With limited resources, how can schools strengthen connections with their families? This article shares family engagement ideas from a Ready4K school district about how to improve existing family engagement programs, rather than build new ones. Strong home-school partnerships are key to supporting student learning.
Engaging with families is recognized as critical to student success and has a positive effect on everything from graduation rates to math and reading scores. Often at the start of a new academic year, school districts put a lot of time and energy toward introducing new methods to engage families in student learning and school programs. But school leaders can actually better improve home-to-school partnerships when they instead focus their efforts on strategically rethinking how they already engage with their families.
Hear directly from Missy Martin at Lexington 1 (SC) about how she puts into action her five key principles for revitalizing family engagement to improve student outcomes.
Restrategizing family engagement may feel like a big, and even complicated, undertaking for school and district leaders. The good news is that there is already a roadmap with steps that schools can immediately take to revitalize their connections with all of their families.
The research-based principles of family engagement remain steady and include core tenants such as:
- Involve parents, caretakers, and guardians in decision-making about their child
- Provide truly reciprocal communication and involvement with school staff
- Add to families’ parenting knowledge outside of the classroom.
And for the Lexington 1 School District in South Carolina, leadership’s efforts to rethink existing school programs was a game changer for school and family partnerships. As Parent Engagement Specialist, Missy Martin, puts it: improving the district’s family engagement “is not doing more. It’s doing what we do differently.”
“[Family engagement] is not doing more. It’s doing what we do differently.”Missy Martin, Parent Engagement Specialist
Martin’s district focuses on a few key strategies to engage families and make programs easily accessible – without significant additions to her team’s workload. In a recent webinar, she shared five key recommendations with ParentPowered for how school staff can rethink and revitalize family engagement.
Emphasize routines that build communication
Effective communication is a cornerstone to successful family-school partnerships. Schools and families can benefit from establishing routines that invite consistent communication between home and school on a regular basis. Martin suggests a simple way to engage families: rethink the purpose of the classic “take home folder”.
Stuffed with permissions slips, graded work and school announcements, this important tool can be better described as a “communication folder”. By transforming the tool’s role and emphasizing two-way communication between home and school, you can encourage families to respond to their schools’ outreach. Try enclosing a pad of sticky notes and a pen in communication folders to make it easy for families to write a note and send it back to the classroom through their students’ backpack!
Download our tip sheet “Crafting Communications that Connect with Families” for more ideas!
When sending written communications home with students, you can also include response questions for families beyond a simple signature. The goal here is to better engage parents with their students’ current work. Here are a few sample questions that can be amended to any permission slip or form:
- Ask your child about the steps of this school project. What did they say?
- How did your child feel about their work this week?
- What does your child say when asked about the purpose and plan for this upcoming field trip (or other school events)?
Family feedback to such questions not only informs your teachers’ understanding of their students, but also provides what Martin describes as “invisible engagement” – conversation starters that subtly introduce families to strategies that they can use to support their children’s learning at home.
Make the most of in-person time with families at school
How does your school community partner with families when they attend Back-to-School, or Open House nights? What activities do you use to engage families during your end-of-year ceremonies or even student performances?
Each time a parent sets foot in your school building, there’s a chance to maximize their presence with more meaningful types of family engagement. When school leaders rethink traditional school programs for families, they can enhance the effectiveness of parent outreach and provide additional support for families.
Here are a few family engagement ideas to help you creatively engage with families during your next onsite school event:
Create non-academic learning stations
Especially useful in an open house format, learning stations can offer a curated experience for families to explore topics outside the realm of “what we’re going to learn in school this year”. This change of scenery adds value to families’ experience of school and opens the door to deepen your relationships with families.
Try setting up stations that demonstrate how to access online parent resources. Or invite community health workers to share ways for families to access critical resources – families are far more likely to engage in school when their basic needs are met and supported. There are many non-academic topics that schools can explore for learning stations to support and engage families while on campus for an event.
Make it fun
When offering an in-person parent engagement activity, Martin often likes to gamify the experience. Her district gives each attendee a parent “passport” that is stamped at each session or station they visit. Families can earn incentives like local restaurant coupons or school supplies based on how many stamps they collected at the event.
Create an inclusive space
For all school events, make sure your communications explain to non-native English speaking families what translation services will be available. Organize your multilingual staff or volunteers who are available to translate so that they are obvious to families in attendance, using large name tags designating their language as in “Hablo Español” or “Tiếng Việt.” Where needed, make families aware of any accessibility issues in advance. Providing families with necessary supports can make them feel welcome and signals that their participation is valued.
