Beyond Good Intentions: Strategies for Engaging with Families - ParentPowered®

Beyond Good Intentions: Strategies for Engaging with Families

By Maya Sussman, director of product

Engaging with families can be a challenge for schools and organizations. When I’m thinking of ways to tackle this, I use my own email inbox as a testing ground. And honestly, it is like a journey through my own great intentions.

  • 12 heart-healthy fall recipes
  • Best hikes on the West Coast
  • Your Personal Trainer is Waiting!

Great offers are everywhere. The problem is that these offers often backfire. Instead of taking action, I end up feeling overwhelmed by all the great ideas and deals on offer. It’s just easier to whip up the dishes I know. Or take a bike ride on my favorite trails. In other words, to just stick with my old habits.

However, there is one program I’ve signed up for that does actually motivate me to act. Like all the others, they send me tips for healthy recipes, local hikes, and fitness meetups. But their messages stand out from the sea of unread inbox messages because:

1. They send me one thing at a time.

I don’t need 12 recipes to sift through while feeling incompetent because I’ll never cook them all. I just need one carefully curated recipe that I can try today. And then maybe another one next week.

2. They’re timely and relevant.

On Friday afternoon I’m thinking to myself, “I should find a way to get outdoors this weekend,” and an hour later a text comes in with a specific local hike recommendation. Of course I’ll try their tip, it’s just the advice I needed!

3. They reach me by text.

I won’t dare admit here how many unread emails I have, but there’s no way I’m letting the day end with an unread text message.

If you know ParentPowered, you know that our goal is to activate parents as at-home learning partners. And as the director of product for ParentPowered, I know it’s not enough to have useful content for families. If your mission is to empower parents, you have to make sure you’re providing the content in a way that makes it easy to use.

For our team, that means diving deep into three questions that all educators are wrestling with:

  1. Are we reaching families in a way that’s efficient and effective?
  2. Are we engaging with families in a way that activates them?
  3. Are the kids learning?

The lessons we’ve learned are insights you can use when you’re trying to cut through the noise to reach school families.

Are we truly engaging with families?

Access has always been a barrier for family engagement. Whether it be transportation to a school event, childcare, or scheduling, attending in-person events becomes exponentially more difficult for families facing housing instability or poverty. When you add language barriers to the mix, the situation can become even more difficult for some of the most vulnerable families.

We have learned that it’s important to continuously review the data to determine whether we are reaching all families. Through this process, we have learned that it is better to opt families in automatically and allow themselves to self-select out rather than ask them to sign up for updates. In our work, this means that using a school-facilitated enrollment strategy is the most equitable way to go. As a result, we’ve streamlined enrollment so that our partners can easily provide ParentPowered’s digital family engagement to all of their families with just a few clicks. 

But enrollment does not necessarily guarantee access. I can’t tell you how many newsletters I’ve eagerly signed up for, only to have their messages go unread week after week. At the end of a long day when I’m faced with 12 must-read product articles or 10 new apple recipes, I just never seem to make it past the introduction.

If you’re engaging with families in a language they can’t read, or with content they don’t have time to digest, you’re not really reaching them at all. 

Access is a top priority, so our content team writes every message at a 3rd grade reading level and we translate the curriculum into over ten languages. But even with that, we check our work by getting family feedback. 

“Es una forma rápida y fácil de adquirir información.”
[ParentPowered] is a fast and easy way to get information.

(Nevada parent of a kindergartener and a third grader)

And we consistently find that the vast majority of families are reading and understanding the family engagement texts they receive:

  • 98% of families say that they read ParentPowered’s messages
  • 97% of families say that ParentPowered’s texts are easy to read and understand

Lessons Learned

Lesson 1: Automatic enrollment works. When schools enroll all their families, research shows that the vast majority stay enrolled, leading to more equitable access to the important information you’re sharing (Bergman & Rogers, 2017). Reaching families is sometimes as easy as opting them in.

