By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
“Family engagement is the ongoing partnership between families, schools, and the community at large to support and strengthen the learning, development, and wellbeing of all children and families.”National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
This is my favorite definition of family engagement. The word partnership in particular stands out to me. It is a central theme of much of my work from my days in the classroom. It also forms the foundation of our programs here are ParentPowered — digital family engagement for schools, districts, early childhood education programs, and community-based organizations.
Partnership is also a key theme in a recent webinar hosted by a triad of family engagement experts on our team. Rebecca Honig (Chief Content & Curriculum Officer), Fran Lartigue (Director of Content), and Mallary Swartz (Senior Director of Learning and Impact) convey a critical message for educators everywhere: the benefits of family engagement matter at every stage of a child’s learning journey.
That’s right. Every stage — from birth all the way through high school.
Surely I am not the only educator whose first reaction to this statement might be: “Wait, high school family engagement? You’ve gotta be kidding!”
But Honig, Lartigue, and Swartz eloquently highlight that when caregivers and school staff collaborate in service of their children — and adapt to the nuances of child development happening at every age — they create a supportive learning environment in which students, families, and educators alike can thrive.
Breaking down the benefits of family engagement across the ages
Educators may already recognize or have experienced the benefits of family engagement directly in their school communities. Strong relationships with families yield a plethora of positive outcomes, including:
- Boosted academic achievements
- Higher attendance rates and student engagement in the classroom
- Reduced delinquency and disruptive student behaviors
- Increased graduation rates
- Improved educator wellbeing and engagement
And yet, many educators may think of family engagement as limited to the earliest years of learning, when parent involvement in a child’s life is most direct and hands-on.
But as Honig repeatedly points out, partnerships between school and home continue well past early childhood and elementary school — and there is a lot of nuance when one zooms in to examine students’ needs at specific ages. In fact, these subtle (and not so subtle) differences in child development and learning as they grow up are critical to guiding effective family engagement in schools.
Let’s take a quick tour of a student’s life, from birth through adolescence, to unpack these nuances.
These first years of life involve a huge amount of brain development. Babies and toddlers learn how to use their own bodies, develop crucial attachments to key adults in their life, and discover the world around them. Growth happens every single day for these little learners!
Parents also experience massive changes as they welcome a new child into the world. They form the foundations of a lasting bond with their baby and directly help them cultivate rapid brain development. Social support and mental health are crucial for families of babies and toddlers. A well caregiver is better able to provide nurturance and support to their little ones.
Benefits of Family Engagement (Age 0-3)
|Improved parent-child bonding
|Improved family wellbeing and mental health
|Healthy physical and cognitive development in babies and toddlers
As toddlers transition into preschool, they enter a formal learning setting for the first time — with more adult relationships, social dynamics, and opportunities to refine their growing skills. Social-emotional development is a key theme for this age group, as preschoolers build greater self-awareness, fundamental social skills, and strong interests that serve them later in kindergarten.
For families, they watch their little ones gain more independence and self-knowledge each day. Parents also learn about home-school communication systems and family engagement expectations that will increase in sophistication in elementary school. All in all, the whole family is getting school ready!
Benefits of Family Engagement (Preschool)
|Healthy social-emotional development in children
|Improved academic outcomes later in school
|Smoother transitions into kindergarten
Elementary School (Grade K-5)
Once in elementary school, children develop more sophisticated social and relational skills, forming diverse peer friendships. They also continue essential social emotional learning that eventually helps them self-manage their learning and academic work. These life skills include executive functioning, critical thinking, and much more.
And of course, kids build fundamental literacy and math skills that later impact student success in middle and high school.
For caregivers, elementary school can be both exciting and overwhelming. Families come to schools with their own experiences and expectations of teachers and administrators, which can impact their engagement in schools. They are also learning a lot of new systems and routines involved in formal school environments. Oftentimes, parents interact with one classroom teacher who facilitates the connection between school and home.
Benefits of Family Engagement (Grade K-5)
|Improved academic performance
|Higher attendance rates
|Increased family access to resources
|Broader family support system
|Increased teacher satisfaction
|More positive school climate
Middle School (Grade 6-8)
Ah, adolescence. Though this stage of life sometimes has a negative reputation, middle school is an incredible time of growth.
Pre-teens put their evolving independence into practice as they navigate multiple classrooms, multiple teachers, and more academic and extracurricular activities. As they build self-reliance, kids also face more complex social dynamics — chief among them, finding that balance between fitting in while embracing their unique selves.
