Written by the ParentPowered Team; edited by Maren Madalyn
When I reflect on family-school partnerships examples, one story from my own life always stands out to me.
I received an email from my son’s teacher reading, “Math support needed at home.” They explained that M. was struggling with multiplication. “Could you work with him on the times tables at home?” his teacher asked.
I immediately responded “yes” and set aside time to sit with M. that evening. When M. arrived home, I found a stack of “Math Minutes” multiplication worksheets in his backpack. I pulled them out, ready to get to work.
But the moment M. saw what I was holding, all the color drained from his face as he gasped. I braced myself for a meltdown.
“NOOOOO!!” he groaned, pointing at the papers in my hand. “Not here!! Not at home!! Where did you get those??”
As educators, when we see a student struggling, we first spot a symptom. The child struggles to do math worksheets, or they can’t focus during story time, for instance.
We also know that this symptom is usually NOT the true underlying issue. Instead, it is a puzzle piece that fits into a much bigger picture that makes up the whole child. Often that big picture extends beyond the classroom and into the student’s home and community — both of which have a significant influence on children’s learning. Schools rely on an ecosystem of partners directly involved in nurturing young people. This team collects and assembles all these puzzle pieces of a child’s progress into a sensical story.
And this team includes families. Family-school partnerships are the key to supporting children’s education and success because educators and families can co-design solutions that move a struggling student back on track.
At this point in my career in education, I have worked on many of these puzzles — as a teacher, 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” homework I held aloft, I took a deep breath.
“Can you tell me more about these,” I asked calmly.
“THOSE,” he emphasized, “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 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 his answer.
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 and began addressing concerns about his well-being. Just as families need their children’s school to support them with children’s development and learning, educators need their families too. Family involvement and community engagement are the fastest routes to remedying challenges that affect kids academically, socially, and emotionally. These relationships create a supportive learning environment that can meet the diverse needs of children across all school years.
In fact, research has long highlighted the positive impact that strong family-school relationships have on children’s education, including academic achievement and school climate. When done well, family and community involvement gives school communities incredible benefits. From boosted math and reading scores, to increased graduation rates, to better social and emotional wellness in children, to increased teacher satisfaction – a nurtured family-school partnership is catalytic to school success and student learning.
My family’s active role and strong partnership with M.’s school was critical to organize help for his anxiety and math performance. After several parent teacher conferences where we swapped 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? 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 homework or school performance. Family and community engagement with our elementary school was essential to achieving this outcome.
What effective partnerships look like
A solid family-school partnership offers tremendous power to support children and schools, just as it supported my own child. So what does it take to bring this kind of partnership to life in school communities?
Let’s start with reviewing 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.” Further, she emphasizes that in successful partnerships, a child’s education is a shared responsibility between the home and school community.
The model guides schools to first concentrate on creating five essential conditions to engage families. Putting these conditions into practice fundamentally strengthens family involvement opportunities.
In sum, Dr. Mapp’s framework explains that all family and community engagement strategies must be:
- Relational: built on mutual trust
- Linked to children’s 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. For example, culturally responsive communication practices boost parent trust in school communities, which encourages greater participation in accessible, interactive family events at their children’s schools.
Ultimately, these five conditions are about crafting a reciprocal relationship and shared responsibility between home and school to help students thrive.
Family-school partnerships examples in action
We at ParentPowered have worked with hundreds of other education 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 your parent involvement and 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
Engaging families with strengths-based practices starts with adopting two core elements of its mindset. First, you assume that families want what’s best for their kids. Second, you recognize that family members already have knowledge and resources available to support their student’s learning and development.
In addition to practicing parent involvement with this shifted mindset, we also recommend that 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 behaves in a challenging way 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 progress in children’s learning.
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 a school community, it is just as important to provide information out to families as it is to receive information from families.
Bringing it to life
Consider these strategies as you design a complete communication loop when engaging 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 for guiding families to connect with their schools.
- Seek family input. Family feedback helps educators shape the school experience to benefit all children. 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 at community events 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 academic and emotional learning journey. It also impacts their family’s experiences of a school community. 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. School personnel 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 involvement efforts, start with these foundational steps:
- Audit your existing approach to family engagement: Spend time upfront understanding how well current engagement strategies account for the diversity of families in your school 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?” and “Do parents understand how to get language support from our school?” 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 staff to develop 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 and effective partnerships in education, read our recent post Culturally Responsive Family Engagement: A Path to Partnership.
Community partnerships that recognize family needs
Family-school partnerships examples 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 children’s education.
Bringing it to life
Here are a few ways that your school can build partnerships, mutual support, 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 emotional development, self efficacy, school readiness, academic achievement, and more. Family surveys offer a simple way to discover what support families want most. You can also contact local organizations and community leaders to learn which services families are already utilizing.
- 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 school activities on campus or during school hours, some families will struggle to participate. Barriers like transportation costs or home languages other than English derail family-school relationships and erode mutual trust. 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 in all strategies for equitable family engagement.
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 school community with these partnerships in place.
Envision your students thriving in their learning and growth, set up for long-term success in this world. Picture a child’s teacher and parents sharing their unique knowledge and wisdom to create new learning opportunities for the kid during each of their school years. Imagine your entire community working together to cultivate an inclusive, trusting school climate, ultimately contributing to school success as a whole.
It is both empowering and freeing to witness the fruits of strong family, school, and community partnerships. As my own family members and I can affirm – all the time, effort, and resources necessary to engage families in children’s education are efforts well spent.
And we have the “Math Minutes” results to prove it.