Recently I received an email from my son’s teacher with the subject line, “Math support needed at home.” Their message explained that M. seemed to be struggling with multiplication. “Could you work with him on the times tables at home?” his teacher asked.
Eager to help, I immediately responded “yes” and set aside time to sit with M. that same evening. When M. arrived home, I found a stack of “Math Minutes” multiplication worksheets from his teacher in his backpack. I pulled them out, ready to get to work.
But the moment M. saw the papers in my hand, all the color drained from his face. It was as if he’d seen a ghost.
I braced myself for a meltdown.
“NOOOOO!!” he groaned, pointing an accusatory finger at the papers in my hand. “Not here!! Not at home!! Where did you get those??”
As educators, when we notice that a student is struggling, what we first spot is usually a symptom. The child struggles to do math worksheets, or they can’t focus during story time. Perhaps they won’t write more than a sentence at a time in their school journal.
But we also know that this one symptom is usually NOT the underlying issue that needs a solution. Instead, it offers us a tiny clue, a puzzle piece that fits into a much bigger picture. Often that big picture extends well past the walls of the classroom and into the student’s home, community, and beyond. Schools rely on an ecosystem of partners to collect and assemble all these puzzle pieces of a student’s strengths and challenges.
Enter families. By collaboratively painting that complete picture, schools and families can then co-design solutions that move a struggling student back on track. Family-school partnerships are the key to student success.
At this point in my career, I have worked on many of these collaborative puzzles as an educator, parent, and administrator. Countless times, my hypothesis about the source of a child’s symptom evolved as I discovered more details about it. So, when M. reacted strongly to the “Math Minutes” worksheets I held aloft, I took a deep breath.
“Can you tell me more about these,” I asked in a calm voice.
“THOSE,” he said emphatically, “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. But even as he spoke, my hypothesis was already forming. I expected him to say it was too much math to do in a minute. Or he might confess that he was struggling to remember the answers to 7×7 or 7×8 – I must admit, to this day the sevens trip me up.
But this was not the answer I received.
M. 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.
Strong family-school partnerships improve student success
Another puzzle piece fell into place that evening, unraveling my hypotheses about my son’s struggles at school – and rightly so. M. did not need practice with multiplication, at least not at first. He needed more time to process the loss of his grandmother. He needed assurance that his grandfather was healthy – that we were all okay. More crucially, he needed strategies for noticing when his worries were taking over and affecting his ability to function.
When our family and school staff partnered together, we finally saw the full picture surrounding M.’s math struggles. Just as families need their schools to help their children learn and grow, educators need their families too. Family-school partnerships are the fastest route to remedying challenges that affect kids academically, socially, and emotionally. These relationships also create a supportive learning environment in which students can best thrive.
In fact, research has long highlighted the positive impact that strong family-school relationships have on student achievement and school climate. When done well, family engagement gives school communities incredible benefits. From boosted math and reading scores, to increased graduation rates, to better social and emotional wellness in students, to increased teacher satisfaction – a nurtured family-school partnership is catalytic.
Gain insights for engaging families in student learning by building joyful relationships between school and home
My family’s partnership with M.’s school was critical for us to organize help for his anxiety and math performance. After swapping information about M.’s situation, his teacher, school counselor, and I co-designed a support plan for home and school. We committed to practicing self-regulation strategies with M. in both environments. We also designated ‘safe’ adults at school for M. to consult when his worry swelled. Last, we agreed to share weekly insights into successes and lessons learned, so we could iterate on our plan in alignment.
The result of our collaboration? M. started rocking “Math Minutes” within a few weeks.
Though he was still processing his grief and anxiety still popped up, M. now had ways to navigate these emotions. His anxiety no longer negatively impacted his school performance.
What strong partnerships look like
A strong family-school partnership offers tremendous power to support students just as it supported my own child. So what does it take to bring this kind of partnership to life in a school community?