Right alongside their students, families are learning about a complex new classroom dynamic and routine. Parents may also interpret adolescents’ “leave me be” messages, intended to assert independence, as “do not engage at all.” Even as families want to help their pre-teens, they may not recognize entry points into effective partnership with middle schools, as both academic content and the classroom dynamic become more complex.
Benefits of Family Engagement (Grade 6-8)
|Higher rates of self-reliance in students
|Reduced rates of depression and delinquency
|Improved physical student health
Fortunately, research shows that middle school family engagement is essential and accessible.
High School (Grade 9-12)
In high school, students shift focus from preparing for the next form of “schooling” to entering the real world, either through post-secondary education or career paths. As exciting as this change can be, teens may struggle to find their path forward. Student mental health, a theme that may have started in the earlier years, also becomes a centerpiece in high school.
Parents and caregivers of high school students are in turn balancing how to honor their students’ maturation while setting them up for long-term success. For many families, the “how” for supporting teens isn’t always clear, especially when it comes to exploring post-secondary options like college or career planning for high school students.
Benefits of Family Engagement (Grade 9-12)
|Increased likelihood of student upward mobility
|Increased student motivation
|Positive aspirations for future
|Improved career clarity
Adolescents are also uniquely vulnerable to challenges with their wellbeing, as are their families. Both educators and caregivers seek ways to support student mental health in these later grades.
Effective family engagement practices for every age, from birth through 12th grade
With these nuances in mind, Honig, Lartigue, and Swartz pose a critical question: what can educators do to honor these differences and level up family engagement at every age and every grade level?
All three experts offer listeners practical methods for stepping up their partnerships with caregivers in every stage of a student’s life, yielding the critical benefits of family engagement that the entire school community deserves. Share these tips from our webinar with your colleagues or fellow educators in your community!
“Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about them.”Urie Bronfenbrenner
All ages: four family engagement must-haves
Regardless of what age a student is, Honig highlights that there are four fundamental factors of family engagement in education that hold true at every grade level. In short, the most effective family engagement strategies for schools and other learning organizations are:
- Responsive: Engagement efforts are co-created between educators and families; they are living, breathing things.
- Strengths-based: Partnerships uplift family assets, knowledge, and skills, rather than emphasize gaps.
- Accessible: Collaborations factor in a family’s home language and are accessible for all families; educators take special notice of who is not at the table and make efforts to bring them to it.
- Effective: Engagement strategies are rooted in evidence and undergo continuous evaluation in order to increase their impact on family, student, and educator lives.
Dr. Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education synthesized these factors and more into her Dual Capacity-Building Framework, a set of guiding principles for educators as they cultivate family-school partnerships. Learn more about her research and the model.
Birth through Age 3
Given the rapid development happening in the littlest learners, Swartz advises educators at Head Start programs and other early childhood education organizations to partner with their families by:
- Getting to know families’ unique strengths: Each caregiver has knowledge, experiences, and ideas that are invaluable to educators supporting the family unit. A great starting point is to bake a culturally responsive approach into every interaction and activity you host with families — it is one of the most effective strategies for equitable family engagement out there! For example, you can include instructions in the front office for how to ask for language support or a translator — written in every language represented in your community.
- Building strong staff relationships with families: Home visits, regular communication through consistent channels, and creating a welcoming environment are all wonderful ways to establish positive connections with your families.
- Creating community and peer connections: What better way to uplift families than by connecting caregivers with each other? You may consider hosting virtual and in-person gatherings that center families’ stories and wisdoms. You can also survey families ahead of time to identify topics they’re most interested in discussing.
Families of preschoolers greatly appreciate family engagement activities that support their child’s exploration of their place in the big, wide world around them. Swartz highlights three ways that early childhood educators can improve engaging parents in kindergarten readiness (which in turn boosts school readiness overall):
- Offer varied ways to share in children’s learning: When designing activities or engagement opportunities for families, the key is to ensure they are accessible to everyone. For example, you might host open houses (in person or virtual) that showcase to families what kids are working on. Educators may also lead simple activities at drop-off or pick-up time for kids to show their caregivers what they learned that day.
- Support parents as advocates, leaders, and decision makers: Building parent confidence in preschool prepares them to be advocates for their children in the later years. You may offer formal opportunities like parent policy councils that guide program development. Informal methods are just as impactful, such as inviting families to present their expertise or lead a training on a particular subject.
- Create reciprocal relationships between families and community partners: This last strategy is critical for leveling power-imbalances that families encounter later in elementary, middle, and high school. You might start by reimagining parent-teacher conferences and family meetings, offering space for caregivers to lead with their questions before diving into the usual agendas. Another opportunity lies in creating collaborative teams of caregivers, preschool teachers, and early elementary school educators to help kids and their families transition into kindergarten.
