1. Jennifer, a kindergarten mom, goes to a PTO meeting for the first time. No one says hi, and the officers don’t acknowledge her. When the events chair gives a report, she uses acronyms and makes references to activities Jennifer has never heard of.

Why it makes people think you’re a clique: Jennifer was interested in the parent group, but at the meeting she didn’t know who the members were or what they were talking about. Not only did she feel like an outsider; she also felt like her help was not wanted.

The clique fix: Form a welcome committee or assign an officer to greet newcomers at each meeting. Wear name tags. Avoid using acronyms or jargon. Follow up with new attendees after the meeting to see whether you can answer any questions they have about the PTO or whether they have any ideas about how they can help.

2. Several volunteers are setting up at the annual back-to-school taco night. As they are unloading decorations, they walk by the playground where a new mom at the school is playing with her kids. They invite her to the taco night but don’t introduce themselves or ask her whether she is interested in getting involved.

Why it makes people think you’re a clique: This new parent may have been looking for ways to get involved and meet new people. By walking by and not telling her what they were doing, the PTO folks missed an opportunity to invite a new volunteer into the group.

The clique fix: It’s not always easy to know how your group is perceived. But consider every meeting with a new family an opportunity to talk about what your group does and to invite them to get involved. Remember to ask again, too! If someone isn’t available the first time, she may be more receptive to a repeat request for help.

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3. The PTO doesn’t communicate well with parents and there’s no list of officers on a bulletin board or website or in a newsletter. Parents don’t know who runs the PTO or how to contact them.

Why it makes people think you’re a clique: It makes the group feel exclusive, as if members don’t want to share the information because they aren’t looking for new help. If it’s too hard to get “in,” some people will feel turned away and stop trying. Remember the old adage that negative news travels twice as fast as positive.

The clique fix: Find a volunteer who can keep your website updated regularly with all the officers’ contact information. Consider setting up standard email addresses (such as ptopresident@...) for each officer so the addresses don’t have to change when your officers do. Make sure the school website also has a link to your parent group information. Supply the school administrators with the most updated list of officers, including email addresses and phone numbers, as parents will often call the school looking for information.

4. The PTO asks parents to fill out a volunteer interest survey, but no one follows up with them. Parents who were willing to give their time assume that the PTO doesn’t need or want their help after all.

Why it makes people think you’re a clique: If someone offers to help and isn’t contacted, it feels like rejection. Rejection is key to the clique culture and breeds resentment and negativity. It can stunt further involvement by the potential volunteer (and her group of friends).

The clique fix: Be diligent in following up after asking for input. Whether it’s on a fundraising survey or volunteer sign-up, remember that parents took the time to respond to your request. You will be asking the same group for their help again in the future (maybe even next week!) and will want their participation again. If you don’t already, try an online volunteer sign-up and management system; it makes it much easier to follow up. Also, it’s OK to issue a mea culpa if you’ve screwed up. But make a commitment to do better next time.

5. The same people have been officers for years. Newcomers feel like they are not wanted or shouldn’t bother because they don’t have enough experience to take on a leadership role.

Why it makes people think you’re a clique: When doors aren’t open, people won’t walk through them. New volunteers bring fresh ideas—ideas they may take to another volunteer organization—if they’re not offered an opportunity to get involved.

The clique fix: Set up a succession plan for the major roles on your parent group board. For example, the assistant book fair chairwoman transitions to being the lead chairwoman the next year. Provide job descriptions of each volunteer role on the PTO website, along with a timeline of when new board or committee chairpeople are selected, so new volunteers feel informed.

6. You are struggling to fill the volunteer positions on your board, so you reach out to your friends and suggest the “perfect roles” for them. For example, you need a decorations committee chair, so you ask your friend who works in event planning.

Why it makes people think you’re a clique: People like to be asked to do a certain job, but pigeonholing them into a specific role doesn’t always work. It can make others who might also want the job feel excluded.

The clique fix: When looking to fill board spots, provide all the available options to everyone you talk with about volunteering. If you are hosting a nomi­nating committee meeting, share the ins and outs of all the roles so parents can choose what fits their schedules and interests best.


Takeaways

Getting involved in a school parent group shouldn’t bring back memories of cliques, popu­lar kids, or being left out. Keep these tips in mind when trying to break the per­ception (or reality) of a cliquey parent group:

  • Remind officers to socialize outside of their “officer” circle at meetings and school events.

  • Have a greeter at the door of your events to make newcomers feel welcome.

  • Use name tags so that newcomers will know better who’s who.

  • Always explain business items and acronyms 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 chitchat, almost always among the “regulars.”

  • Set up simple ways for everyone to get involved. Make it easy for volunteers to see what type of help is needed, along with specific time slots.