By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer
Developing positive family-school partnerships may seem like a daunting task. After all, teachers can have anywhere from 25-75 students across their classes, and the ratio of students to counselors and administrators could be as high as 500:1!
It’s also easy for educators to make assumptions about what families need, what family engagement in education should look like, and why some families don’t do it. Yet research shows that effective family engagement strategies result in better learning outcomes and wellbeing for everyone in the school community.
Rebecca Honig, Chief Content and Curriculum Officer of ParentPowered, recently joined Jessica Webster, Senior Family Engagement Specialist at MAEC, Inc in an engaging panel discussion to unpack why understanding the most common assumptions about family engagement can actually help educators move these partnerships towards a more promising future.
What future exactly? Here’s how the experts put it:
“Family engagement will become a living, breathing thing… an act of forming responsive relationships.”Jessica Webster, Senior Family Engagement Specialist @ MAEC, Inc
The changing nature of family-school relationships
Let’s first reflect on why educators are transitioning from family involvement to engagement.
Historically, parental involvement centered around activities happening in schools. Think: Open Houses to tour classrooms, PTA meetings after school, a school play. But research indicates that family engagement is far more equitable for students in their education journeys and the entire school community. Engagement goes beyond on-campus events, shifting into the mindset that student learning can happen anytime, anywhere — and it must.
Honig and Webster emphasized that building relationships with families towards this goal is all about creating partnership — authentic collaboration that recognizes parents and teachers as equally essential to the learning team.
Families move from witnessing their child’s education to actively using their voice in service of their child’s development. Eventually, parents can become key stakeholders helping educators make decisions to support not only their child, but all children in the school community.
Shifting from ‘involvement’ to ‘engagement’ requires understanding common assumptions that teachers, school leaders, and families have about family-school partnerships — and transforming them into learning opportunities.
Lessons from 4 common assumptions about family engagement
During the panel, Honig and Webster shared four stories and four assumptions reexamined from their deep experiences in education. Each lesson inspires educators to rethink what they know about families and explore tangible ways to develop positive relationships with these crucial partners.
1. Families contact you when they have a problem or question.
LESSON LEARNED: When we [educators] do not have systems for communication with families, we default to reacting to the loudest voices.
In reality, the most vocal families already feel empowered to contact schools — and may not represent the majority opinion from the community.
Webster recalled the challenges that her team at a small independent school faced with this assumption when the COVID-19 pandemic shut their doors. Like many educators, they made rapidfire changes, quickly launching a series of programs designed to support remote learning. Soon, parent emails began arriving in Webster’s inbox — many expressing frustration and concern.
At first, Webster felt the need to act quickly. But the more she reflected, the more questions arose: “I remember asking myself, ‘Do I have the right data to make the changes needed? Am I confident that everybody’s voice in the community is being heard?’”
So her team built a communication strategy to source feedback from their parents. They distributed anonymous surveys by grade level, giving families the option to leave their contact information so that the team could follow up and discuss specific concerns or ideas shared. They also held parent focus groups to collect input in a conversation-based format. Last, Webster formed a parent advisory committee with public health and medical experts from their community to help design safe and supportive policies as the pandemic unfolded.
The results revealed that parents’ perspectives on remote learning programs were more nuanced than those first parent emails indicated. Better still, families had ideas for improving remote learning – they wanted to help! These communication strategies were so impactful that Webster’s team folded them into standard practice going forward.
For educators to create two-way communication with families, Webster shared three tips:
- Be aware of power dynamics. By recognizing which families are coming to their doors, educators can also identify which families may not feel as empowered to speak up and share their perspectives — then make contact with them.
- Check in with families that aren’t contacting you, too. There are plenty of reasons why a family doesn’t contact their school, but it doesn’t mean they’re satisfied by default. Regular, proactive feedback gathering using multiple methods helps educators understand how families actually feel about their school community.
- Most families want to help the community. Families belong to many other communities besides their child’s school that they want to support. Educators can collaborate with families and create space for them at the table to help problem-solve challenges that the entire community faces. Local community partnerships or leaders make excellent allies in this endeavor.
2. Families have a good understanding of how your school works.
LESSON LEARNED: All families have different and unique starting points when it comes to engaging with their schools.
In reality, families might not understand what resources or expectations for parental involvement a school has. In turn, educators might not have a clear understanding of what families expect from school, either.
Honig experienced this assumption firsthand during her experiences supporting an Afghan family’s transition into the American public school system. As part of the resettlement strategy, Honig visited this family in their home. She was ready to dive deep into the curriculum that their kindergarten student would enjoy during the upcoming year when the father respectfully interrupted with a question: “Rebecca, on what days does school meet in this country?”
Honig recalled this ‘stop-the-train’ moment with great clarity. “It snapped me into a listening state,” she shared. “I had a lot to learn about their experiences [with school in Afghanistan.]”
The conversation shifted to convey fundamental knowledge necessary to help this family navigate an American school environment — defining terms such as “half days”, talking about mixed gender classrooms, sharing strategies for families to connect with teachers. All of these details were brand-new for this family.
Shifting into active listening mode made a huge difference for this family and Honig’s efforts to support their school journey, allowing her to scaffold parent engagement by building a relationship with this family. Honig cited these tips for cultivating that partnership from the beginning:
- Learn about each family’s background. Not only does this orient educators to what knowledge a family may or may not have about family engagement, it also offers insights into that family’s particular strengths stemming from their culture, home languages, and life experiences. Visiting families in their home or partnering with community agencies that already hold a family’s trust are great starting points.
- Determine what ‘chapter one’ of engagement looks like for each family. As with any story, the first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. Honig encourages educators to ask themselves questions like “What does this family need in order to engage with my school?” to define that “chapter one” of their engagement.
