How to Evolve Family Engagement Strategies Today for a Better Tomorrow - Ready4K®

How to Evolve Family Engagement Strategies Today for a Better Tomorrow

“Is family engagement essential for student success?”

If I were to pick up the phone today and contact any number of educators across the United States, I would bet that most educators would answer “Yes” (if not “Heck yes!”) to this question.

Admittedly, I recently did just that, hoping to learn what schools were most focused on improving as we all navigate the ripple effects of the pandemic in education. Over the course of several interviews with school and district leaders from our partner network, I kept hearing the same thing reiterated in each conversation. Positive family engagement, and building trusting relationships with families, remain top priorities for their teams.

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Their feedback underscored for me the remarkable changes we’ve seen in family-school partnerships over the past few years. Most educators recognize that families play a critical role – an essential one – in student learning. But this hasn’t always been the case in the history of education. In fact, family engagement strategies and expectations around family participation in learning have evolved significantly ever since schools were first founded here in the United States. 

As educators look for ways to create more equitable learning opportunities for students, we first need to understand where we’ve come from. By examining the origins of today’s family-school partnerships – and how the vital role of families in education has shifted – we can discover how systemic family engagement needs to evolve going forward to benefit all students.

Looking back: a brief history of family engagement

The creation of public education in the US marked a pivotal shift for the country and how states funded widespread educational experiences for children. Thought the first tuition-free schools were founded in the early 19th century, it would take multiple decades before universal public education was embraced across all US states. And even then, many students and families were excluded from public schools based on race, gender, physical ability, and citizenship status. Access to education was severely limited for many families.

And, for those families whose students could attend public school, parental involvement was minimal. Schools did not actively invite families to participate in school activities or to otherwise get involved with school life. Families rarely entered the school building on a regular basis. Schools did not invite time into cultivating relationships with families, and communication with family members was slim.

Image of closed school doors.

Though incredibly different from today’s family-school relationships, this context makes sense if we understand how public schools were originally developed in the first place. To put it simply, the earliest schools were designed with the goal of providing all the teaching and learning that a student needs, without bringing families directly into the loop. As the Brookings Institute explains further, “the implicit understanding between schools and families was that communities would support school infrastructure, families would bring their children to schools, and schools would simply take care of the rest.” 

In this system, families often had little knowledge or influence in their school community or on student learning, save for very few already-enfranchised individuals. Schools made most decisions about a student’s education, as school leaders and staff were considered the experts on learning. And families focused on a child’s life outside of the classroom community. 

Why does this history matter for understanding family and parent involvement in schools today?

For starters, schools did not have any framework or guidelines for inviting collaboration between parents and educators – it simply was not part of school culture. Over time, as schools shifted away from this mindset of holding sole responsibility for a child’s education, educators needed to figure out how to embrace and create authentic partnership between school and home.

Diverse group of late elementary school students walking together on campus.

Second, the earliest tuition-free schools were only accessible to a limited number of children of specific cultural backgrounds. As public education slowly became more accessible to more diverse families, schools also needed to learn how to create learning communities among unique populations of students and their families. 

So, bearing this context in mind, how does this history compare with the family engagement strategies that schools are using today?

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Family engagement strategies today

Nowadays, it’s hard to find a school that doesn’t offer at least some opportunity for parents, caregivers, and guardians to participate in school affairs. Open House, Back-to-School Night, parent volunteering days, parent leadership councils – do any of these examples sound familiar? By and large, family involvement has become a regular practice for many school districts. 

This more recent expansion of family and parent involvement in schools makes sense, too. Numerous research studies have helped school and district leaders understand how family engagement strategies can directly impact academic achievement, graduation rates, and even teacher satisfaction.

Even in the last two years, studies on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed just how crucial families are and will continue to be to recover from the fallout reported in student math and reading scores. School leaders and staff want to leverage these many benefits of family engagement to help their students thrive.

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Read our post about how family-school partnerships make learning possible.

Read our recent blog post about how family-school partnerships make learning possible!

Despite the ground gained with involving families in school activities, educators still face challenges with building family-school partnerships, which we’ve learned stem from public schools’ history. Family engagement strategies can be especially challenging for school communities that serve families with diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences – communities that likely were unable to attend public school in their earliest days. Barriers to engagement can limit a family’s capacity to get involved with student learning and can include transportation costs, different language proficiencies, or sufficient time available for participation.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed further gaps in current engagement strategies, too, as previously implemented  methods were suddenly flipped on their head as schools closed their doors. On one hand, parents, caregivers, and guardians needed to facilitate student learning at home, relying on communications and additional resources provided by their schools. On the other hand, schools needed to constantly curate tools and educational activities for families to drive that learning. On top of this role-reversal, both parties also navigated challenges with equity, mental wellbeing, and constantly changing circumstances – many of which continue to impact families and schools today. 

