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Multicultural Parent Involvement Tim’s Tips

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The Truth About Cliques

If people say your group is a clique, it is. In this case, perception matters.

In my seat, I hear every day from parent group leaders desperately trying to get more parents involved in their groups. Parent involvement is the most searched term on our Web site. Our involvement seminars are the most well attended talks at our PTO Today conferences. Clearly, parent group leaders want more parents involved. You’d love help. You’d gladly allow someone else a turn counting gift wrap receipts.

Why is it, then, that so many parents feel closed out of and unwelcome in parent groups? Why is “the PTO is a clique” the most whispered criticism of parent groups across the country?

The answer: Your group is a clique. The critics have a point.

The problem is that in matters of membership and involvement, impressions matter far more than reality. If even one parent thinks of your group as a clique, then you are a clique. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is clique-ism. And the sooner you realize that, the more effective your involvement efforts will become.

When it comes to this discussion, I always think back to a mom who was sitting in the middle of the pack during an involvement seminar at our Dallas conference last year. At first glance, she was quiet and unassuming, but when she spoke her words made the entire room sit up and take notice.

She spoke with passion about the very first PTO meeting she attended at her school three years earlier. She was new to the town, and her oldest child had just entered the school. She knew no one at the meeting and little about how parent groups work. But she knew she wanted to get involved. And she found the courage—she used the word courage; it’s how she felt—to attend the meeting as a stranger in a strange place.

When she arrived at the meeting, there were about 15 moms in attendance. One group of about eight—she later learned they were the officers and a couple of chairpeople—were at the front of the room talking together.

The meeting went off without a hitch: minutes, treasurer’s report, old business, new business. Officers sat at a head table, and several times inside jokes were passed about past PTO events and school activities. Building membership and increasing meeting attendance were mentioned several times, though this newcomer never did raise her hand to volunteer. She also wasn’t asked personally. She didn’t introduce herself to the officers, nor did the officers introduce themselves to her or to the group.

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She went home and vowed never to go back to a PTO meeting. She felt like an outsider and hated that feeling. To her, the PTO was a clique and she wasn’t part of it. At our conference, she compared the feeling to her high school days and not being part of the cool crowd. She was near tears at the end of her story.

Amazingly enough, her story concludes with her now as president of that same PTO, and she makes it her everyday mission to be sure her group is as welcoming as it can be. It’s an amazing turnabout, and she’s truly a rare volunteer. Just a very few parents would jump back in after that initial experience. Most would chalk it up to a lesson learned and never go back.

What are new parents experiencing when they first interact with your group?

The funny thing is that I’d almost guarantee that the leaders of that Texas group didn’t see themselves as a clique. And I know that they didn’t mean to shut people out. But impressions are so powerful.

It’s up to you to institute policies and procedures and habits that create an atmosphere of openness to newcomers. Even if it’s awkward or feels a bit goofy, you—at every meeting and every event—need to look proactively for new faces and personally welcome them. At every meeting, all of your officers should introduce themselves, and every newcomer should be recognized. Deliberately avoid the circles of friends or leaders that naturally develop in every group. Have your leaders sit out in the crowd, not together and certainly not at a head table.

A few more tips:

  • Have a greeter at the door of your meetings and events, someone specifically assigned to make newcomers feel welcome.
  • Use nametags to level the playing field between newcomers and well-known veterans.
  • Always explain business items, even if they’re held over from previous meetings. Don’t assume “everybody knows.”
  • Make people raise their hands and be recognized before they speak. Otherwise meetings can devolve into chit-chat, almost always among the “regulars.”

You can’t eliminate all criticism, but you can choose whether to listen to critics to see whether there may be a grain of truth or to dismiss them out of hand. In the clique case, you’ll do well to err on the side of the critics. Greater involvement will be the result.

Tim Sullivan is founder and publisher of PTO Today. He writes a regular column for PTO Today magazine, offers weekly tips in the Leader Lowdown email newsletter, and shares his thoughts on the blog. You can also find Tim in the Community and follow Tim on Twitter @TimPTO.

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(44 Votes)


  1. Posted by - PTAsocial on Feb. 05, 2014

    Great article, so true that newcomers can need a little extra handholding to feel inclined to come back. Many committee members forget this, and don't intentionally block people out. However, sometimes it just comes down to personalities and being on the same wavelength. In cases where newcomers feel uncomfortable, it's natural for them to back away unless they felt particularly compelled to make a difference at their child's school.

    We'd also welcome your thoughts on our blog article along the same lines... about whether you can change the culture of your PTA:
  2. avatar

    Posted by Rose C on Feb. 26, 2013

    Thanks for posting. Have things improved at all since the initial meeting? For more on this topic, I'll pass along a link to a blog post our founder Tim Sullivan recently wrote on this subject. (And, it contains links to additional stories.) I think it will be helpful.

