One of the fundamental strengths of a well-run parent group is the ability to identify just where parents are in terms of involvement and to reach out to those parents accordingly.

I call it the Parent Involvement Ladder, and the basic idea is that treating all parents the same way is a recipe for involvement frustration. For parents who have never volunteered or perhaps never even attended a school event, your “Meeting next Tuesday at 7 p.m.” flyer is unlikely to get them off the couch and skipping into school. Your goal with currently uninvolved parents is to simply get them to attend a school event.

In other words: If you’re throwing a spaghetti supper, you’d like them to eat pasta. That’s it. If they come to school and chow down, you’ve made strides in involvement. That’s a win. Parents have taken a step onto the first rung of the involvement ladder.

At PTO Today, we talk a lot about those first steps. Our School Family Nights program and our 2 Hour Power volunteer pledge program are both aimed squarely at turning the uninvolved into the somewhat involved.

But the real focus of this column is what then? While great family events with tons of kids and parents and teachers interacting positively at school are wonderful, we also want to move folks up the ladder. We’d like those spaghetti eaters to become occasional spaghetti cookers. Or occasional website helpers. Or occasional lunchroom monitors.

And we’d really like some of those occasional volunteers to eventually move up to leadership slots, perhaps helping lead the spaghetti supper committee or—egad!—maybe even taking over your elected spot someday.

Make parent involvement a priority—get our top 10 tips for success

This mid-fall time frame is the perfect time to think about just how your group plans to move folks up the ladder. Hopefully, you’ve already held one or two open family events or you have them on the calendar and are moving toward success. Now you need to put some good habits in place for taking the best advantage of those events.

The first step is making sure your family events are welcoming and fun. Sounds basic, but you shouldn’t underemphasize it. Parents will be much more open to connecting with your group if it gains a well-earned reputation for openness and spirit. Your events are the first impression many parents will have of your group.

The next steps are a bit more specific. Do you actively try to team a new volunteer with a veteran volunteer for most of your PTO jobs? While it’s often easiest to let two pals (especially if they’re both vets) run with an event or program, making an effort to pair new volunteers with experienced helpers can make a big difference.

It creates natural, safe slots for new members to step into, and it serves as a ready-made training ground for future leaders.

And where do you find these new volunteers? Among the pasta eaters, of course. That’s the next tip: Assign someone to keep track (formally or informally) of which moms and dads are attending your family events. Those that come out a few times and have a good time are your best prospects for new volunteers. When you need help, reach out to a few of those moms and dads personally with a very specific message and request. “So glad you’ve been able to make it out. Wondering if you might be able to help with the cleanup committee (or the ticket-takers, etc.) at XYZ event next month?”

Similarly, those parents who start helping out on a semiregular basis become great prospects for leadership positions next year. Identifying some of those potential leaders now, personally connecting with them, and easing them up these important next rungs is far more effective than waiting until April and placing a general “We need new officers” plea in your newsletter.

Long-term success comes from knowing where parents are on the ladder and effectively helping them take the next steps—even when some of those steps (like the ones you’ve already taken!) can be doozies.