Written by April Hawkins, marketing manager; edited by Maren Madalyn
I recently interviewed several school and district leaders to understand which challenges weighed heaviest on their minds at this point in the school year. Though they represented different states, school types, and leadership roles, every administrator shared the same concern: families were frustrated. They emphatically agreed on one key priority, too: establish trusted partnerships with families. To do this, they needed strategies for equitable family engagement that teachers, school staff, and the broader school community could implement.
I was formerly an administrator myself, and my district also faced difficulty partnering with families in student learning. At the time, my primary responsibility was to secure family buy-in and support for a multi-year action plan that outlined how our district would spend $52 million in funding on student needs.
Our district was made up of families with vastly different needs. 73% of our students were low-income and/or English learners; the other 27% were affluent and mostly White. We designed the services in our action plan specifically to support ELL students, foster youth, students from low-income families, and African American students. Our academic goal was to close a wide learning gap identified between our Black students and their White or Asian counterparts.
Our team knew that family input was essential to include in our strategic planning, and we needed to ensure they were part of creating success for our students. We knew that we needed new, more effective strategies for equitable family engagement — ones that would bring these diverse stakeholders to the table. We knew too that family engagement could unlock critical benefits for our entire school community.
The challenge? Many of our families did not trust the district. Furthermore, because of this lack of trust, families were angry and frustrated. As a result, overall parental involvement with our schools was low.
Before our vision for equitable family engagement could come to life, our families needed empowerment, in ways they had not experienced historically with their schools. That way, our district and school leaders could engage in active partnership and dialogue with families to support student success.
Our first and most critical step to increase family engagement was to re-establish our families’ trust in the district.
Trust underpins all strategies for equitable family engagement
School leaders today face the same urgency I once did to cultivate trusting relationships with families. Trust is the foundation of the school-home partnership and effective family engagement strategies. In fact, trust is so important in approaches to family engagement in education that it drove Dr. Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education to revise her Dual Capacity Framework for Family-School Partnerships.
In the latest version, her research places trust as a top priority for education leaders to nurture in their family engagement initiatives. She explained that “the development of relational trust between home and school is key for any other partnership work to actually take place.”
And today educators especially need strong family-school partnerships. As the effects of the pandemic continue evolving, polarized viewpoints on education, strained teaching resources, and challenges to adult and student mental health are taking a toll on school climate and academic learning. Families will ultimately play a critical role in schools’ efforts to recover from these negative effects. Schools and families that trust each other will be best positioned to help everyone to heal from the trauma of the pandemic.
What does it take for the entire school team to truly build and maintain their families’ trust?
Five components to (re)building trust with families
When I designed family-school engagement strategies for our district, I concentrated our resources across five key areas:
- Creating listening opportunities
- Applying a strengths-based approach to parent engagement strategies
- Integrating cultural responsiveness
- Establishing two-way, meaningful dialogue with families
- Bringing engagement opportunities to the community
Let’s take a closer look at how each of these components cultivates trust and how school staff can put them into practice to boost parent involvement. At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to cultivating a reciprocal relationship with families. As you design new or update existing strategies for equitable family engagement, we hope these examples inspire your family engagement programs.
1. Listen first – actively!
A core component of any trusted relationship is listening. Linda Kekelis, a Family Engagement Advisor for STEM Next Opportunity Fund, calls listening “the secret sauce of family engagement.” Why? As Dr. Karen Mapp puts it, “One of the best ways to earn someone’s respect is to let them know you value what they say and you’re listening to them.”
Seems simple enough, right? Well, not exactly.
Listening — particularly active listening — is a skill that requires practice and consistency to reap its benefits. Teachers often feel the challenges of active listening most acutely. Natural feelings of uncertainty around change management and sharing expertise can also affect school-family listening practices.
When practiced well, active listening helps develop a healthy and productive school climate. Little by little, active listening culture can ultimately build a supportive learning environment that improves student learning outcomes and overall mental health.
Begin creating an active listening culture both at school and in families’ homes with these tips:
- Assess your listening opportunities. Identify blockers impacting these opportunities and which need to be tackled first.
- Bake bite-sized active listening practices into staff touchpoints before asking staff to apply them in family contact. This helps educators get comfortable with the basics and normalize these practices.
- Share this parent resource on active listening with families, so they too can learn how to model these skills with students in their home environment.
Learn more about how active listening improves school community engagement and culture in our recent post, Improving School Climate – How to Bring it Home.
2. Use a strengths-based approach
The term ‘strengths-based’ originally comes from social work practice and research. According to the University of Kansas, strengths-based refers to “an approach… that puts the strengths and resources of people, communities, and their environments –- rather than their problems and pathologies – at the center of the helping process.”
The principles of strengths-based partnership offer schools the strategies they need to strengthen trust and establish joyful relationships with families. By emphasizing a family’s existing assets, schools send a powerful message to families that they already have what it takes to improve their students’ learning.
Start first with adopting this assumption: every family wants what is best for their student, and they already have a wealth of knowledge available to support them and enrich the community. This mindset shift helps educators get curious about each family’s strengths and identify ones that would benefit their students.
Take a look at these tips for schools to learn more about strengths-based strategies for equitable family engagement.
