“Families are our most powerful and precious resource.” This was my mantra when I was a mental health counselor for Special Education classrooms. Our team of teachers, counselors, and therapists relied on key information about each student from their families. These kids and their families faced trauma and challenges such as community violence, food insecurity, and more. For our students to learn, we needed to work with our families — yet at times we struggled to build this partnership. What we really needed was a consistent and well-run family engagement program.
I recall one student in particular (‘John’) who joined our classroom in the middle of the school year. After a smooth transition, John demonstrated interest in math activities. Though he was behind other peers in his grade, he seemed eager to learn and practice.
One day, however, John’s behavior abruptly changed. He began avoiding math activities and refused to engage in any way. For the next week, our team puzzled over John’s behaviors. What was causing this new resistance to math — what he called his favorite subject just days earlier? John refused to share more details to our gentle questions. Despite having copious amounts of paperwork from his previous school and teacher, we knew little about John’s home circumstances. Oftentimes, his mother was not responsive to our outreach. Her neighbors would often pick him up from school, too.
One day, I was on family pick-up duty after school. I walked John and the other students to the parking lot – and spotted John’s mom waiting by her van. It was a perfect opportunity to learn more about what might be troubling him.
I struck up a conversation with her as John clambered into the back seat.
“How did he do today?” she asked after we exchanged pleasantries. I sensed deep anxiety in her voice, the most I ever heard during the few conversations she’d had with our team.
At first, I summarized how John was forming a positive relationship with another boy in our classroom. Then I transitioned to the crucial details. During a math activity that involved counting coins, John refused to participate. He repeated to his friend that it wasn’t ‘real money’ and therefore this exercise was ‘pointless’. As a result, both boys fell into an argument and were left unhappy.
“Have you noticed John talking about money more at home?” I asked gently.
John’s mom hesitated, then nodded. “In fact, we talk about it every night now. You see, I lost my job last week. And I’m scared. I think John is worried about me. About us. And I don’t know what to do.”
The power of family engagement programs
Family engagement means so much more than a parent-teacher conference, occasional parking lot conversation, or school event. It’s about building a reciprocal relationship between school and home that fosters community and trust. Further, it’s about creating an alliance of resources and experts all working together to enable children to thrive.
And active family engagement is at the core of student success and a positive school climate. Schools that implement a thoughtful and consistent family engagement program stand to reap its benefits most effectively.
My conversation with John’s mom was a pivotal point in time for our entire classroom team. It underscored the need to establish a comprehensive, consistent, and right-sized family engagement program – not just for John, but for all of our students.
Much later in my career, I would discover the core principles of a successful family engagement program — and how it improves student learning outcomes.
Six guidelines for effective family engagement programs
We at ParentPowered have collaborated with hundreds of organizations to strengthen their approaches to family engagement with our suite of Ready4K curricula. Through our experiences, we have seen what it takes to implement a solid family engagement program. We know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building strong family-school partnerships. However, our team found consistently that successful programs leveraged six principles to build their success.
Let’s break them down and look at examples of how to put each guideline into practice.
1. Design equitable strategies
A founding principle for successful family engagement is equity. Essentially, it means that schools make every effort available to ensure their events, communications, and connection opportunities are accessible for all family backgrounds.
Oftentimes the families that benefit most from equitable engagement opportunities are those most underserved, with less access to learning resources. As the OESE publication Strategies for Equitable Family Engagement notes, immigrant and refugee communities in particular report greater barriers to engagement with their children’s schools than non-immigrant families.
Other things can affect the capacity of families to participate in their child’s learning, too. These may include transportation costs, major life stressors outside of school, or mental health challenges. These communities – and all families – have so much to gain from a strong home-school partnership.
Make it your own
Here are a few examples of equitable family engagement that you can resize to fit your community needs and fold into school programs:
- Hosting a parent education workshop? Make it virtual. By offering collaborative activities in the digital space, schools can connect with families that face barriers to attending in-person events. Watch our webinar How to Host a Can’t-Miss Virtual Family Event for tips and best practices about virtual family engagement.