    My Tip of the Week: Is Your Group a Clique:

    Best of luck and keep in touch,
    Rose C.
    Community Manager
  3. Posted by - Mary on Feb. 26, 2013

    So delighted to read this article. I joined the pto and I think I wasnt suppose to go up for election as I am a new parent to the school. The first meeting was held that night and only for the previous chair caught me going out the door, I would have missed the meeting. The others had sat in a corner and by the time I sat down the chair had already decided she was doing chairperson and others had already assumed roles with practically no explanation as to whats involved in the roles and whether anyone else would like to fufill these roles. I joined to help the school and really it took all my stamina to return to meetings.
  4. Posted by - beentheredonethat on May. 15, 2012

    Dear Unclebeezy....BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. Newsflash...your organization is STILL a clique! Nothing will change. You, as a man, obviously have NO CLUE about how women interact, who make up 99% of your PTO. YOU MUST BE INVITATIONAL ...that means YOU invite know, us folks with the "panties!"
  5. Posted by - Susan on Mar. 15, 2012

    I too have been in the same boat as all of these posts. I am going to try and make the first event we are doing a hugh success and hopefully the parents will realize that with help we can do a lot more things for out school. I vote all of you hang in there and speak your voice and unite!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  6. Posted by - Karen on Jul. 25, 2011

    Hi, I was a new parent going through the same frustrations that many of these parents have with their PTO. So I decided to do something about it...I ran fro President and the old President wasn't happy in fact she wrote a rather nasty letter to the Principal as to why she felt I shouldn't be President, and she didn't even know me. In fact her "clique" wanted the PTO to shut down. The last two PTO board members were cliques and unfortunately allot of our school is that way..but we have a great group of people and diverse this upcoming year. 2 frist grade mom's..whose children were in separate rooms, a veteran whose oldest in is 6th grade and whose youngest is in kindergarten and then me with a 4th grader. We are trying to put ourselves out there as a group but not as a clique..our problem will be to get the "cliques" to volunteer when one of their own won't be running everything. We have our work cut out for us..but I think we can do it! Just by being more open and friendly.
  7. avatar

    Posted by firstnoel on Jul. 20, 2011

    I also experienced "the clique" during the son's Kindergarten year. I attended the first two meetings and you do feel left out. I stopped working when my son was in the first grade and decided for the next yea I would join the PTA as the treasurer. I have since been treasurer for two years and the second year seem to be a nightmare because I was not part the "the clique." Parents considered the executive board to be racist because of things our vice president said. Less and less parents want to help but the president sure wants the parents to support her fundraisers.
  8. Posted by - Unclebeezy on Apr. 17, 2011

    This whole forum is kinda funny to me. It's all about, "Moms", "women", women's group, and already has me on the outs as a male PTO Vice President at my school site.
    I say put your big boy or big girl pants on if you truly want to be involved and break into the clique. It's the nature of the beast and I pushed right through it at our school site. Next year I plan on being the President and changing that attitude and perhaps even bring on another male.
  9. Posted by - rocket on Nov. 13, 2010

    I am shocked that folks on this site keep associating shyness with immaturity. I can certainly understand why parents would be put off by this kind of attitude. I am a naturally shy person, but when I am fulfilling my role at PTO board functions I go out of my way to be friendly and welcoming to everyone. Maybe it's because I am shy that I understand and empathize with those folks. You can say "grow up and take responsibility" but you will not win any new members that way. I want more parent involvement and if hand patting helps that happen, I will certainly do it.
  10. Posted by - Patti Wigington on Jun. 01, 2010

    My twins are in fourth grade right now, so I've spent five years as a member of the school's PTO. When I first arrived, as a kindergarten mom, I felt that the "old guard" PTO was fairly exclusionary. However, instead of sitting there waiting for someone to come pat me on the head and welcome me, I walked in, made my presence known, and made a point of having my voice heard. I'm an adult - if I feel out of place, I can choose to change that.

    Now, our "old guard" has moved on, we've had new blood come into the PTO with fresh ideas and new ways of doing things, and the new people are made to feel welcome so that they never have to wonder if the group is a clique that they can't be part of. When I leave the school next month, I know that the group is in excellent hands, and all parents will be made to feel valued.
  11. avatar

    Posted by VolMom on Nov. 15, 2009

    "she knew she wanted to get involved. And she found the courage— it’s how she felt—to attend the meeting as a stranger. When she arrived at the meeting, there were about 9 people in attendance. One group of about 4 were at the front of the room talking together. The meeting went off without a hitch: minutes, treasurer’s report, old business, new business. Officers sat at a head table. Building membership and increasing meeting attendance were mentioned, though this newcomer never did raise her hand to volunteer. She also wasn’t asked personally. She didn’t introduce herself to the officers, nor did the officers introduce themselves to her or to the group.She went home and vowed never to go back to a PTO meeting. I JUST ATTENDED MY FIRST PTO MEETING AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED TO ME. IT AMAZED ME THAT ONE OF THE PEOPLE AT THE "HEAD" TABLE ASKED DURING THE MEETING WHY PEOPLE FROM PREVIOUS MEETINGS WERE NOT COMING BACK..................
  12. Posted by - Meda on Sep. 10, 2009

    Wow, such venom! I've made it a top priority to try to make everyone feel welcome, especially those parents who seem shy, perhaps a bit immature, and less outgoing than others. And you know what? Some of them have turned out to be the most faithful volunteers we have! They never want to have attention called to themselves, but they will always show up when asked, and they actually work instead of standing around chatting with that main core of parents. (They never seem to notice the quiet ones working right beside them.)

