Last year I received an email from my son’s 3rd grade teacher. The subject line read, “Math support needed at home.” The email went on to explain that M. seemed to be struggling with multiplication. His teacher wanted to know, “Could we work with him on the times tables at home?”
I responded “of course.” And that evening, I opened his backpack to discover a mountain of multiplication worksheets in his folder.
When I set the stack down at the kitchen table my son’s eyes grew to the size of small pancakes. The color drained from his face. It was a look he usually reserved for great injustice. Like the time I accidentally sat on his ukulele.
“NOOOOO!!” he groaned. “Not here!! Not at home!! Where did you get those??”
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Not wanting to rat out his teacher just yet, I probed. “I take it you don’t like these? Can you tell me what they are?”“THOSE” he said pointing an accusatory finger at the sheets, “Are Minute Math sheets. You have to do the whole thing in a minute. AND I HATE THEM.”
“What don’t you like about them?” I asked, assuming he was going to say that it was too much math to do in a minute, or that he was getting hung up on 7×7 or 7×8 (to this day the sevens trip me up).
But this was not the answer I received.
Instead my son drew in a deep breath and tearfully explained, “You have to do them in one minute. And the teacher starts a clock, and I can hear it ticking and then I can hear my own breathing and then when I hear my breathing I think of grandma right before she died and then I feel so sad and then I worry that grandpa is going to die and then I think of how everyone will die someday. And then the timer goes off and I haven’t even filled out ONE answer.”
Needless to say, I put the math sheets away.
Solving for a Different Problem: Anxiety
My son did not need practice with multiplication. He needed a hug. He needed more time to process the loss of his grandmother. He needed more assurance that his grandfather was healthy, that we were all doing okay.
And then he needed strategies for noticing when his worries were taking over and keeping him from being able to function. He needed strategies for breathing, stretching, and calming himself when his feelings were making it hard for him to think and process.
He needed us, his parents, to reach out to his teacher. He needed us to share with his school a bit more about what was going on at home so that THEY could have the full picture; so that WE could all partner to give M. support in these moments.
My son’s teacher was right about needing our support. Her impulse to lean into family school partnerships was spot on. BUT academic achievement for M. was not about help with math. (I checked. We went outside and kicked the soccer ball back-and-forth as we went through the times tables. He had them down pat).
What he needed was help with anxiety.
The Power of Parent Engagement—Student Success!!
So often in school the thing that first comes to our attention is a symptom, e.g. the child can’t do math worksheets, can’t focus during story time, won’t write more than a sentence during journal time. But it’s NOT the underlying issue. Instead, it’s a tiny clue, a puzzle piece to a much bigger picture.
And family school partnerships with parents and caregivers are oftentimes the fastest route to understanding that full picture and addressing the immediate problem, that clue, you see in the classroom.
After learning that “Math Minutes” activated my son’s anxiety, I reached back out to his teacher. We scheduled a meeting. I shared what M. had shared with me, that his inability to do the math sheets was not about math but rather a stress response that was activated during the “Math Minutes” activity.
We looped in the school counselor and all decided on some self-regulation strategies we were going to put in place when M. began to feel himself spiraling.
- committed to practicing these self regulation strategies at home so M. would be more ready to implement them during stressful moments in the classroom;
- identified grownups at school that he could go to, no questions asked, when his feelings began to take over, and;
- made a plan to touch base each week to trade insights. I’d share what was working well at home, she’d let me know about winning strategies at school.
As a result of the family school partnerships approach and the aligned support that came from it, my son started rocking “Math Minutes” within a few weeks.
Yes, he’d still be processing his grief for years to come. Yes, his anxiety would continue to pop up throughout the day. BUT it was no longer keeping him from completing his math work and achieving school success.
I can’t think of a better example of the amazing benefits of educators and parents working together.
BUT so much has to be in place to bring that partnership to fruition.
What Strong Family School Partnerships Look Like
When envisioning what next generation family engagement would like, the Carnegie Foundation explained: family engagement is not about families supporting school goals and priorities. Rather, it is about creating a mutual responsibility for supporting students’ academic success. It requires codesigning coherent instructional systems, investing in the development of strong parent-community-school ties, fostering student-centered learning, and building strong leadership.
This research consistently confirms that family engagement is one of the most powerful predictors of children’s development, educational attainment, and success in school and life.Carnegie Foundation
In unpacking the experience that M. had with “Math Minutes” one can see that so much of this was happening.