3. Create culturally responsive relationships
As the Administration for Children and Families explains, educators and families share “a commitment to provide the best care and learning environment for all children. Building relationships with families helps… create that environment. Understanding each other’s cultural perspectives is an important part of building these meaningful relationships.”
A family’s culture plays a critical role in their understanding of the world around them, including their experience of school. Culture informs what a caregiver, parent, or guardian believes they can and should do for their child’s development, education, mental health, and so much more.
Engaging families in a trusting relationship requires schools to design equitable collaboration opportunities with their families. Put another way, schools celebrate and recognize the unique cultural diversity within their community as they design family engagement activities. In these communities, a unique perspective is viewed as a valuable resource for bolstering student learning.
How does this connect back to trust?
Schools that welcome diverse family input, regardless of the languages spoken or family circumstances, help reduce cultural barriers that may affect a family’s trust in their school. For example, using culturally responsive communication between families and school staff signals that they care about each family’s sense of belonging. Taking this equitable approach to family engagement encourages families to feel more comfortable connecting back with their schools and positively impacts students’ success.
To integrate culturally responsive engagement with families, we recommend beginning with an audit of your existing strategies. Here are a few questions to get started:
- Which voices are missing from communication between families and our school? Are we presenting materials in culturally sensitive ways?
- Have we established multilingual family engagement opportunities? For example, are all school experience resources available in each family’s home language?
- Do we understand the most common barriers that our families face outside of school? What are our families’ most essential needs? For example, how can we help connect families with resources like child care, mental health support, or other essential services?
4. Build two-way, meaningful communication loops
Though it seems straightforward, I want to underscore the important role that communication plays in building trusted and even joyful relationships with families. Specifically, I mean two-way, meaningful communication between families and schools, one of the most effective strategies for equitable family engagement.
Many educators already utilize communication methods like the take-home folder or Back-to-School Night to maintain contact with parents, caregivers, and guardians. However, these approaches often emphasize information flowing from school out to the community.
Schools must also lay the groundwork for families to communicate back to schools as easily –- even the hard-to-reach families. A positive feedback loop includes families in student learning on a regular basis, allowing trust to grow and encouraging greater parental involvement.
To build and sustain trust with your families, make sure your communication practices account for the following factors.
Create spaces in which staff and families can truly dialogue with one another, even if these conversations may be difficult. For example, encourage staff to follow up after a parent shares feedback or concerns. Even a note thanking a parent for their input sends a message that this parent’s voice is valued and appreciated. Family surveys offer another, more structured way to uplift parent, guardian, and caregiver voices in a school decision-making process. Don’t forget to keep families in the loop by sharing the survey results and their impact on school improvement or other plans!
Meaningful information only
Like educators, parents often have little time to manage the many responsibilities of their day. Before asking for families’ time to review any communication, ensure that it has a clear and tangible benefit or includes critical, must-read information. For more tips, you can watch our webinar about family communication or download our one-page summary.
Everyone has experienced the frustration of sending a message or email, only to wait without a response for days or weeks. As best as possible, respond to family outreach in a consistent and timely fashion. You can even use a simple reply like “Thank you, I need to think about this” or “I appreciate your feedback, let me connect with our staff” if pressed for time. Though brief, these responses tell parents reaching out that their input has been received and acknowledged.
Take a look at our recent research round-up for more insights about effective family communications.
5. Bring engagement into the community
This last component of trust-building was the most crucial of my district’s strategies for equitable family engagement. Though we also put the first four elements into practice, they were not enough to build a positive relationship with our diverse community. We needed to go into the community itself — meeting families and trusted community leaders where they gathered.
In our neighborhood, that meant trips to the Latino community center, churches, and even youth centers to engage both adult and child perspectives on our schools. Our families already trusted these community-based organizations. By partnering with local groups, our team gained allies to support our efforts to engage with our families.
We also removed the most common barriers affecting our families’ capacity to participate in family events. By meeting at local community organizations, we connected with more parents, caregivers, and guardians, including those we may not have previously engaged. Family circumstances like traveling for long distances, finding a babysitter, or taking time off from work no longer blocked their involvement.
Here are ways to leverage local community organizations as part of your strategies for equitable family engagement:
- Reach out to local organizations to understand how families use their resources. What are their greatest needs? How can school family engagement practices help connect families with community resources to meet these needs?
- For in-person family education programs, be sure to offer food, free child care, and any translation services you may need. These provisions make such activities as accessible as possible to all families, increasing engagement rates over time.
- Consider other ways to make family involvement in school matters more accessible. For example, digital engagement methods, like this example used by West Contra Costa County, offer flexible ways for families to connect with their schools from afar.
Trusted relationships drive healthy school community engagement
Trust plays a key role in successful partnerships between schools and families, just as it serves as the foundation of a healthy relationship between two people. And most, if not all, strategies for equitable familiy engagement depend on this foundation of trust to impact student learning for the better.
By nurturing these basic components of trust, teachers and school leaders encourage the entire community to collaborate, connect, and stay resilient during turbulent times. Bolstering the network of support around students ultimately boosts their academic and social-emotional well-being. And when students thrive, everyone thrives!