Why Family Engagement Matters
Children’s learning success depends not only on what happens in school but what happens at home. Research shows that a stronger connection between home and school means better outcomes for students. That’s why developing family-school partnerships is critical for academic achievement and school improvement. Parents are children’s first teachers, and children do best when the family, the school, and community all work in concert to support them, from birth through high school.
What is family engagement?
When you hear the words “family engagement,” you might think of parents volunteering in the classroom, joining a parent-teacher association, or attending a school board meeting. However, family engagement actually encompasses more than volunteerism and decision making. Sociology researcher Joyce Epstein’s widely cited typology includes 4 more types of family engagement: learning at home, communicating with the school, collaborating with the community, and general parenting practices. In addition, the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSCE) defines family engagement as “a shared responsibility in which schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to reaching out to engage families in meaningful ways and in which families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development.”
At ParentPowered, we think of family engagement as any activity that fosters the working relationship between educators and caregivers to support a student’s learning and development, in which caregivers are valued and effective partners in their child’s education. A caregiver is any supportive adult in a child’s life that has some responsibility for the student. In addition to biological parent(s), caregivers can also be grandparents, aunts and uncles, babysitters, or family friends who look after or mentor the child. Caregivers play crucial roles in supporting students at all ages.
Launching Students to Success: A Team Effort 🚀
Family engagement in education is no one person’s responsibility. Rather, research has shown that effective family engagement is a highly coordinated effort across the school, school district, community organizations, and caregivers. The vision for family engagement has evolved over time to include more stakeholders as part of a network of coordinated support for the child. A great way to understand effective family engagement is to imagine children’s education as the launch of a rocketship. Just like a successful trajectory to space requires specialized work by engineers, mathematicians, and scientists, successful learning and development for a child requires families, schools, and communities to team up and each play a role toward a common goal. NAFSCE and the FrameWorks Institute have taken the lead on promoting this metaphor, and family engagement leaders such as the Ohio Statewide Family Engagement Center (SFEC) and Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium’s CAFE use the idea of a space launch to communicate their vision.
MTSS & Community Schools
Multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is an integrated approach to mobilize resources toward helping every student succeed. With its multiple tiers or levels of intensity, it recognizes that while one student may be well served by a small group intervention, another student may benefit from a one-on-one intervention. MTSS recognizes that a multipronged strategy may be best to reach a particular goal. Family engagement efforts can fall into different MTSS tiers depending on the intensity and whom they’re meant to reach. For example, ParentPowered’s text messaging program to nudge parents into helpful habits of supporting learning and development at home is a Tier 1 intervention because it is a low lift program designed to give a base level of support to all students and families. An effective family engagement strategy may combine family engagement software like ParentPowered with more intensive Tier 2 and 3 interventions to ensure student success.
In MTSS, support for student success comes from multiple different team members of the school personnel or school community, including involvement from the family. This is a similar theme to community schools, which is an even more comprehensive approach to positive development for the student and family. In a community school, the public school is the hub for all kinds of services, not just academic, that can help students thrive. Community based organizations and healthcare providers work alongside school leaders to serve students and families.
According to the dual capacity building framework for family-school partnerships, developed by Dr. Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, effective family engagement in schools means establishing a collaborative relationship between schools and families. When a school is following the framework:
- Teachers and staff engage parents and caregivers as members of the learning team
- Family knowledge, cultures, and traditions are honored and reflected in the school and classroom
- Authentic parental involvement is incorporated into the decision-making process, from program creation to outcomes evaluation
- And a foundation of trust is established between the school and home
Achieving this state of synergism requires putting resources toward empowering both sides of the family-school partnership: parents and educators. It’s not enough to have a parent university or parent workshop, which builds the capacity of parents, if educators don’t have the training or support to put the dual capacity-building framework into practice. As a professional skill, staff need dedicated family engagement professional development on this topic to practice it effectively. Professional learning for educators is just one of the essential components to any family engagement toolkit.
Why is family engagement important?
Schools have enough to worry about with educating students in the classroom during the day. Yet many educators these days prioritize family and community engagement in schools. Many have budgets and staff dedicated specifically to engaging families. In addition, federal, state, and local governments are increasingly recognizing that family engagement is a critical piece to the puzzle of helping students succeed in public education. The importance of family engagement in education cannot be understated. Let’s explore just a few of the many benefits of family engagement:
Benefits to students
There’s a whole field of research on how students with families who are more engaged with them and with the school do better in school, both academically and behaviorally. This includes increasing graduation rates, improving outcomes for traditionally underserved student populations, and increasing math and reading scores. A meaningful family engagement approach that prioritizes parental involvement creates an environment in which families can productively advocate for their children as they grow up. From nurturing early literacy skills in toddlers to supporting career planning for high school students, family engagement must evolve to meet a student’s unique needs at each age.
Benefits to families
It feels good to know you’re doing right by your child! Parents want their children to learn and grow, and it can feel great to play a part. Also, supporting a child’s learning and growth can strengthen the parent or caregiver’s relationship with that child, which is inherently rewarding. The best family engagement programs also open up systems of support for the whole family, such as supplemental nutritional programs and health care resources.
