Building Relationships With Roma Minority Parents in Međimurje County, Croatia

By Adrijana Visnjic Jevtic, University of Zagreb
and Martina Brezovec Jurinec, Primary School Orehovica

The county of Međimurje, Croatia, has a large Roma population. Although official numbers say 5% of the county’s citizens are Roma, the reality is likely closer to 10%. The Roma community is poor, not well educated, and has little opportunity to become successfully engaged citizens. Roma children are growing up in an inadequate, deprived environment. 

At age 6, all children in Croatia start primary school. For Roma children, that can be a challenge. The educational language is Croatian, and very few Roma children speak Croatian fluently. These language issues contribute to many Roma children dropping out of school early. Less than 50% finish primary school and go on to secondary school. Of those who start secondary education, half drop out. Without formal education, they experience difficulty finding jobs when they reach adulthood.

Education professionals and the government in Međimurje County are trying to find a solution to this problem through early childhood education. In the 2013/14 academic year, 289 Roma children attended preschool classes. It is hoped that those children will have a better educational start, and thus will be less likely to drop out of school early.

However, the most important partners in children education are parents. Studies point to the importance of teacher-parent collaboration for children’s social and academic success, especially in intervention programs for minority children. There is a need to build satisfying relationships between teachers and parents. The parent’s role in the school can be seen in three different ways – parents as partners, parents as consumers, and parents as problems. Teachers are responsible for nurturing partnerships and overcoming the attitude of seeing parents as problems.

The example below from one preschool serving the Roma community shows us a way to improve the partnership, involving parents and helping children.

Building Partnerships With Parents
At the beginning of every preschool year, we organize parent-teacher conferences. We put out a written notice. Since some of the parents cannot read or write, we contact every parent personally to ensure they all are informed about the conference. At the first conference, parents are usually passive and silent. It is the preschool teacher’s task to create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere and to encourage the parents to communicate. The parent-teacher conference is organized into several parts. First, the teacher provides parents with general information and gets to know the parents and children. The largest part of the conference is dedicated to games for parents and children in order to create a positive atmosphere. This also gives the children the opportunity to explore their future classroom and manipulate the materials and toys in the activity centers. While the children are playing, parents are encouraged to ask questions, and share their opinions and fears. However, few parents communicate with the preschool teacher at this point. Most of them remain silent and simply listen to the preschool teacher. Some parents have difficulty speaking in Croatian, and are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Once school has started, we help build relationships with the families by organizing a walk with the children around their neighborhood. The children proudly show us their homes and invite family and friends to meet their preschool teacher. While walking around the neighborhood, the parents are very kind and communicative; they will invite the children and the preschool teacher in for a soda. The initial discomfort with the preschool teacher, as the representative of the preschool, disappears at this moment.

We also organize parent workshops as joint gatherings once a week. At the workshops, we try to support parents and provide them with opportunities to expand their knowledge about their children’s skills and developmental opportunities. To encourage parents to keep coming to these joint planned meetings, we also organize more informal gatherings. In this vein, we organized a parent field trip around Međimurje to visit the social-historic landmarks of our region, played sports, and had a picnic with barbecue, sodas, and cakes.

In order to further improve our relationship with families, we invited the parents to a “Movie Night” at the school. We showed a comedy about two single parents and their parenting experiences, and served canapé sandwiches, popcorn, sodas, and coffee. The movie highlighted parental qualities, commitments, and aspirations, and portrayed a way to achieve closeness and love, while being a high-quality, model parent. After the movie, parents were involved in a joint reflection in which we encouraged them to rethink the situations portrayed in the movie in relation to their real-life situations.

As we conducted parent workshops, we noticed the parents reacting positively to this kind of socializing. As time passed, parents recognized the importance of and need for the workshops. They became empowered, realizing they have certain knowledge and skills necessary for helping their children. The workshops encouraged parents to find their own various sources of knowledge and skills. They realized their children could learn from their experiences and that they could have a positive impact on their children’s learning. The parents were no longer passive observers during workshops; they were no longer uncomfortable or insecure, but were actively engaged in offered activities, suggesting their own ideas and sharing experiences. They recognized their own capacities and competencies they could use to educate children and help them develop and learn, regardless of their own educational level. These workshops helped us gain the parents’ trust. They were more interested in working with us and were motivated about coming to the preschool regularly. Most important, parents did activities with their children at home, turned in homework assignments, and shared feedback on their children’s reactions and activities.

At first, the parents seemed suspicious about the activities in the workshops. They reluctantly participated in what they considered to be “child’s play,” which they thought was useless. Ultimately, however, their reactions and evaluations indicate that those parts of the workshops, along with the organized games, became their favorite aspects. They all opened up and actively participated. The exchange of experiences grew from a brief sharing of information about the activities conducted at home to a friendly seeking for advice and solutions for everyday life situations. The parents now cherish a partnership with the school, based on professionalism and mutual trust, that benefits their children.

This is a positive example of cooperation between parents and preschool. However, some parents do not come to the parent-teacher conferences and refuse to participate in parent workshops. Parents whose children have significant difficulties in language and socialization skills, who live in very poor financial and social circumstances, and who practice socially unacceptable forms of behavior are the most likely to be disinterested in this kind of cooperation.

Preschool teachers must not forget their responsibility to engage parents and must keep trying to include all parents, no matter how difficult it may be. The benefits for children of parent-preschool teacher cooperation are immeasurable!