What Is Equitable Family Engagement For Black Caregivers?

What Is Equitable Family Engagement for Black Parents? One Study Offers Insights To This Complex Question

Read our recent article exploring six key lessons from a study asking the question: what is equitable family engagement for Black caregivers?

By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer, and Dr. Mallary Swartz, Ph.D., Senior Director, Learning and Impact, at ParentPowered

ParentPowered thanks the following organizations and individuals for their support and collaboration on this project: The Rockman et al Cooperative research team who led the study (Dr. Nisaa Kirtman, Ph.D.; Dr. Ayesha Boyce, Ph.D. (consultant); Dr. Alex Gurn, Ph.D.); the supporting team at ParentPowered (Dr. Mallary Swartz, Ph.D., Maya Sussman, Heer Shaikh, and Megan Gallagher); the 10 industry leaders, practitioners, and ParentPowered partners who shared insights from their expertise in family engagement strategies and helped to recruit family participants; the 50,000+ study participants who completed surveys and especially those 54 parents and caregivers who shared their time and expertise via interviews and focus groups to deepen our understanding of our program’s impact on Black families and caregivers. 

“What is equitable family engagement for Black caregivers?”

This question is not simple to answer, despite the frequency with which educators and researchers alike may use these terms in conversations today.

Take “family engagement” for instance. The nature of and approaches to educators’ partnerships with families — especially those that have been deliberately excluded from quality K-12 education — varies tremendously by a number of factors, including: 

  • Educators’ understanding and competencies related to social justice (and historical injustices) within U.S. educational systems and cultivating bias-free learning environments for all children;
  • The unique context in which a school is located; 
  • The resources available to a school for training, materials, etc.;
  • An organization’s priorities, investments, and goals related to student learning and family engagement;

And so much more.

Let’s now consider the intricacies behind the term “equitable.” Picture an individual caregiver in your community. This person brings their distinct perspective on their child’s learning, informed by personal experiences with teachers and schooling, cultural background, languages they may speak, socioeconomic status, etc. This person may also belong to a community (or several communities) that face institutionalized barriers and biases that they must constantly navigate as they seek the best learning opportunities for their children.

A smiling Black mother serves a meal to her two young children at home.

Now multiply these factors — and their many variations and intersections, as well as immeasurable layers of cross-sectoral, environmental, institutional, and systemic bias — by the total number of families that your organization serves. Then repeat with each student in every classroom, adding into the mix their learning needs and age-appropriate development. Then layer in the context in which your organization operates culturally, socially, geographically, politically…

This is why it is so difficult to define “equitable family engagement” in any singular way — and why taking time to connect with and learn from caregivers is essential for educators to provide the support that families and their students most need. 

One piece of a larger story: a study about elevating Black families’ voices

Researchers and evaluators across sectors often study groups with similar characteristics to explore and assess whether there are unique patterns of behaviors and attitudes that might help in the understanding of different groups, communities, or cultures. As such, ParentPowered partnered with an independent research and evaluation firm, Rockman et al Cooperative, to explore the impact of our text-based family engagement program on Black caregivers. 

The unprecedented and rapid growth of racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. has continued to transform the nation’s demographic landscape. Black families in America face significant challenges, including racism as a result of being racialized and oppressed, discrimination, and systemic inequities. These issues not only affect adults but also impact youth, contributing to stress, anxiety, and lower academic achievement. Parenting in such a context requires coping mechanisms and strategies that are culturally and contextually relevant.

To begin this inquiry into the equitable engagement of Black caregivers and impact of the ParentPowered program, the research team first completed a literature review to understand best practices that support the engagement of Black caregivers, with the goal of connecting them to strengths-based parenting resources through text messaging.

A Black father and his preteen son sit together at home, fist-pumping and smiling.

This review revealed that successful strategies for engaging Black caregivers include not only culturally sensitive materials but also the active incorporation of approaches that affirm Black cultural values and address the realities of racism and discrimination.

Based on these insights, the research team conducted and analyzed data from interviews with educators and leaders in the field; interviews and focus groups with Black caregivers; and survey data from parents in Wisconsin and California.

This article will describe researchers’ key findings gleaned specifically from the parent and caregiver interviews and survey results. By sharing these results, we hope to further elevate the voices of Black caregivers and offer additional insight into the complexity of equitable family engagement — adding one more piece to the broader story of a future in which opportunity gaps shrink and all children can thrive.