To answer this question, let’s start with the Dual Capacity-Building Framework. This model helps educators design family engagement strategies, policies, and programs. Its creator, Dr. Karen Mapp, describes the framework as 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.”
The model guides schools to first concentrate on creating five essential conditions for successful family engagement programs. Putting these conditions into practice fundamentally strengthens family-school partnerships.
In sum, Dr. Mapp’s framework explains that all family engagement strategies must be:
- Relational: built on mutual trust
- Linked to learning and development
- Culturally responsive and respectful
This list may at first feel daunting for educators to implement. In reality, developing strategies for even one of these conditions amplifies opportunities to implement the rest of the list. For example, culturally responsive communication practices boost parent trust in their school, which encourages greater participation in accessible, interactive family events.
Ultimately, these five conditions boil down to the core purpose of family engagement: crafting a reciprocal partnership between home and school to help students thrive.
Fundamental family engagement in action
We at ParentPowered have worked with hundreds of organizations to build stronger family-school partnerships through our suite of family engagement curricula. And we know it can be challenging to introduce changes to community engagement practices. To help you get started, we compiled actionable next steps you can take that cover each of the five essential conditions.
Strengths-based engagement that builds family trust
Asset-based (also called ‘strengths-based’) strategies originally come from the world of social work. The terms refer to approaches “that put the strengths and resources of people, communities, and their environments – rather than their problems and pathologies – at the center of the helping process.” Strengths-based strategies double-down on empowering families to use what they have in new or expanded ways.
Bringing it to life
The best place to begin with strengths-based family engagement is by adopting two core elements of its mindset. First, you assume that families want what is best for their children. Second, you recognize that families already have knowledge and resources available to support their student’s learning and development.
Did You Know?
Our Ready4K family engagement curricula utilizes strengths-based principles and is available from birth through Grade 8 families in multiple languages.
Contact us to learn more!
In addition to practicing family engagement with a shifted mindset, we also recommend that school staff use the following activities within your school community:
- Recognize family knowledge. Families are truly the first ‘educators’ that students experience. When school staff celebrate parents as experts on their child, parents are more likely to share insights back to the school. Encourage your teachers to use strengths-based language that uplifts parents’ knowledge. Teachers can also ask parents questions to learn more about a child, especially if that child is struggling in school.
- Share your expertise in child development, too. Educators are undoubtedly experts when it comes to student learning and growth. Their knowledge can have a positive impact at home as well as school. Plus, when parents know what kids are learning and ways to help, they gain confidence in partnering with their schools. Together, parents and teachers then collaborate to support their children’s grade-level learning goals.
- Encourage observation together. The more parents cue into their child’s needs, the more parents can advocate for those needs and partner with schools to address them. Encourage your parents to pause and engage their curiosity when a student has a hard behavior at home. Questions like “What might my child be feeling?” or “What might they need from me right now?” give parents – and teachers – valuable insight into students’ successes and challenges. As a result, parents become extra eyes and ears outside the classroom that help teachers better understand a student’s progress towards learning goals.
Visit our website to learn more about strengths-based family engagement.
Two-way communication that invites family collaboration
Effective communication is key in any relationship, whether it is between people or organizations. For schools, it is just as important to provide information out to their families as it is to receive information from their families.
Bringing it to life
Consider these strategies as you design a complete communication loop with your families:
- Provide clear reach-out strategies. This is especially crucial for families new to the school system, or who need extra guidance on how to navigate their child’s school experience. Take a look at our communication guide for tips and best practices with guiding families to connect with their schools.
- Seek family input. Family feedback helps educators shape the school experience to benefit all students. Schools that actively ask for family’s input build trust with families and gain valuable knowledge about the impact of school initiatives on the entire community. Watch our webinar Family Feedback from Afar to learn how to collect insights from your families – even from those harder-to-reach ones.