For some, the pandemic may have been one of the first opportunities for families to witness what and how their children learned with their teachers. As ParentPowered repeatedly heard from our partners at the height of school shutdowns– schools had to radically shift family engagement strategies, as well as communication between school and home, to respond to these emergent challenges.

Native American mother helps young son with schoolwork at the kitchen counter.

Today, we are all still making our way amidst the ripple effects of the pandemic. Authentic family-school partnerships are perhaps more crucial now than ever before.

Here’s the good news: right now, educators have an amazing opportunity to redesign family engagement strategies today for a more equitable future. We have a chance to rethink our current approaches, challenge previously held mindsets, and develop methods for building relationships with families – all families – that make a lasting impact on student learning for the better.

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Looking ahead: family engagement for the future

So where do we go from here? What could evolved family engagement strategies look like for students, schools, educators, and families?

A year before US schools shut their doors in 2020, Dr. Karen Mapp of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education republished her framework for educators to guide their approaches to systemic family engagement and partnership. Called the Dual Capacity-Building Framework, the model emphasizes that the most effective family engagement strategies are:

  • Relational (build on mutual trust)
  • Asset or strengths-based
  • Culturally responsive and respectively
  • Collaborative and interactive
  • Connected to learning and development
Learn more about Dr. Mapp's Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships.

What is critical about these five guidelines is that they are deeply interconnected and reinforce one another. For example, when a teacher uses culturally responsive communication with family members in their community, that family’s trust in the school team deepens. This in turn encourages the family to share more openly with schools – creating more collaboration opportunities that benefit students’ school life. 

Whether you are sharing a simple at-home learning activity or building an entire family engagement program, these guiding principles offer a pathway towards meaningful communication and collaboration with families. And school leaders who incorporate these themes into family engagement strategies give all types of families the opportunity to benefit their student’s education.  

Let’s examine a few of these essential conditions, and how we might evolve family engagement practices to cultivate them.

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Read our blog post about the principles of great family engagement programs.

Read our recent post about the core principles for designing excellent family engagement programs!

Building relational trust

Trust is essential for any healthy relationship, and that includes family-school partnerships. It ultimately comes down to establishing mutual respect between the most important adults in a child’s life and their school staff – all centered on a student’s success in their home and school life. Building trust will be a critical theme in family engagement strategies going forward. 

Trust takes time and effort invested to grow, but a great place to begin is through reciprocal communication with families. Even the smallest moments, like conversations with parents, are opportunities for educators to cultivate trust with these critical partners in learning. Consider the following communication tools as you strategize building trust in your family relationships:

  • Active listening – This invaluable communication skill is essential for building trust in a relationship. In fact, schools can nurture an active listening culture among their entire community. When used well, active listening can greatly improve communication between educators and families, as well as among school staff. Read our recent post to discover the power of active listening for student learning, family engagement, and even school climate
  • Two-way communication routines – When two parties collaborate together, information must flow both directions between them for their partnership to work. Schools can develop low-effort, consistent routines that encourage bidirectional communication between school and home, where parents share input to school as often as staff share information from school. Take a look at our guide to crafting communications with families for more information.

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Read our recent post about the benefits of active listening on school climate!

Improving School Climate: How to Bring It Home

By creating an environment where families feel valued and respected, educators ensure trust has room to grow. And trust between school and home allows both parts of the learning team to collectively advocate for children and their wellbeing.

Read our recent post Engaging with Families? First Build Their Trust for more ways to cultivate trusting relationships with your families. 

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Focusing on strengths and assets

Strengths-based family engagement is another key approach for educators going forward. Originating in social work family practices, strengths-based methods emphasize a family’s strengths and assets, such as knowledge or local resources, rather than pointing to deficits. They uplift the role of families in student learning by encouraging family members to use what valuable resources they already have in service of learning.

A strengths-based approach to family engagement is powerful in two ways. First, by concentrating on existing potential and opportunity, educators remind parents, caregivers, and guardians that they can – and often already are – directly supporting their children’s learning. Second, these family engagement strategies encourage families to get involved in accessible ways already available to them, without adding extra costs or time that may limit family capacity to engage. Both of these aspects deepen a family’s sense of trust in their school staff, and even appreciation for their family’s contributions to student learning. 

Ultimately, a strengths-based approach to family engagement works to foster positive, joyful relationships between educators, students and their families – helping all students reach their full potential. Here are a few ways schools can develop assets-focused family engagement strategies in their own communities:

Mother receives help preparing mealtime from her two young children.
  • Understand your families most critical needs – Family lives outside of the classroom directly impact a student’s experiences at school. By helping families gain access to community resources that meet their essential needs, schools can boost family capacity to participate in their child’s learning. Read our recent post about how connecting families with community resources improves family-school partnerships
  • Celebrate parent expertiseAs the first teachers in a child’s life, parents and other family members raising children have a wealth of knowledge to offer educators. Schools that honor this expertise invite parents to actively contribute to solutions and decision-making about student learning – they recognize families as advocates for children’s learning, too. Not only does this knowledge compliment educators’ expertise in learning science, it also further encourages family confidence in their own autonomy. In the end, such partnership makes learning possible

Take a look at our recent blog post highlighting inspiring examples of strengths-based family engagement strategies from fellow educators in the field.