If any assumption can help with family engagement, Honig offers this one: all parents need some basic orientation or a refresher to the fundamentals of navigating school. Take a look at ParentPowered’s guide to public schools, designed with this in mind.
3. Families are on the same page as teachers and understand teachers’ goals for their children.
LESSON LEARNED: True partnership can be messy! Recognizing multiple types of expertise leads to a powerful outcome.
Webster highlighted another experience working with one student transitioning to a new school as crucial for recognizing and moving away from this assumption.
This student, named “J.”, had autism, and his family was eager to move him from a special education classroom into general education for the first time. Understandably, teachers had questions, even trepidation about this change. They had never worked with a student like J. before and felt unequipped to support his academic success. Webster also feared that this lack of confidence might negatively impact that family’s perspective toward school personnel.
So Webster brought the two parties together. “It was critical [for us] to acknowledge to the family that we want to make this work, but it’s really important to get it right, and we need [the family’s] help to do that,” Webster said.
J.’s family visited their school and met with staff to share their goals for J. as well as a wealth of knowledge about his personality and strengths. In turn, teachers shared about their classrooms and teaching philosophies to anchor the family.
Webster’s school team learned that they didn’t fully understand the goals of J.’s family were primarily to have him in a language-rich environment where he could build social skills and make friends, not solely academic achievement. With shared clarity, teachers could let go of the assumption that J.’s family expected them to help him achieve unrealistic outcomes, and instead concentrate on welcoming J. into the school community and culture.
From a place of alignment, family and staff co-designed a plan for transitioning J. into his new classroom. Former teachers of J. also visited Webster’s school, giving the team space to ask targeted and technical questions about how to best support J. These practitioners then shadowed teachers and J. during summer to further support his transition, offering feedback and additional insights about incorporating universal design learning principles.
The result? J. and his social skills blossomed.
Webster clarified that this effort wasn’t without its challenges, but that including parents and teachers in the process together was essential to navigate these challenges as one united team. She shared these tips for building alignment with families about learning outcomes for children:
- Learn what hopes and dreams families have for their kids. Educators can better support a student when they know that child’s unique strengths, challenges, and interests, as well as their parents’ desires for their learning.
- It’s OK for educators to acknowledge when they don’t know. Though vulnerability can be challenging, it opens doors for trust and sharing information between educators and families — both of which improve school climate. As Honig puts it, “Sometimes the greatest act of leadership is to share when you don’t have all the information and to engage in active listening.”
- Think of family engagement as a network. Families and school staff aren’t the only sources of knowledge that can guide educational outcomes. Educators can leverage the world around them, tapping into specific local experts or community leaders to help amplify student learning.
- Ensure teachers have the skills and tools they need. School leaders play an active role in setting up teachers for success. Strategies like specialized professional development or mentorship opportunities between teachers are just a few ways administrators can prepare their teams to enable student growth.
Looking for ways to build two-way connections with families? Explore ParentPowered’s guide to joyful communication with families.
“Sometimes the greatest act of leadership is to share when you don’t have all the information and to engage in active listening.”Rebecca Honig, Chief Content & Curriculum Officer @ ParentPowered
4. Families have positive views of teachers and schools.
LESSON LEARNED: Parents, caregivers, and guardians all come to the table with their own experiences with and assumptions about school that affect how and if they engage.
Educators aren’t the only ones who might have hidden assumptions about family engagement — parents can hold them too!
Honig saw this assumption in action when ParentPowered designed a custom family engagement curriculum for a large school district. During listening sessions with parents, the team was thrilled by the productive ideation and active conversations. After one session, however, a parent stood, and, visibly frustrated, proclaimed, “I can’t engage with my kid’s school at all because my kid’s teacher doesn’t like me! They won’t give me the time of day!” Other families nodded in agreement.
The ParentPowered team shifted into active listening mode. It quickly became apparent that many parents had not-so-positive experiences with teachers in their past, which may have influenced their experience with their child’s school. Additionally, some families had attempted to connect with teachers at times that were difficult for a teacher to step away from, like during dropoff as they set up their classrooms for the day.
It was a recipe for distrust — but one that this district could change with the right steps.
ParentPowered leveraged these insights to build the family engagement program. They crafted text messages that normalized parent anxiety about connecting with schools and offered concrete strategies to make contact with teachers. The team also developed messaging that reinforced how essential a parent’s voice is to a student’s learning and clarified why parents might want to collaborate with teachers in the first place.
Honig emphasized that strategies for equitable family engagement depend on creating an inclusive, trusting connection between home and school. Here are her suggestions for building this trust:
- Take a trauma-informed approach to all engagement. A trauma-informed lens is critical to welcoming every family to the table, while being mindful of the unique experiences each family brings with them. After all, not every parent’s past experience with school was positive, but it can certainly become positive in the future. Everyone benefits from protective factors against trauma.
- Create a welcoming environment for all families. Right from the start, educators can set the tone for how they want families to experience their school community. A school front office is a perfect opportunity to shift negative beliefs about school. Using tools such as strengths-based language, visual cues that communicate inclusion, and translated resources available in families’ home languages are a few ways educators can craft that great first impression.
- Support families in connecting to one another, too. Educators can explore how less formal spaces and events help families to get to know each other. Family engagement activities like virtual family workshops, school performances, or even community events all offer opportunities for connection. Building a shared community around school, but not necessarily at school, cultivates that sense of belonging among families.
Evolving family engagement in education for the future
Families universally want the best for their children, and so do educators. Making family engagement integral to school culture requires moving beyond assumptions toward openly communication and collaboration. After all, family engagement is an ongoing process, not a box to check. From these stories shared, one thing is certain — there is always room for growth and learning when it comes to nurturing partnerships with families!