Lesson 2: Language matters. Our survey results show that the approaches we’re taking are getting the job done. Families also thank us for providing content in language they can use. If you’re serving a multilingual population, Immigrant Connections recently shared some helpful resources you can use when thinking through translations.

Are we engaging with families?

Your families have no shortage of information being sent their way this year. But we all know that access to information is often not enough to motivate action. I get regular emails from my gym encouraging me to join a virtual workout class or sign up for a socially distant personal training session, but I have yet to do either of those things. Yes, they’re reaching me. But are they engaging me and motivating me to take action? Not really. 

Without face-to-face interactions with families, it’s particularly difficult for schools and educators to know what families are doing with the information they’re receiving.

The strategy we use is to build learning into the context of everyday life. In fact, when sitting in on content conversations, I’ve heard our team say “no, we’re NOT going to suggest that activity, because it’s an extra thing parents would have to do. How could we turn what they’re already doing into a learning activity?”

For example, here is a sampling of literacy messages that our content team put together from across our three programs, which all build on existing, everyday moments.

Research on the ParentPowered approach suggests that messages like this do in fact motivate families to take action. In a study in San Francisco, parents who received program messages reported engaging in more home literacy activities with their children, and teachers also reported increased involvement among parents who received the texts.

“[The texts] have helped me be able to get [my kids] to open up to me more. I am better at getting them started on conversations other than ‘how was your day’ and ‘I miss you.’

It has also gotten them excited to tell me about their schoolwork and friends rather than them trying to communicate about only my interests.”

(Texas parent of a first grader and a second grader)

And, of course this is a part of our ongoing family surveying, too. The responses we get from families tell us that they are doing the activities regularly with their kids, and that the activities are helping them engage:

  • 94% of families say that they do ParentPowered’s activities with their children at least once per week
  • 96% of families say that activities have helped them communicate with their children

Lessons Learned

Lesson 3: Think from a parent’s perspective. What are they already doing that you, as an educator, could turn into a teachable moment?

Lesson 4: Focus on parent needs. What challenges are happening at home that could be easier if they had some simple phrases in their back pockets?

Are kids learning and growing?

Access and engagement are key to our theory of action, but ultimately it’s all about child outcomes. Research consistently shows that when families are engaged attendance increases, children do better in school, are more likely to earn their high school diploma, and have more positive attitudes about school and their own future potential. We believe that our approach to reaching and engaging families will help children learn and grow. 

But how can we test that assumption? How can we confirm that the work we’re all putting into family engagement is resulting in improved outcomes?

As an educator, you know that evidence is essential. Educational researchers at heart, we couldn’t agree more, which is why we build our program on research. In fact, the ParentPowered approach has shown that children whose parents and caregivers receive the text messages gain 2-3 months of literacy skills over the course of the school year. And these gains are even larger when the texts are personalized based on each child’s development level.

Gathering evidence of learning is a major challenge right now. There are ongoing debates about the role of standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year. But whatever position your state or school leaders take, ongoing family feedback can provide you with some data that you can use.

Even with our ongoing research partnerships, we prioritize quarterly family surveys to ensure more rapid-response input that can help us adjust as needed. It’s important to supplement academically rigorous research with insights from those closest to the kids: their parents and caregivers. And this is the kind of data that many stakeholders find most compelling:

  • 98% of families say ParentPowered’s ParentPowered program has helped their child grow
  • 96% of families say the program has increased their confidence in their ability to support their child’s learning 

Lessons Learned

Lesson 5: Family feedback can play a role. While it’s hard to do the kind of rigorous testing you may want, parental insights can help inform your program this year.

“[The texts] helped my child be a confident speller. And also helped her talk more and getting her ideas out.”

(Minnesota parent of a 6-year-old)

“They have helped my child to be more observant, to want to do activities on her own, and to be more independent 🤗”

(Parent of a first grader)

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