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Respecting all cultures and backgrounds

Cultural responsiveness is yet another key element to explore as educators evolve family engagement strategies. Culturally responsive family engagement emphasizes creating an inclusive learning environment in which all types of families and students can thrive. When implemented well, these approaches ensure that all families feel welcomed, respected, and valued in the school community – regardless of their cultural backgrounds. 

Culturally responsiveness also helps build equitable family engagement practices, which are especially important for supporting historically underserved families. By making family engagement opportunities accessible (say, by translating surveys into Spanish for Spanish-speaking families), school leaders invite all voices from their community to contribute to decisions and solutions. They ensure everyone has a seat at the table. 

Group of three multiethnic women smile together.

Start building culturally responsive partnership with your families with these foundational steps:

  • Audit your existing practices – Examine the impact of existing family engagement and communication strategies from a variety of perspectives. School leaders can ask themselves questions such as “Which voices are missing from our family communications?” to gauge if their family engagement strategies are accessible to all families, regardless of economic or cultural backgrounds. 
  • Set the tone from the start – When families first join a school community, it’s a wonderful opportunity to make a great first impression and truly welcome them. Perhaps you post signs in different languages around campus, or show photos (with permission) of families from the community in classrooms. Schools can also go beyond simply translating take-home materials into families’ home languages to make them feel welcome. Consider highlighting books in your curriculum that specifically celebrate unique cultures found in your school community. Be sure any strategy used to build a great first impression applies trauma-informed approaches, too.
  • Establish consistent listening opportunities – In addition practicing active listening, school staff can set up reliable spaces and channels for families to share their input back with their schools. Family surveys are an excellent way to solicit feedback. Just be sure you can translate both the surveys and your family responses! Leveraging community partnerships is another way that schools can come to families and hear their perspectives. Consider hosting a school Q&A session or family workshop at a local youth center, religious organization, or other space where families gather regularly.

Discover the next phase of partnership in our recent blog post Culturally Responsive Family Engagement: A Pathway to Partnership, or download our tipsheet for more inspiration.  

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Collaborating for student learning

In a truly reciprocal partnership between families and school, both parties collaborate together to cultivate student learning and child development. This shared responsibility and investment help students navigate difficult situations and celebrate milestones of success. Going forward, effective family engagement strategies will encourage collaborative and interactive learning for students, families, and school staff. 

In particular, schools can empower families to take the lead in driving student learning outside of the classroom community. Families may not realize just how many learning opportunities exist in their daily lives. Interactive family engagement activities at home are an excellent way for families to tap into such learning moments. 

Consider the following ways that your organization can encourage collaborative family engagement beyond the classroom:

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  • Integrate learning moments into everyday routines – Families often report that  lack of time affects their capacity for family involvement in school. Educators can help families navigate time constraints here by offering age-appropriate learning activities that fit into existing schedules and routines. For example, encourage families to use mealtime preparations as a learning moment by inviting children to read the recipe and ingredients aloud as they cook. For more literacy-specific examples of at-home learning, read our recent post about bringing the science of reading home.
  • Share resources via textResearch shows that text messaging is the most effective means of communication between schools and families. Text messages are short, sweet, and don’t require having specific resources such as internet access – making them more accessible for many families. Schools can offer options for family involvement in student learning via text, such as simple activities that parents can do with children during their drive to school. Educators can also engage in purposeful communication with family members via text. For example, try sending family feedback surveys or connecting families with resources through text.

Our Ready4K suite of family engagement curricula is designed specifically with these collaboration practices in mind. Take a look at our sample messages or contact us to learn how we deliver evidence-based learning moments to families with students aged birth through grade 8.  

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Equitable family engagement strategies for all communities

No one expects families and schools to revert to the early days of family-school relationships, where schools drove all aspects of student learning and the role of families was limited to spectating. Even many pre-COVID family engagement strategies offer ripe opportunities for change and improvement. 

We can certainly find inspiring examples of positive family engagement from the field. While you’ll notice that many of these approaches share these essential conditions outlined in Dr. Mapp’s framework, it is most crucial that you find the family engagement strategies that work best for your students, leaders, staff, and families. 

And, we will continue to learn and grow and evolve our family-school partnerships, just as schools have been ever since the very first classroom doors opened. Though I cannot say what the future holds for us in education – I can say with certainty that our students’ families will be by our side on the journey, too, as some of our closest partners and allies.

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