- Offer collaborative and accessible opportunities to connect. Gathering in community with families is an excellent way to get to know your community and let them get to know your school. Plan a consistent schedule of family events or activities throughout the school year, such as Open House nights or family workshops. These events can be in-person, but be sure to consider alternative channels that may allow more families to join. Virtual activities and other forms of digital engagement break down common barriers to family engagement such as transportation costs. These kinds of accessible family events also send the message that everyone is welcome.
Culturally responsive relationships that respect every background
Culture plays a key role both in a student’s learning journey and their family’s experiences of a school. Most schools may think of home language, unique foods, or even music when they hear the term ‘family culture’, but these are only a few of its many facets. Family engagement strategies must go beyond translating materials into multiple languages to ensure schools celebrate and respect their families’ diversity.
Bringing it to life
To integrate culturally responsive strategies into your family-school partnerships, start with these foundational steps:
- Audit your existing practices. Get clear on how well your current family engagement strategies account for the diversity of families in your community. With your team, ask yourself questions such as “Whose stories are represented in our curriculum?” and “Are we presenting materials in culturally sensitive ways?”. Make note of improvements that could be made. This exercise will also help you prioritize which changes to implement with available resources to increase inclusivity.
- Create listening opportunities that reflect cultural identity. Work with school staff on developing family communication methods that reflect a student’s identity. This sends a signal to families that they belong, and that educators truly see and respect their experiences. Actively listening to families describe their child in cultural context also gives staff holistic information on how a child may best thrive in the classroom.
For more recommendations about culturally responsive family engagement, read our recent post Culturally Responsive Family Engagement: A Path to Partnership.
Community partnerships that recognize family needs
Family-school partnerships need not stop with the walls of the school building. Schools can be a gateway to link families to external community resources that address their needs beyond academics. By providing families with access to or information about local assets, schools increase the capacity of families to be active partners in their students’ learning.
Bringing it to life
Here are a few ways that schools can develop community partnerships and collaboration in service of your families:
- Understand which community resources families use. Make sure you know what challenges families face beyond the classroom, as they directly impact a student’s school readiness and learning experiences. Family surveys offer a simple way to learn more about what support families want most. You can also contact local organizations and community leaders to discover which services families are already utilizing.
Watch Family Feedback from Afar to learn more about how surveys impact family engagement.
- Raise awareness of local resources in school communications. Make contact information available to your families for their most desired resources. For example, try posting brochures for a mental health hotline in school hallways or include details about a neighborhood parent engagement group in your school newsletter. We also recommend building and maintaining your own community resource map to keep track of community partners available to your families.
- Bring family engagement into the community. If engagement opportunities center exclusively on campus or during school hours, some families will struggle to collaborate with their schools. Barriers to family engagement like transportation costs or home languages other than English derail family-school relationships and erode mutual trust. Leveraging community partnerships, coordinate events at locations where families gather, like a Q&A night at the youth center or a family workshop at a local place of worship. That way, parents do not need to travel on the bus, or find a babysitter, or take time off from work to dialogue with your school. This gesture establishes trust with your families, and trust is crucial for successful family-school partnerships.
By engaging with community partners, schools gain new opportunities – and allies – to connect with their families and deepen the family-school partnership.
Sowing the seeds of trusting family-school partnerships
Building confident relationships between school and home is hard work, without a doubt. It requires time, patience, trust, and consistency to sow those seeds and bring them to maturity. So remember to take a moment and remind yourself what positive outcomes await your organization with these partnerships in place.
Envision your students thriving in their learning and growth, set up for long-term success in this world. Picture your teachers and parents sharing their unique knowledge and wisdom to create new learning opportunities for all students. Imagine your whole community working together to cultivate an inclusive, trusting school climate.
It is both empowering and freeing to witness the fruits of strong family-school partnerships. As my family and I can affirm – all the time, effort, and resources necessary to nurture these relationships are efforts well spent.
And we have the “Math Minutes” results to prove it.