- M’s teacher approached me as a partner working to address his unique needs.
- At each opportunity she showed me that she valued my insights as a parent.
- She invited me to the table in helping to craft a solution that was just right for M.
- Supports, including with additional school staff, were established and played out at school AND at home.
As a team we were working together to address M.’s unique needs.
The Dual Capacity-Building Framework and Resources
Knowing that the end goal is to have family school partnerships that supports students’ success, we then have to ask, “How can this be achieved?” To answer this question we can start with the Dual Capacity-Building Framework. Developed by Karen Mapp, it offers a “compass, laying out the goals and conditions necessary to chart a path toward effective family engagement efforts that are linked to student achievement and school improvement.”
Within this framework home-school collaborations should be:
- Relational: built on mutual trust
- Linked to learning and development
- Culturally responsive and respectful
Along with the framework, Mapp includes dozens of examples of what effective partnerships look like in action.
You might also reference these tips for partnering with families from the National Office of Parent, Family and Community Engagement and the Office of Head Start.
Putting Family School Partnership Strategies into Action
At ParentPowered, we know that a goal of your family engagement strategies is to strengthen family school partnerships. That’s why we work to fuel that partnership in every message that we send (all year long, three times a week, birth through 8th grade). As you consider how to build the family-school partnership, here are examples you can draw from in your own work.
1. Recognizing Family Knowledge
When parents are celebrated as experts in their child they will be more likely to reach out and share insights.
So we remind parents just how important their insights are and we encourage them to reach out to educators to share insights on ways their child learns best.
2. Sharing Your Knowledge of Child Development
When parents know what kids are learning and ways to help, they build confidence in partnering with schools to support their children’s grade-level learning goals.
Our approach is to orient families around what kids are learning in school and easy ways to support this learning at home.
3. Encourage Observation
The more parents cue into their child’s needs the more they will be able to advocate for those needs and partner with schools to address those needs.
To strengthen parent awareness of their children’s needs, we give parent ideas for noticing how children are doing, not just academically but emotionally too.
4. Provide Reach Out Strategies
When parents are oriented around how to reach out to teachers, get school-based information, and learn about engagement opportunities they are supported in getting involved.
Our strategy is to provide tips and strategies for getting essential school information and making it an at-home routine. And we orient parents around engagement expectations and opportunities.
It’s particularly important to consider the unique knowledge gaps that families have when parents were not educated in the US. That’s why we created specialized resources designed to orient newcomers to school in the U.S.
5. Take a Culturally Responsive Approach
When parents receive strength-based culturally responsive communication in their home language, trust is built. Parents receive the message that school is a place for them.
We help parents and teachers overcome language and cultural barriers by reaching families in their home language with activities that leverage their lived experiences, cultures, and traditions to support learning.
6. Consider Needs Beyond the Classroom Walls
When schools attend to the needs of the whole family as is the case with The Community School model, families have the foundation on which to build trust and partnership.
In our Trauma Informed program we work with partners to identify school and community based resources and we let families know about those resources so that all families have what they need to thrive and support children’s learning and development.
7. Get Family Input
When schools ask families about their strengths, needs, cultures, and traditions they can better ensure that students and families have a collaborative voice and are represented in the goals schools set and decisions they make.
Text-based surveys are a great way to get input. In fact, one of our partners saw a 20% response within a day! Quick surveys give schools new ways to find out what families want.
Want tips for useful family feedback? Start here.
8. Create Collaborative In-Person Opportunities
When families come together with educators, collaboration can truly take place. Whether it’s a workshop, a community fair, a sports game, a school performance, a meal, any time spent interacting is time spent building partnership.
Through our Ready4K Family Workshops, purpose made to eliminate barriers to participation, we support educators in bringing families together to learn, to build community, to increase trust — all things that will lead to collaboration and partnership.
9. Build Staff Collaboration Muscles
When schools cultivate positive, strength-based communication with parents, they spark involvement. But teachers are responsible for so much, that it can be hard to put building family partnerships at the top of the list.
Training educators on how to communicate with families in strength-based ways shows both families and staff that building home-school partnerships is a priority.
Of course there are many more ways to spark home-school partnership. We’d love to hear what you’re doing in your programs, schools, and districts. And we’d love to tell you more about our work, too. Don’t hesitate to reach out. And here’s to a school year in which home-school partnerships drive great learning for all students!