- Want to help new and returning families have a positive public school experience? Give both a leg up with the transition by sharing our Insider’s Guide to Schools. This resource demystifies how parents can easily and consistently participate in their child’s school communities and education.
- Gathering feedback from families about existing strategies? Ask your students for feedback, too. Students have a unique and valuable perspective to offer, even on activities geared towards the adults. Consider putting together student focus groups or surveys to elicit their input. Better yet, communicate your findings from these focus groups with families, making them partners in your school’s plans to address students’ needs. Take a look at this Wisconsin school district’s protocols for student focus groups as a starting point for designing your own.
2. Ensure strategies are doable
The most effective family engagement program involves ongoing opportunities for families to connect with their schools and vice versa. Additionally, these family empowerment programs are both sustainable and doable for families.
Families may face barriers to participating in learning activities. Parents often have a busy schedule, just as educators do. They may find it difficult for them to give significant time to an elaborate project or multi-day engagement activity. Further, activities exclusively held on school campuses may be inaccessible for families that live further away, or have incompatible work schedules.
Schools can recognize the current capacity of parents for engagement by meeting them where they are. The most impactful family engagement resources and programs utilize strategies calibrated to existing family circumstances.
The good news is – often the most doable family engagement strategies are small and baked into existing daily routines. By breaking down opportunities for engagement into simple and low-effort activities, schools help families avoid feeling overwhelmed and encourage consistent participation in their child’s learning.
Our Ready4K curricula utilizes the FACT – TIP – GROWTH framework to break down learning opportunities into easy steps for families. Here are two of our favorite activities for families and students to do at home. Contact us to learn more about grade-specific family engagement strategies, from birth through middle school.
Contact us to discover Ready4K resources for your families, from birth to Grade 8.
3. Emphasize strengths over gaps
Originating in social work, the term “strengths-based” refers to methods and practices that emphasize a family’s assets or existing strengths that support their students’ success. At its core, these methods assume two things about families. First, families want what is best for their children’s development. Second, families have many resources, knowledge, and other assets in their locale that positively impact their children’s learning.
When baked into family engagement programs, strengths-based approaches can deepen the relationship between families and their schools. For example, teachers can integrate the strengths-based mindset when they connect with parents about student challenges. They can point to and celebrate existing parenting skills used at home that benefit the student.
In addition, staff can highlight resources or assets available to the family that further support their students’ learning journey. Such assets might include after-school education programs or local organizations providing parenting training
Rather than target deficits or gaps, strengths-based family engagement concentrates on empowering families to support their children. It encourages schools to reinforce and affirm what parents, caregivers, and guardians are already doing that helps students. Valuing a family as equal partners in their child’s learning journey in turn deepens that family’s trust and respect for their school. As a result, families are encouraged to communicate and collaborate more readily with schools when a student struggles.
Make it your own
Here are a few ways that your school can support families to tap into existing assets and apply strengths-based principles to family partnerships:
- Encourage school staff to shift the language used in their family communications. Even simple changes, such as moving away from using absolute terms like “always” and “never”, reflects a growth mindset and changes the tone of conversations towards empowering families.
- Gather family input through multiple channels. Family surveys, parent engagement groups, and even hallway conversations all offer opportunities to hear directly from families about student learning. Watch our webinar Family Feedback from Afar for ways to survey families most effectively. If you work with Spanish-speaking communities, read our blog post about the power of surveys with these multilingual families.
- Engage your community partners. For example, host workshops during Open House or Back To School night that highlight organizations that support families’ basic needs, like financial assistance, food banks, and more. By connecting families with community resources, schools can boost family capacity and empower them to engage with their schools.
4. Create inclusive opportunities
Culture plays a huge role in how families believe they should and can participate in their child’s education. Because of this, inclusive family engagement programs account for cultural differences, however subtle, to empower diverse families.
When families experience inclusive connection points with their schools, it creates a sense of safety and belonging in the community. Additionally, schools show that they recognize and respect their families as they are – regardless of background. Last, schools signal to families that they will make the effort to ensure each family is part of the community. Mutual respect begets mutual trust, and trust is a necessary part of any relationship.