    One thing I did learn from this article, though, is that we (the board) should not sit at the same table at meetings. I've never really thought about it before, but I have felt that sense of intimidation at other groups' meetings. Their boards seemed like a clique to me.

    Lucky I'm mature and outgoing enough to not let that stop me from getting involved. It doesn't really matter if I "fit in", as long as I'm doing all I can to improve things at the school. Right?
  13. Posted by - Shirley on Jul. 27, 2009

    Try living in a neighborhood like this. Six years and after pitching in for every fund raising event, "mom's night out" event and neighborhood gathering, we STILL don't fit in. Well established neighborhoods with neighborhood schools suck.
  14. Posted by - Kim on Jun. 30, 2009

    I would have to agree with Sandra. Often parents start the rumors that the parent group is a clique out of their own insecurity. I was the President of our parent group for a few years and this was a problem we faced. "The clique" isn't a group of women that don't want others included, it is just the main core of parents that do EVERYTHING. I remember us always talking about how we needed more people to get involved. Honestly parent clubs are VERY time consuming when you are in charge or hold one of the main positions. Having the time to personally invite people or "walk" everyone by the hand just doesn't exist.
    Parents need to join because they want to be there and follow through with tasks, not to be negative or caddy.
  15. Posted by - Sandra on Jun. 10, 2009

    At the same time, why shouldn't we expect adults to act like adults? Why do the people who are mature and outgoing need to hold everyone else's hand? Why do we need to pet ruffled feathers and invite someone 20 times? Doesn't make sense!! All the parents are ADULTS and need to put ontheir BIG GIRL PANTIES and act like adults. I don't go to meetings and get involved so I can then hold OTHER PARENTS HANDS-- I go and get involved because it makes the school function better!
  16. Posted by - Lisa @ PTO Today on May. 20, 2009

    Thanks for the comment and for encouraging people to take that first step. Good for you for resolving to make your group less cliquey! The president certainly sets the tone.

    Congrats on being elected pres! I hope to see you sharing your experiences on our message boards!

  17. Posted by - Melissa on May. 20, 2009

    I was that Mom 5 years ago. I thought the PTA was clique-y and it was. My neighbor was on the Board but she never encouraged me to get involved. It took me a whole year to work up the courage to attend a PTA meeting, but when my son started first grade, I was determined to go. At that first meeting, no one acknowledged me but when they needed someone to take on a project, I raised my hand. Several eyebrows went up. It was a huge step for me because I am fairly shy.

    I wouldn't say I ever became a part of the clique, I always perceived myself as on the fringes. But I'm sure others saw it differently. This week I was elected President. Now, I'm the leader of the "clique". I am striving to make it more open and inclusive than it was when I started. Thanks for the tips!
  18. Posted by - Linda Speedy on Mar. 05, 2009

    I felt the same way the women above felt.
    But I will not give up. I'm now President of our PTA and try to call some of the younger and new mom's. I have even had a dad help me this year. But it still goes on the "clique", and I still try to make a change. This is for the CHILDREN at our school not for the parents to look good. The school tried to take away of "Field Trips" and I fought at
    the School Board along with the other
    four elementary schools. We succeeded and I'm proud to be apart of
    this PTA group of women.
  19. Posted by - concerned parent on Mar. 04, 2009

  20. Posted by - Kelly on Feb. 12, 2009

    I completely understand, but my local PTO has actually gone a step further and stopped advertising its meetings so that only the few will attend. It doesn't make sense when the few meetings I did attend they were wondering why more parents weren't there. It is very hurtful to those of us who want to be involved. I don't know what can even be done about this, but the exclusion has to stop!
    I'm wondering if the PTO is supposed to follow the same open meeting guidelines as other organizations. Any advice?
  21. Posted by - Mari on Dec. 17, 2008

    I know exactly how she felt. My first PTO meeting I went to my neighbor had asked me to go with her. I made a suggestion to the group on how room mother's could be notified that way we can be of more assistance to the teacher's. The president shouted at me. I was shocked! I offered to do the notifying if the board was to overwhelmed. It was awful. The following year I ran for board. We try to include everyone so I do like the greeter ideal. I would like to know how to deal with the parent who likes to be so negative. The kind that likes to spread awful rumors about the board just because the principal had the final say.
  22. Posted by - mom of three on Sep. 24, 2008

    This is just what I needed to read today.

    My experience has been a roller coaster of doubt.
    I doubt these ladies would be that rude.
    I doubt these ladies understand how condescending they are.
    I doubt they want to have anyone new in the group. And I doubt their ability to embrace change and diversity.

    Even with all this doubt I will not give up.

    They will not succeed without the persistence of parents who want to make a difference.

    This is about the children and creating a strong relationship with the teachers, community and other leaders.

    Yes it's nice to get together with a group and socialize, but grow up.

    Stop passing notes.
    The act itself will for sure perpetuate the clique perception.

    Never back down.

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