we observe, so do our children. Though their fears may go unexpressed, a small child can hear the scary words and feel the emotions on TV and the conversations of adults, not realizing the war is not ours, at least not yet. Our teenagers may be engaging in world events in a new way by monitoring and sharing their social media observations. I know mine are. And we may have thoughtful young adults asking why it is that when war is ever-present in our world, some democracies get support from the U.S. while others do not. Are all the people of the world worthy of our concern?

How do we as parents respond? Any time I face a crisis in my family, I always consult the experts. Here are some nuggets of advice that we, as parents, can consider:

  • First, as parents we should process our own feelings so that we are more ready to make room to explore the feelings of our children.
  • Talk when and how the child is ready. If a child asks, they are ready to talk. If not, inquire, but keep these conversations age appropriate. We tend to say too much until we sound like the teacher talking to Charlie Brown, “Wah, wah, wah.”
  • Make it OK for the child to have the feelings they express. They may not seem rational through our adult mindset. But nothing will shut down conversation faster than invalidating a response, no matter what it is.
  • Make sure they know that adults all around the world are working on limiting and fixing the problem.
  • Invite them to talk to you at any time and be ready to revisit the concern. Once that door is open and they know it is safe to talk, they will have more to say and hear over time.
  • Monitor for any regression in behaviors that may indicate internalized stress or fear.
  • Look for practical ways you as a family can help. Cancel the pizza night and send the money to a relief effort. Draw a picture and turn it into a card for a friend who has a family member who may be facing deployment to the region. Be creative. Look for ways you can help online. Here is one place to start.

There is a special window of opportunity for our thoughtful children, teenagers, and young adults:

  • Parents can use this as a teachable moment of geography, history, democracies/autocracies, international alliances, and our own form of government. Emma Humphries, former history teacher and now chief education officer at iCivics reminds us, “What we have here is a global teachable moment. This is the type of moment that allows us to have those conversations.”
  • Assist your young researchers in helping them decipher reliable sources so they are building skills as they explore social media, their primary source of information. Embrace their curiosity but encourage thoughtful skepticism toward unrecognizable sources.
  • Lastly, model for your children empathy for those who may be impacted differently than they are. Be aware of the military families in your community for whom rising international tensions signal the possibility of deployment and the accompanying fear, separation, stress and loneliness that can create.
    • In part two of this blog post, some of my peers in the international adoption world will share how this crisis is affecting families who have adopted internationally from Ukraine or Russia.

Parents, this is one more opportunity for us to model kindness, our most underrated human quality, and to strengthen our children’s self-awareness and social awareness, two key components of building social and emotional skills that will benefit them for a lifetime.

For additional resources on how to address anxiety and talk about mental health as a family, visit National PTA’s Healthy Minds webpage.

For more complete advice on forging mental health for our children in this crisis and for resources for families facing potential deployment, please check out these resources:


Nathan R. Monell, CAE is the executive director of National PTA, the largest and oldest child advocacy organization in the country and is the proud father of two adopted teenagers.

We Can Do This: Strategies to Address Vaccine Hesitancy through Local PTAs

Insights and Resources from our Recent Roundtable

National PTA’s urgent work to build vaccine confidence is well underway in 19 communities across the country. Recently we hosted a virtual roundtable to equip PTA leaders with accurate information and practical strategies to help address vaccine hesitancy and leverage every strategy to make schools safer for children and staff and maximize in-person learning. (Note: National PTA does not have a position on COVID vaccine mandates.)

Here, we share highlights from the conversation and resources local PTAs can put into practice right away.

Take Action to Keep Kids Safely in School: What Your PTA Can Do to Address Vaccine Hesitancy

Roundtable, February 2, 2022

  • Shaton Berry, Healthy Minds Ambassador, National PTA
  • Kate King, DNP, M.S., RN, LSN, President Elect, National Association of School Nurses
  • Laura Mitchell, Vice President of Advocacy, Montgomery County Council of PTAs, and Whole Child Fellow, National PTA
  • Michael Scott, CHES, Senior Program Manager, The Center for Black Health and Equity

  • Special Guest: Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, M.D., United States Surgeon General
  • Facilitator: Anna King, President, National PTA
  • Co-Facilitator: Nathan R. Monell, CAE, Executive Director, National PTA

Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy: The Surgeon General kicked off the conversation by thanking the PTA leaders who are already hard at work leading vaccine confidence campaigns in their communities. He noted the important role PTAs and community organizers can make in a moment like this, serving as a bridge to accurate and accessible information that is attuned to local concerns.

As a parent of young children himself, Dr. Murthy also expressed empathy toward any fully vaccinated parents and caregivers that may feel cautious about vaccinating their children, and acknowledged it is important that hesitant parents and caregivers be given the opportunity to express their concerns and be provided factual information. He observed that misinformation about vaccines circulating on social media platforms may have caused some parents and caregivers to become fearful. He noted that trusted messengers like local pediatricians, fellow parents, and other respected community members are likely the best positioned to help assuage such fears.

