Immigrant parental involvement: Rules of the game and resistance to normative involvement


 Presenter (s) Max Antony-Newman; University of Toronto/OISE
Title Immigrant parental involvement: Rules of the game and resistance to normative involvement

Parental involvement has been traditionally seen as an important factor for the academic achievement of students (Goodall, 2017; Wilder, 2014) and improvement of schools (Nawrotzki, 2012). It could be roughly classified into school-based activities (volunteering, attending parent-teacher conferences, and serving on parent councils) and family-based activities (setting expectations, monitoring child’s progress, helping with homework, discussing schools).

Far from being a neutral practice, parental involvement is shaped by social class and results in the reproduction of inequality (Lareau, 2011; Reay, 2004). Middle-class parents possess more economic, cultural, and social capital than working-class parents (Bourdieu, 1986). Successful educational experience, rich social networks, financial resources for remedial and complementary activities make middle-class parents confident that their voice will be heard (Lareau, 2015). On the contrary, working-class parents have very few resources that allow them to advocate for their children. Quite often they not only lack the general understanding of the “rules of the game”, but also feel shy seeking institutional help (Reay, 2004). Their social networks consist mainly of relatives and neighbours similarly located in the working-class, who cannot provide support when school accommodation is required (Lareau, 2015). Due to such differences based on class, middle-class parental involvement is considered normative by schools (Reay, 1998), whereas the ways working-class or low-income parents get involved in their children’s education are disregarded or undervalued.

Parental capacity to be active in parental involvement is not equally distributed with class, race, gender, and immigrant status all playing important roles. Arguably, no other group of parents experiences more misunderstanding regarding their role in students’ learning than immigrant parents (Turney & Kao, 2009). Coming from various cultural and educational backgrounds they bring in distinctive sets of expectations, often not corresponding to those of teachers. Some groups view their involvement in school as interfering with the work of teachers (Pena, 2000), whereas others emphasize academic activities at home (Huntsinger & Jose, 2009), which goes against the normative expectations of parental involvement in host countries schools (Theodorou, 2008).

This presentation is based on interviews with immigrant parents from nine Eastern European countries, whose children attended elementary schools in Ontario (Canada). Canadian Eastern European immigrant parents are not only under-researched, but also form a group of parents, whose particular experiences, attitudes and practices of parental involvement shaped in post-socialist countries (Silova, 2014) differ significantly from those of White middle-class parents in North America (Nesteruk, Marks, & Garrison, 2009).

For my theoretical framework I used the concept of social and cultural capital. Social capital is expressed in valuable resources acquired through membership in a particular social group, while cultural capital denotes a set of socially desirable skills and dispositions (Wacquant, 2008). It is important to mention that the notion of capital is closely tied to those of field and habitus. Field is understood here as the autonomous microcosm within the social world, which has its own rules and hierarchical position among participants struggling for capital. Habitus is a subconscious set of dispositions which define our perception and actions in the world based on our exposure to social structures (Wacquant, 2008).

To explore the beliefs and practices of Eastern European immigrant parents I used interviews as the main source of data collection. Overall, 19 participants (15 mothers and 4 fathers) were interviewed for the study representing the following countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. Parents were recruited through my personal network.

All participating parents come from the countries of Eastern Europe and attended school and/or university in their home country before immigrating to Canada, where their children currently attend elementary schools. Due the nature of the Canadian immigration system that gives preference to economic migrants (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2014) most Eastern European immigrant parents are skilled migrants with higher education and had middle-class jobs in host countries. All interviewed parents (mothers) have higher education, while some of their spouses completed only high school and hold working-class occupations after the immigration to Canada.

I used semi-structured interviews and asked questions related to participants’ reasons for immigration, own schooling experience, their parental involvement practices, and perceptions of school differences between their host countries and Canada. Data received from interviews was coded and analyzed to answer the research questions.

The data from the study shows that Eastern European immigrant parents see their role mostly in the home-based involvement with less emphasis on volunteering and school governance. Such orientation could be explained by their experiences in the centralized educational systems in Eastern Europe, which did not encourage school-based involvement. Low familiarity with the Canadian school system devalued the cultural capital available to immigrant parents. Multiple participants mentioned the complicated nature of school applications, boundaries, optional attendance, and pathways.
The most interesting finding was the response among Eastern European immigrant parents towards the normative parental involvement in Canada. Most of them learned relatively fast that schools are seeking such forms of involvement as volunteering in the classroom, fundraising, and attendance of school events. At the same time, many respondents were resistant to such forms of school-centred involvement. As Yana (age 40, ESL instructor, Ukraine) mentioned talking about volunteering and fundraising: “That’s not what makes learning more high quality and more effective, so I don’t wanna be doing selling muffins, I am sorry.” Despite rejoining their pre-immigration middle-class career trajectories, participants in my study are not always eager to practice intensive middle-class parenting. “I am not used to that way of life when Saturdays and Sundays are all planned and from 9 to 10 you have gym, then you have Mathematics, then you have Robotics. For me it’s important, for us as a family to have free time, she is working five days a week and I think it’s plenty” (Anna, age 35, student, Macedonia).

As to the implications of the present study I would like to mention that increased awareness among teachers could improve their understanding of parental involvement expectations among Eastern European immigrant parents for the swift adaptation of their children to the new academic environment.”


Max Antony-Newman is an educational researcher, who completed his PhD at the University of Toronto. His research is focused on parental involvement, immigrant students and linguistic minorities.

To contact Max Antony-Newman, send an email to

1 Response

  1. Karen Monkman

    Very interesting study. We need to know so much more about how immigrant parents perceive school expectations and react or resist them. Schools need to understand that “parent involvement” doesn’t look the same to everyone.

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