Parent group leaders spend a lot of time thinking about how to increase parent participation in their groups, for good reason—research repeatedly shows a strong link between parent involvement and kids’ educational success, and without new parent volunteers, PTOs eventually fade away. But parent groups can also boost their involvement—and their overall success—by looking into ways to increase student participation.

Regular student participation in a school’s parent group helps leaders understand the students’ experiences, identify issues that need attention, and find ways to address those issues. It also provides students with an opportunity to develop leadership skills and be a force for change in their school community. And as more students become involved in the PTO, parent participation can increase, too.

Serving Students Better

Student participation can take a variety of forms. Many schools support student membership in the school’s parent group or encourage participation through student board positions to increase communication between students, parents, and teachers. Many parent groups want more direct input from students so activities can better reflect student interests and parents can learn ways to involve students in the group’s work. For most groups, the obvious place to start is by checking in with the student council, as did Daphne Feeney, who served as PTSA secretary at a Department of Defense elementary and middle school in Germany.

“Our PTSA wanted to strengthen connections between our board members and the student body because we were getting secondhand information from parents about what activities the students were interested in,” Feeney says. “Rather than try to guess what the students wanted, we asked the student council president because she was more in touch with the interests of her peers.”

The student council president got feedback from classroom representatives and reported back to the PTSA. Parents learned that middle school students were not interested in school dances, as had been previously assumed, but elementary school students were. Because middle school students needed volunteer hours for academic clubs or other organizations they were involved with, they agreed to organize and host a dance for elementary students. The PTSA created a leadership opportunity for the older students who, in turn, were able to facilitate a fun event for their younger schoolmates.

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

Supporting Student Leaders

The Dora Moore ECE-8 School PTSA in Denver, Colo., has supported student leadership opportunities, as well. The school is located in a busy downtown area where speeding and traffic accidents frequently occur. A 4th grade student council class representative gave a presentation to the PTSA about her concerns and asked for the group’s support in contacting the Denver Police Department for help making the streets around the school safer. The discussion, which took place during the 2015-16 school year, revealed that traffic safety issues were not only a student concern but also one of PTSA and school staff members.

Adults suggested a course of action and enthusiastically praised the student’s efforts. PTSA copresident Morgan Isaacs, who is also the staff contact for the student council, helped the student collect petition signatures from PTSA members, students, teachers, staff, and homeowners in the neighborhood. They gathered more than 400 signatures, and the principal accompanied the student to the police department to deliver the petition and make the request in person. Although the police department has not formally responded, the attention brought to the issue led the school system to add a crossing guard during the 2017-18 school year, Isaacs says.

The PTSA also provides student leadership opportunities. In the 2016-17 school year, the PTSA provided $500 in startup funds for the student council’s store, which sold school supplies and snacks before and after school and during athletic events. Student council members staffed the store and were responsible for serving customers, keeping track of inventory, and handling sales transactions. The store’s proceeds were donated to Project Angel Heart, a Denver-based nonprofit that delivers nutritious meals to those coping with life-threatening illness.

Engaging More Families

Similarly, the Oakdale Christian Academy PTO in Chicago, Ill., entered the 2015-16 school year with a goal of building stronger relationships with the school’s students and involving them in projects that foster leadership and creativity. This started by having the student council officers introduce themselves to the PTO, which then led to collaboration on a variety of activities. With help from the PTO, the student council planned and hosted the first-ever Oakdale school dance. Bolstered by their success and encouragement from parents, students have since become bolder and more creative in taking on leadership roles.

This year, the student council has developed its own fundraising goals with guidance from the PTO, and it’s operating a breakfast and snack cart to provide items to students in the before- and after-school programs. Students are responsible for storing inventory, tracking sales, and providing accounting updates to their teacher-mentors. Following the PTO model, the student council has reorganized itself and established separate planning committees for proposed activities and holds regular monthly meetings for the executive board and the general council.
For the student council’s winter formal and spring carnival, in the 2016-17 school year, the PTO helped students prepare a budget, raise funds, plan activities, secure volunteers, and promote and operate the events.

In addition, the Oakdale PTO provides incentives and special recognition to classrooms with the highest parent attendance at PTO meetings. Risa Lanier of the Oakdale PTO sees a direct connection between student involvement in the PTO and increased parent participation. “Meetings now average 60 or more parents each month where previously there were usually less than 10,” Lanier says. She attributes the increased parent participation to incentives and student involvement: “We now have students encouraging their parents to attend meetings and get involved.”

Increases in student leadership within the PTO are beginning to have broader effects, as well. “Because of the PTO’s support, teachers are inspired to provide more leadership roles for students and the students are seizing them. The PTO encourages these efforts in any way we can,” Lanier says. “The total effect has been a stronger relationship between the PTO and student body and a stronger school community.”

5 More Ways To Work With Students

  1. Invite student council representatives to parent group meetings. If your school doesn’t have a student council, ask teachers to choose a representative from each grade to give a brief report at PTO meetings.

  2. Look for ways students can practice skills. A teacher may encourage students to attend a meeting and write an article on it for class. Older students might research issues related to a playground upgrade and present the results to the parent group as part of a class project.

  3. Ask for feedback on events from students. Have volunteers request informal feedback as families leave, or ask students to fill out a quick survey.

  4. Invite students to submit designs for a school T-shirt or yearbook cover, or vote on a school mascot.

  5. Work with the art teacher to have students make thank-you cards or create posters thanking businesses that sponsor your events. Display posters at the school before delivering them to sponsors.