For more details about the research study, visit the Appendix.

Six lessons from interviews, focus groups, and surveys with Black caregivers

Led by Dr. Nisaa Kirtman, Research Principal at Rockman et al Cooperative, the evaluation team examined feedback collected from more than 50,000 family surveys, over 50 caregiver interviews, and two focus groups. Across these inputs, researchers identified six overarching themes pointing to family engagement practices that Black caregivers identified as important and impactful for their children’s learning. 

1. Positive impact on children’s growth and development

What we learned

Overall, many of the participating caregivers who identified as either Black or African American agreed that ParentPowered benefited their children’s development and academic achievement. In particular, participants pointed to the way that the program reinforced the value of everyday learning — in small, but meaningful ways — and to profound shifts they witnessed in their children’s growth. 

The researchers also found that the vast majority of caregivers participating in the study saw tangible gains in their children’s literacy skills, crediting the ParentPowered program. These findings are consistent with our foundational research studies on the approach behind ParentPowered, which found 2-3 months of gains in academic outcomes like literacy among children in families receiving text messages.

A Black father and his young son read a book together at home.

For Black caregivers participating in this study, these observations were even more pronounced. Among those surveyed on their students’ literacy skills, Black caregivers reported a significantly greater improvement as compared to those from all other ethnicities combined. One caregiver wrote that her child was “talking a lot more than what she did before we started reading and singing with her,” whereas another shared, “Their vocabulary has been astonishing.”

Participants reported other positive outcomes for students, citing that the text messages helped their children better express and manage their feelings. Caregivers mentioned that they especially valued the strategies offered for communication between families and their children.

“My 5-year-old is sounding out words that he doesn’t know, and he is showing interest in math! He actually loves math and reading ❤ .”

ParentPowered Caregiver & Study Participant

What this means for educators

  • Supporting students’ academic, social, and emotional growth sets them up for long-term wellbeing and success. Effective family engagement strategies create space for caregivers to nurture all of these aspects of their students’ development.  
  • Children are constantly learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. Families are often well positioned to create these learning moments when provided with bite-sized ways to integrate evidence-based reading strategies, family math activities, social-emotional practices, and more into everyday life.

2. Accessibility and adaptability

What we learned

The second theme centers on the utility of the ParentPowered program. Participating Black caregivers reported that they appreciated the quick and accessible activities shared — many of which they normally would not think to do with their children as part of everyday life.

The format of delivering these tips was also effective for participants. Caregivers valued that content could be easily accessed and saved for later viewing. They also shared that receiving activities via text message aligned well with their busy lives, while also providing meaningful opportunities for daily learning support that caregivers could adapt into their everyday routines.

An important aspect of this accessibility was the “sizing” of these learning moments. Small, easy-to-do ideas and suggestions to engage with their children — without a huge time commitment — was important and appreciated by many Black caregivers participating in the study. 

What this means for educators

  • Text messaging is an extremely effective way to communicate with and reach families. 
  • Like educators, parents and caregivers have little spare time. Tailored learning opportunities that fit existing routines are most accessible for most parents. 
  • Accessibility also means meeting families where they are. Offering family engagement activities that build on existing resources and assets, such as cultural knowledge and personal experiences, set families up for success.

3. Supportive and positive impact on parenting

What we learned

The third major theme emerging from this study was how the program directly benefited caregivers themselves. 

While the vast majority of caregivers surveyed reported feeling supported by ParentPowered texts, Black caregivers reported feeling even more supported as compared to other racial/ethnic groups. Caregivers also reported that their confidence in supporting their children’s learning increased as they utilized ParentPowered. 

A smiling African American mother holds her baby boy high in the air on a sunny autumn day.

Specifically, input from surveys highlighted the following positive aspects of the program: 

  • Texts were a source of validation that the parenting strategies caregivers used were both appropriate and beneficial for their children.
  • Caregivers appreciated the actionable advice for behavior management shared through the program. 
  • For some, the program bridged certain gaps in caregivers’ own knowledge of child development and parenting, sparking new insights.
  • Caregivers valued reminders and suggestions for how to support themselves, as well as their children, through self care tips and ways to build self-awareness.

“I think the information has been absolutely amazing and very helpful. I’m a single dad of a 3 and a 4-year-old boy so they keep me on my toes … the stuff that has come through these messages has been instrumental in how I handle different situations.”