Making school activities and other family engagement programming available in families’ preferred languages is a great place to start with culturally responsive engagement. However, schools’ strategies can move beyond translating materials to creatively and inclusively encourage community engagement in student learning.
Make it your own
Here are other creative ways to recognize and celebrate family culture in your community:
- Post welcome signs and resources around campus (and in at-home communications) in the preferred languages spoken across your families’ homes. That way, whenever families are at school physically, they see themselves reflected in school materials.
- Invite families to share about their cultures and backgrounds with the school community. Hosting guest speakers or sharing spotlights on family stories is a wonderful way to celebrate the diversity in your school community.
- Encourage your school staff to attend local community events in your families neighborhoods. Educators can learn so much about their families from these opportunities. Plus, schools can discover community organizations and resources familiar to their families – which in turn can reinforce strengths-based opportunities to engage with families.
Read our post Culturally Responsive Family Engagement: A Pathway to Partnership for more details about this family engagement principle.
5. Engagement grows with the student
As students grow older, educators adapt materials, teaching strategies, and curriculum that challenges students to continue their growth and development. The same can be said for family engagement strategies – parents of younger children need different activities than those of pre-teen or teenagers.
Oftentimes, family engagement programs concentrate on the families of younger grade students, and understandably so. Students experience a huge number of foundational developmental milestones from birth to age 5.
Yet these students continue to develop and grow into their middle and high school years. As they get older, students need continued support and engagement from their families to nurture academic achievement and social-emotional wellbeing.
To reinforce a positive learning environment for these growing students, family engagement programs can adapt to the unique needs of middle school and high school families.
Give early and late elementary school students a super boost with these resources for families.
Download the Kindergarten Readiness Kit
Make it your own
Here are a few resources and ideas to help you explore family engagement for your school’s particular grade levels:
- Preschool: Download our Kindergarten Readiness Kit for your families. It includes fun, easy-to-do activities that fold well into everyday moments.
- Early elementary school: Help your elementary families level up with our School Success Kit. It activities prime students to build their muscles on maintaining focus, creating daily routines, and asking questions.
- Late elementary school: Read more about how we empower families to navigate the immense physical, social, and emotional growth that occurs in the later years of elementary school.
- Middle school: Take a look at our blog post Essential Middle School Family Engagement to learn more about the unique and often overlooked opportunities to engage tween families in student learning.
6. Cultivate joy and fun
It may go without saying – but learning can be incredibly joyful and fun. In fact, when we experience joy, our bodies benefit in multiple ways thanks to specific neurotransmitters processing our positive emotions in our brains.
As educators navigate the evolving effects of the global pandemic, joy has and continues to provide an antidote to uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. Fun and joyful family engagement strategies can further bolster family-school partnerships and school community engagement. Ultimately, joy helps build a positive school climate for student learning.
Make it your own
Here are a few ideas from the field to inspire you to cultivate joy in your family engagement program:
- Maryland’s Department of Education curated winter-themed family engagement activities specifically for the indoors. This is a handy guide for keeping learning going during cold winter days.
- This extensive list of school family night activities from PTO Answers offers great ideas for fun family engagement. Be sure to offer these activities in ways beyond on-campus events, like through a virtual workshop. Remember, equity is key to positive family-school partnerships!
- In Texas, a unique organization focused on social-emotional health designed an art mural made up of components designed by each of their participating families. This example offers a beautiful and simple way for families to share their stories.
Download our complimentary resource guide for more ways to build joyful relationships with families.
Family engagement programs cultivate success
As I reflect on John’s story, I can see how these principles were naturally in play as our team stepped into action to support John and his mom. With our classroom therapist, we connected John’s mom with local resources available to aid her job search and financial planning. We ensured family therapy meetings were accessible to John’s mom, always scheduled near pick up and drop-off times. As a team, John’s mom and our counselors practiced strategies like ‘worry’ check-ins with John that easily transferred between home and school.
For two months we drove this program, each and every day. In time, John’s hand was soon jumping up during our math ‘quiz bowl’ games, and he was counting coins like a champ.
This is the power of family engagement programs, of partnering with families – truly educators’ most powerful and precious resource.