Elementary (K – Grade 5)
Formal classroom settings like those found in elementary schools come with whole new routines and systems for both kids and parents. Lartigue emphasizes the power of creating listening loops and regular habits of communication in helping families successfully adapt their student support accordingly.
In the classroom, she recommends educators focus on building these loops by:
- Leveraging existing routines like take-home folders to cultivate parent-teacher interactions;
- Using multiple pathways for communication (email, phone, text, sticky notes in a student’s backpack — there are many options out there);
- And clarifying expectations, especially those that encourage families to reach out to schools.
At home, Lartigue shares that school staff can best help families by:
- Building consistency with families about recurring routines (e.g. reminders that math homework is sent home on Tuesdays, and it is expected to be returned completed to the classroom on Thursdays);
- Highlighting the small wins in a student’s day, especially in areas where they may be having difficulty;
- And offering specific prompts or guiding questions to facilitate parent-child interactions.
Read our recent article for more family engagement ideas from your fellow educators.
School districts can also combine many of these loop-building strategies for greater effect. For more suggestions for crafting joyful communications with families, download our resource guide.
Middle School (Grade 6 – 8)
Counter to what some educators and families may believe, adolescent family engagement is no myth. Simultaneously, there are new hurdles for families to navigate with more complex classroom contexts, harder entry points into learning content, and the normal pre-teen desire for independence.
Honig reassures educators that they already have the power and the resources to help middle school caregivers shift from being captains to copilots in student achievement. Here are three strategies she elevates for middle school educators to explore:
- Be explicit about family engagement: Specifically, Honig recommends reinforcing why engagement matters and what it looks like at your school. You might invite families on campus tours of the classrooms and facilities (better still, record them so any family anywhere in your community can access it.) Another method focuses on gathering family input using surveys, inviting them to share their questions about the middle school experience so the school team can respond to them.
- Collaborate on support strategies: For pre-teens, it’s actually more beneficial for students when parents shift to indirect skills support, such as building homework routines instead of helping with the assignments themselves. This approach is quite different from the family engagement caregivers experience in elementary school. Middle school educators are best positioned to help families with this change when they present unified strategies and guidance as a team.
- Honor student independence: This might look like hosting student-led conferences with their families and teachers about learning or helping students facilitate a workshop with their peers. When educators and families include students in the home-school partnership, it boosts their confidence and helps them practice skills they’ll use in high school and adult life.
High School (Grade 9 – 12)
Families experience similar themes as students move from middle school into high school — less direct caregiver support, more student self-reliance. But preparing teens for life after high school requires a ton of support and guidance, which are difficult for educators alone to provide to every teen. When schools average having over 400 students on a single counselor’s caseload, it becomes imperative to bolster family engagement in schools for teens’ post-secondary planning.
Honig offers these practical ways for high school educators to leverage family and community engagement:
- Extend the family engagement team to include college and career counselors: Though simple, this small change makes all the difference in linking counselors with families to collaborate. Mapping caregivers on to individual learning plans (ILPs), inviting parents to participate as career mentors, and forming family/student learning communities are just a few of the many ways families and counselors can together support teens.
- Center mental health: Students and caregivers alike benefit from emphasized support on their mental health in the high school years. You might connect with local community partners with services and expertise in mental health — or even specific topics you may have captured in a family and student survey about wellbeing. You can also elevate student voices in school planning and decision making. Last, you might establish ways for parents to connect with and support each other through workshops or in-community events.
ParentPowered is proud to announce that we are expanding our digital family engagement curriculum into high school, meaning we can truly nurture both teen and caregiver well being during these critical years. Learn more about the new curriculum, set to launch for the school year 2024-2025!
High-impact, low-lift family engagement that grows alongside kids
Honig, Lartigue, and Swartz wrap their presentation by anchoring on the importance of family engagement in education. When educators and families work together, the entire school community thrives. And when those collaborations mirror the unique academic, social, and emotional needs of children at every stage of life, the benefits of family engagement are compounded.
ParentPowered designed its digital family engagement programs to grow alongside the kids and families they serve, from birth all the way through high school, and to complement existing family engagement strategies in your toolkit. Join us at an upcoming info session to discover how our programs can support your community!
About the author
Maren Madalyn has worked at the intersection of K12 education and technology for over a decade, serving in roles ranging from counseling to customer success to product management. She blends this expertise with fluid writing and strategic problem-solving to help education organizations create thoughtful long-form content that empowers educators.