ParentPowered Caregiver & Study Participant

What this means for educators

  • A strengths-based approach to family engagement emphasizes the existing knowledge and expertise of parents — and builds upon it to further increase that parent’s capacity. These methods cultivate greater confidence in caregivers and more positive outcomes for children in the long run.
  • Family engagement efforts and family-focused interventions like ParentPowered, which support parents’ own growth as caregivers and as people, have the potential to have real and positive impacts on families, including families of color.

4. Enhanced parent-child connections

What we learned

Building upon the previous themes, participants in the study underscored how ParentPowered text messages supported how they related with their children. Based on a secondary survey analysis, the researchers found that Black caregivers in the program utilized its just-in-time information to build positive connections and improve their relationships with their children. 

Further, some caregivers reported that they noticed ways in which engaging in activities recommended or inspired by ParentPowered help strengthen emotional bonds with their children, as well as communication between families and students. One quote from a caregiver’s survey response highlights how the program directly impacted them: “My son didn’t like to talk about his days before; now he shares with me!”

What this means for educators

  • Parent self care is as crucial to children’s success as the learning journeys that they follow. When caregivers tend to their own needs, parent-child relationships and interactions also improve. 
  • Further, parent self care itself is varied and takes many forms, especially within communities facing barriers and biases related to race, gender, and more. Explore this resource offering caregivers tools for navigating race-related stress.
  • Parent-child connections are essential for student success at all ages, but they can be especially potent for families with adolescents. Healthy adult-child relationships support teens as they navigate planning their future in the postsecondary world, managing their mental health, and establishing their independence.
A sample ParentPowered text message sharing a self-care tip with parents and caregivers.

5. Tailored resources and activities

What we learned

Another theme that emerged from participants’ survey feedback and interview responses was the value of tailored support for their children’s needs. Participants appreciated that ParentPowered activities were personalized to a child’s development based on their age and grade level, and caregivers sought even more opportunities to further tailor activities. 

When researchers inquired about suggestions for improving these programs, participants highlighted the importance of elevating this tailoring to family context. Here are just a few of the suggestions offered from the caregiver interviews, focus group, and survey responses:

  • Share more resources specifically tailored to the challenges and nuances of single parent families. 
  • Send more tips and strategies specific to families of children living with disabilities. 
  • Explore more ways to personalize texts based on the age(s) of child(ren), developmental needs, and parental preferences.

What this means for educators

  • Self-reflection and awareness are prerequisites to equitable family engagement. Educators who acknowledge and recognize when they may not be the expert are better positioned to receive insights and allow new knowledge to tailor their practices to better support the families they serve. This is especially important when examining one’s role (consciously or not) within biased and discriminatory systems.
  • Just as every student benefits from personalized learning, so too do family-school partnerships benefit from tailored approaches. Equitable family engagement is a collective effort across the entire school community that depends on educators’ continuous development, learning, growth, and flexibility. 
  • Family voices play an essential role in shaping educator-family partnerships. Elevating the stories and personal experiences of caregivers lays foundations for creating content and activities that support family engagement in student learning. Other strategies — such as active listening, family feedback surveys, town halls, and more — can further open doors for educators and families to share ideas and collaborate together. 
  • Data and research related to the activities shared with families matters. This connection helps build caregivers’ trust that they’re getting quality recommendations based on the latest research.

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6. Imagery of Black families and cultural representation

What we learned

The final theme that emerged from this study was the importance of cultural representation in parent engagement. Participating caregivers appreciated the variety of family images accompanying ParentPowered’s texts, stressing the importance of cultural representation through seeing different homes, environments, family dynamics, and ethnicities, and more.

Some participants also saw opportunities for programs like ParentPowered to go even further to honor the diversity within Black communities. One interviewee cited examples of unique imagery and activities to uplift different cultures, geographic areas, and family structures (such as kinship families and caregivers) as a starting point.

What this means for educators

  • Difference exists at every level, from person to person and community to community. No community is monolithic, and it’s essential that educators create spaces and materials that show caregivers (visually and in practice) how their unique qualities and strengths are woven into the wider tapestry of the school community. 
  • Culturally responsive family engagement is a living, breathing process that adapts and grows as educators and families collaborate, co-create, and learn together.

All family engagement efforts come down to building TRUST

This study is just one way of elevating Black caregivers’ voices, adding another layer of understanding into ways to cultivate more intentional and culturally respectful partnerships with Black families. 