Want to offer a more inclusive, welcoming family engagement program? Reach out to discuss our professionally translated, culturally-responsive family engagement resources.
Consider informal meetings as opportunities
When families enter the building outside of formal events, it’s another great family engagement idea for building relationships with families. Consider offering professional development to your school staff that helps them transform that informal meeting with a parent in the hallway into family engagement moments.
Teachers are often the best messengers for learning ideas beyond the classroom. This feedback bolsters the all-important teacher-parent relationship and strengthens parents’ muscles for supporting their children’s learning at home.
Another idea is setting up a “Family Information Wall” with grab-and-go resources in your school hallways. This more passive strategy offers another easy way for families to connect with schools indirectly.
Give families a voice in your decisions
Use feedback tools such as surveys to encourage families to share their perspectives and input about their students’ school. For multilingual communities in particular, surveys offer a powerful way to include families’ voices in school decisions – and families appreciate learning how their feedback has impacted the school environment. You can learn more about how feedback surveys engage your families in our recent webinar, Family Feedback From Afar.
Bring family engagement activities to them
The pandemic brought a sea of change in how students and families interact with their teachers, administrators, school staff, and school communities at large. As on-campus activities return, schools can continue to take advantage of the accessibility and inclusion benefits of strategic virtual communication with families.
Creating opportunities for families to remotely join on-site school events is one way to break through challenges that may prevent families from attending in person, such as transportation, child care, and scheduling. Even better, when families can actively participate virtually, it creates an even more meaningful experience.
For example, a lively and fully staffed chat in the virtual space encourages families attending remotely to ask questions or share comments during an event. Other virtual family engagement ideas include using polls, GIFs, live video, or other asynchronous media to make families feel heard even when they’re not physically in the building.
What about families that cannot join an event either live or remotely? Schools can still build connections with them by offering a downloadable slideshow that covers the highlights of the event and making it widely available. At ParentPowered, we provide families with fun and easy activities to do with children at home at any time through our Ready4K Workshops and Modeled Moments video series. These are just a few examples of ways you can help families unable to attend events feel included in the school community.
The information that needs to be delivered and the desired experience for families during a school event are both important factors to weigh when creating virtual, live, and asynchronous family engagement activities. And when thoughtfully designed, each method plays a role in strengthening a school’s connections with their families.
Build relationships with families with curated messaging
Crafting the right messaging for families is crucial to establish their trust and encourage them to engage with their schools. Messaging is most effective when it is written at the appropriate grade level and is consistently useful for families. But what’s the best way to actually send messages to families?
Research shows that there is no more effective means of communication with families than text messaging. Texts are often widely available for most families and have a higher read rate than email or written communication. When schools communicate via text messaging, they also have an opportunity to use that content to spark learning moments with families.
Martin’s district has successfully used ParentPowered’s Ready4K as a strengths-based tool to communicate with Lexington 1 families in their preferred language. Ready4K messages provide families with ways to support student learning outside the classroom and help schools build home-to-school partnerships — all without physical delivery or repeated administrative tasks by teachers or support staff.
“[Ready4K] is different because it’s a curriculum – an educator doesn’t have to initiate anything. It gives families opportunities to try things and reinforces learning. It’s really intentional.”Missy Martin, Parent Engagement Specialist
“With a limited budget for family engagement, I want to depend on research-based programs rather than asking my staff to do more,” Martin said, describing Ready4K as “positive, constant communication that builds a relationship. This is different because it’s a curriculum – an educator doesn’t have to initiate anything. It gives families opportunities to try things and reinforces learning. It’s really intentional.”
Create partnership together
By reexamining current family engagement ideas, schools have an opportunity to strengthen these connections between the classroom and home without overstretching resources or overloading staff. A first step you can take to create this partnership is by getting your parent organizations, volunteers, and school and teacher leaders involved in the family engagement policy review and visioning process – this is a great way to get the ball rolling with valuable input.
Combined with the recommendations shared here, a refined and co-created family engagement strategy will ultimately position parents, caregivers, and guardians to feel like they are part of the broader school community. And this is a foundation to building those family-school partnerships that benefit students most!
There’s a Grant for That
Equity is a cornerstone value of ParentPowered, home of Ready4K. That’s why we’re thrilled to offer qualifying organizations an Equity Grant – to ensure our high quality family curriculum is available in every community. Learn more here.