Children, teachers, parents, and the people in your neighborhood — Erikson Institute president Barbara Bowman talks about bringing them all together as part of your educational community.


EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: When we say "classroom community," what is the ideal picture you see?

BARBARA BOWMAN: I see a community that takes place on many different levels, not just on the classroom level. You have to build all the way from the neighborhood to families to the teachers and the kids themselves. You need to pull the whole community into the life of your school or center.


ECT: How do you know when you've succeeded?

BOWMAN: When you hit the right combination, a community has a life of its own. It energizes the neighborhood, your families, and also your teachers. When it's working, it's not a pain in the neck. It's an enjoyable experience for everyone. That's what we're looking for — people doing things not because they have to or are supposed to, but because they want to.


ECT: What are your best suggestions for making that kind of community happen?

BOWMAN: First, spend time trying to understand the people in your community and having them understand you. It's not always easy, especially if you're from different ethnic or racial groups. It helps to open yourself up to other experiences and to find ways of having people understand you the way you want to be understood. Work on yourself first.

Second, hit on something that interests both the school and the community. It could be the arts - that's something everyone can relate to. Or maybe it's athletics. Or it might be making the community drug-free or opening the school up for exercise or computer classes in the evening. There's a whole variety of things that can give people enjoyment and fulfillment.

Third, make whatever you choose relevant to kids. You don't want to pressure children into doing things they're not interested in or are too young to do. So find a way to connect with people that centers on children. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it binds people together.


ECT: What are some of your best ideas for increasing parent involvement?

BOWMAN: You can start by finding venues besides the school itself. For example, parents go to work, to church, to meetings of various social and volunteer organizations. While they're there, you can ask them to act as emissaries for the school — to let others in the community know what the needs of the school and the children are.

In addition, try asking parents to do things at home. Many parents work during the day and can't come out at night, but they can take pictures and create books with their children. Other parents might be able to make curtains or do woodworking projects. The key is to find things they are interested in doing. Once you know those things, it's easy to find a way to involve them in the school.


ECT: Do you find that the more parents are involved, the more they may want to change things about the school?

BOWMAN: Yes, parents do want to have a hand in shaping school policies and practices. So you shouldn't invite their involvement unless you're open to change. You don't have to do anything and everything parents suggest, but you have to be willing to at least consider anything and everything. Sometimes we tend to cast stones on parents. But we must be sensitive to the challenges they face. There are no magic bullets for parenting, just as there are no magic bullets for teaching. Both jobs are difficult. Our communities can grow only if we're more appreciative of one another's points of view.


Barbara Bowman is president and cofounder of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school and research center in Chicago that offers advanced study in child development. She is also a past president of NAEYC.