And of course, it does not tell the full story of cultural norms for family engagement, either. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to defining family engagement, especially among populations that have experienced generations of injustice from the U.S. educational system. Here again, this is why it is crucial for educators and families to co-create meaningful opportunities to support student achievement and growth.

ParentPowered’s process for developing and adjusting its programs leans on this guiding principle of co-creation. In addition to conducting literature reviews and standards crosswalks, our team also interviews practitioners in the field and collaborates with key advisors and subject matter experts on student learning. But most crucially, we conduct listening sessions and focus groups with the very families and students that we design our programs to benefit.

Why such a comprehensive approach? It’s all about building trust.

Trust lies at the heart of the Dual Capacity-Building Framework, one of the most widely recognized, empirical models for effective family-school partnerships.

Learn more about Dr. Mapp's Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships.

Further, trust creates space for a parent and a teacher to partner together to help a child struggling in the classroom. Trust opens doors for hard, important conversations about what is and is not working for student growth, family-school collaborations, and more.Importantly, trust was also a key aspect of engagement highlighted across interviews with participating educators in this study.

Where trust between caregivers and educators thrives, students and the entire learning community are sure to thrive, too. The journey towards a more equity-informed educational system is a call to action for educators to come together with students and families — to reimagine and rebuild an educational landscape that is inclusive, resilient, just, and centered around well-being for all children. 

To continue discovering and engaging your curiosity about equitable family engagement, read this Carnegie report by Dr. Karen Mapp and Eyal Bergman of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To learn more about ParentPowered’s family engagement programs, join an upcoming info session

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Appendix: About this research study

Research intent

The purpose of the study was to better understand the impact of the ParentPowered family engagement program on Black families and caregivers. Researchers with the independent research and evaluation firm, Rockman et al Cooperative, examined the following five questions as part of this effort:

  1. How do Black caregivers/parents perceive the ParentPowered program and what do they think can be improved?
  2. What impact has the ParentPowered program had on their family?
  3. What do ParentPowered partners and industry leaders think about best practices for engaging Black families?
  4. How do current partners perceive the ParentPowered program and what do they think can be improved?
  5. How do other existing approaches and practices compare to what ParentPowered is doing?

Components of the study

The research study involved two core components. First, the research team conducted a literature review to examine “culturally responsive pedagogy and family engagement approaches and research-based practices for engaging Black parents and caregivers using text messages as the primary mode of communication.” Then, the research team completed an analysis on three key sources of data:

  • Interviews and a focus group discussion with 54 Black caregivers nationwide currently enrolled in the ParentPowered program.
  • ParentPowered survey data from a total of 55,209 families from two states, California and Wisconsin.
  • Interviews with 10 partners, educators and industry leaders on best practices for engaging Black families.

Methodologies used

Researchers utilized rigorous, innovative, culturally responsive, and equitable evaluation approaches and mixed methods to engage participants at key steps. The team also offered ParentPowered evidence-based recommendations to enhance its programs and better serve its target communities. 

Specific methods included interviews and secondary analysis of quantitative and qualitative survey data. Using a conceptual framework developed from an initial literature review, the research team examined these datasets for patterns related to Black caregivers’ experiences with the ParentPowered family engagement program. 

In addition, evaluators worked closely with the ParentPowered team to develop all qualitative protocols, engage communities with outreach and recruitment, and present findings through a Town Hall to centralize the community members — Black parents/caregivers — that this study intended to serve. 

Study citation

Kirtman, N., Boyce, A. & Gurn, A. (2023). Elevating the Voices of Black Parents: Evaluation of the Impact of ParentPowered on Black Parents & Caregivers. Berkeley, CA: Rockman et al Cooperative.

About the authors

Maren Madalyn is a freelance content marketer with over a decade of hands-on experience in education, mental health, and technology. She has served in a variety of capacities, including counseling, customer success, instructional design, and product management.

Dr. Mallary Swartz, Ph.D., is Senior Director, Learning and Impact at ParentPowered and an applied researcher in family engagement and early childhood. She has spent 20 years cultivating relationships, managing partnerships, and leading research, evaluation, and innovation projects at family-focused organizations such as Start Early, Fred Rogers Productions, and Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Mallary also served as Co-Principal Investigator for the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement. She has a Ph.D. in Child Development from Tufts University, an M.S. from the University of Pittsburgh, and a B.A. from Duke University.

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