Kate King: School nurses are on the frontlines of the pandemic, but they can’t do this work alone. She urged collaboration among parent groups, school nurses, local boards of health and cultural organizations to help families overcome misinformation and make better-informed vaccine decisions. She urged parents and PTA leaders to speak with their own school nurse to access their recommended local resources. (If your school doesn’t have an assigned nurse, advocate for getting one!) Kate recommended several additional sources for reliable vaccination information:

Laura Mitchell: PTAs have a big role to play in helping our communities reach a safer post-pandemic stage. The key: Talk about vaccination everywhere! When families get comfortable asking questions from a trusted source, like their PTA, they are more likely to get vaccinated. Mitchell shared several successful conversation strategies from the Montgomery County Council PTA, who recently partnered with doctors to host “Vax Facts” webinars in multiple languages, teamed up with schools to get out the word about vaccine clinics, and regularly posts information in high-traffic locations, including grocery stores and their schools’ digital platforms.

Shaton Berry: When we help families make informed vaccine decisions, we’re supporting their health and mental health by reducing overall anxiety. Local PTA leaders don’t need to be health experts to navigate these conversations – they can tap into the National PTA family for ideas, tools and support. Shaton recommended three resources in particular:

Michael Scott: African-Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and this population is less likely to be vaccinated and more likely to experience severe illness or death due to the pandemic. It is important to acknowledge the historical events that have contributed to vaccine hesitancy among the Black community and other historically marginalized groups, and to recognize the racial inequity that persists today in our health care experiences. Scott highly recommends these two resources, developed by or in partnership with The Center for Black Health & Equity:

As we reflect on the learnings from this round table, National PTA wants to recognize and acknowledge that some PTAs may be having a hard time determining and navigating your role in increasing vaccine confidence within communities where this issue has become especially polarizing.

In communities with a lot of hesitancy, your PTA may want to start by facilitating a forum for people to express their concerns and hear from trusted local messengers (such as pediatricians, coaches, and clergy). Your PTA can choose a couple of fact-based COVID-19 resources to share with the families who participate in the forum.

Whereas in other communities where the issue is less around hesitancy and more around eliminating barriers to access. In that case, your PTA may want to help support a vaccine clinic – or host one! – and use the power of PTA to address issues like transportation, translation services, food, awareness and so forth.

We hope you’ll find these insights and specific resources helpful. Keep your eye out for more updates from National PTA in the weeks ahead as we continue building vaccine confidence together. Together, we can do this!

Dos and Don’ts for Dads Who Want to Volunteer at School 

It may be a little ambitious to say we are “Post-COVID,” but I think we can all agree that this school year has been an improvement over the enormous uncertainty we faced in 2020. Regardless of the challenges still facing us, one thing remains constant. Our kids need our active support and encouragement—at school and at home—now more than ever.  

Studies show that children who have fathers or male role models involved in their education are… 

  • more likely to get better grades 
  • have better verbal and problem-solving skills 
  • do better on achievement tests; demonstrate a higher tolerance for stress and 
  • are more likely to have positive peer relationships.  

So, I wanted to talk with someone who is committed to increasing male engagement at the local and state levels, especially as we plan for life after COVID. James Strickland is a business owner, husband and father to three school-aged children. He also serves as the Texas PTA Male Engagement Liaison, and as a “WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) TOP DOG Extraordinaire,” which means that he provides training and support for registered WATCH D.O.G.S. schools.  

Our conversation covered all sorts of things fathers and father-figures should consider if they want to volunteer, but James kept coming back to a single point—he felt that the number one thing any volunteer can do right now is to have their priorities in line. If your primary goal is to serve the kids and the school, then you need to abide by and work within whatever guidelines your school has provided. Teachers and administrators have tough jobs under the best of circumstances, and navigating the ever-challenging, ever-changing COVID-19 protocols has only made their jobs more difficult. 

Here are just a few “Dos and Don’ts” for you to consider as a school volunteer, especially during these challenging times. 

Do 

  • Ask how you can help! Especially during these times, schools need PTA members and volunteers need support. Even simply offering a listening ear might have more impact than you can imagine. 
  • Make volunteering a priority. Regular volunteers are some of the busiest people we know, and they always have somewhere else they could be. One of their superpowers is knowing how to prioritize their time to help others. 
  • Always follow the current volunteer guidelines of your district and school, especially regarding COVID-19. Remember that every decision and rule your superintendent, principal and teachers make is in serious consideration of your students’ safety.  
  • Set a good example for the kids. Be cheerful and encouraging. We hear from educators regularly that the current situation is adding additional stress on many students. Your influence can make a huge difference in the quality of their school day.  
  • Thank every person who works at the school when you have the opportunity. Certainly, the teachers and the principal, but also the secretary, school nurse, lunchroom staff and custodians. A simple “Thank you for everything you do for these kids,” will make a huge difference. 
  • Keep in mind that family engagement at school actually begins at home. Make time every day to ask your child about school. Be aware of their social, emotional and academic successes and challenges. 
  • Remember that the Teachers and Principal are your partners in your child’s education. Having a good relationship with them will make everything flow a little easier and contribute to the best possible outcomes for your child. 

Don’t 

  • Underestimate the power of simply showing up and asking how you can help.  

The bottom line is this: Our kids need us. We can maintain and grow robust and effective family and community engagement in our schools, as long as we work together and keep the best interests of the kids in mind.  

Our kids deserve the best educational conditions we can provide, and the support of moms, dads and grandparents will make a huge contribution to a positive and productive learning environment. Make the commitment to volunteer today! 


Eric Snow is the president and co-founder of WATCH D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students).