Direct benefits to school
High quality family engagement lays the foundation for a healthy school culture rooted in trust. When students and families feel supported and engaged by their schools, school climate improves, teacher satisfaction and attendance increase, kids are more regulated and ready, and relationships between teachers and families improve. In addition, parents’ help in the classroom can be valuable, especially when that family comes from a different cultural or linguistic background with which the teacher is unfamiliar. When schools are able to partner with parents, students may be more likely to get their homework done.
Parents are children’s first teachers, and it turns out that what happens in the home before children even begin school can make a big difference for how ready children are to succeed at school. Researchers have found that achievement gaps begin before student are even enrolled. Some students are already behind on school readiness skills like phonological awareness, basic numeracy, and executive function by the time they reach kindergarten. Students from some demographic groups are disproportionately behind. Students from low-income families, students of color, and English Learners are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten. Thus, it’s important to reach parents with critical information on how to support their child’s healthy development from the very beginning of the child’s life or even before they are born.
Research has revealed how parental involvement makes measurable differences in student achievement, especially for disadvantaged student groups like those from low-income families. High quality family engagement builds relationships between the home and school that encourage family voice and advocacy for students. When families are feel more prepared and confident in representing the needs of their children, they increase the school’s ability to achieve equitable outcomes. Reformers have realized the great potential to narrow opportunity gaps through fostering family engagement for all families through new means and new partnerships, with many exploring how to reimagine family engagement to better meet the needs of families and schools.
School leaders often create parent education opportunities on topics they think parents ought to know about. However, the families who could benefit the most from these workshops are often the least likely to be able to attend the workshops. Families often have to secure childcare and transportation to get to an in-person workshop, or take time off from work if it’s during their work hours.
An equity-focused approach to family engagement is to set a goal of reaching all families (regardless of socioeconomic status). This often means making a special effort to design family engagement platform, programs, and solutions specifically for those in traditionally marginalized groups such as low-income families, families who speak languages other than English; immigrant, refugee, and migrant families; and families in racial minority groups.
As Dr. Karen Mapp points out, there are no hard-to-reach families, only hard-to-reach institutions. This means the responsibility is on schools to not just be approachable, but actually approach families in appropriate ways.
Technology and Innovation in Family Engagement
One major barrier to caregiver engagement has been getting families onto school sites. With an ever-increasing array of digital communication tools, we now have an opportunity to connect with more families more conveniently. For example, research has shown that text messaging can boost language and literacy scores, increase teacher satisfaction, and even help chronic absenteeism.
Family feedback can also lend itself to improving family engagement programs and strategies. In-text surveys are particularly useful for collecting caregiver input. When educators intentionally develop such examples of family engagement reporting and communicate their findings back to the broader school community, it signals the value of family voices in shaping the future of family-school partnerships and student learning.
With mountains of research and countless books available about development during childhood, the answer to this question can seem overwhelming. But at ParentPowered, we believe every parent and caregiver has what it takes to learn and own effective strategies for supporting healthy development and learning. That’s why we send them weekly texts with bite-sized information that’s easy to take in and use even on a busy day, without any extra supplies or special knowledge. The facts and tips cover math, literacy, socio-emotional learning, and more and are tailored to the child’s age, from birth to middle school.
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
Young children learn naturally through play! To support this, grown-ups can let loose and get silly and creative with their child, or simply encourage their child the freedom to play as part of their everyday routine. ParentPowered family workshops are filled with hands-on, child-led activities; songs and dances; games and poetry for this very reason.
Seasoned educators may forget that navigating the school system is not always second nature to families. We can’t take for granted that parents and other caregivers know how and when to speak with teachers or administrators about their child’s learning. Clearing the way for meaningful two-way communication with diverse families sets the stage for student success.
Language and Literacy
Even before children learn to read, they can build foundational skills like phonological awareness, vocabulary, and diverse background knowledge at home and in the world outside of school. Which language is spoken or read doesn’t matter—families can lean into whatever their home language is—as long as they provide a rich oral language and text environment for young children to learn key concepts that will help them learn to read and write. Even caregivers who don’t read or write can foster crucial literacy skills through the power of storytelling.
Math & Science
Good news for the math-phobic: you don’t have to be an expert to foster your children’s STEM learning! Simple practices like asking questions, comparing quantities and qualities, using the five senses, embracing mistakes, and doing simple experiments are great ways to develop math and science skills at home. This activity guide has more ideas!
When school lets out in May or June, many children don’t have as many opportunities to engage their brain and practice learning habits as they did during the school year. However, there are simple and fun things families can do to help their children’s minds stay active, like telling stories.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating effective family engagement policies, there are some general guidelines school leaders can use in developing authentic, interactive, trusting relationships with families by weaving them into family engagement strategies for schools.
Equitable / Accessible
The best educators put themselves in families’ shoes when designing programs. The families who could benefit the most from family engagement programs are often the underserved families who face barriers in accessing resources. Sending home an important memo? Translate it into the languages your students’ parents speak! Putting on a parent education workshop? Arrange for childcare or make the children part of the workshop! Organizing a family fun night in a rural district? Arrange for transportation or a virtual option.
One big reason families can feel deterred from becoming more involved in their child’s education is that the information on how to do that is too overwhelming. Not all families have time to catch up on the latest research and curricular updates, read parenting books, attend a workshop, or even read a newsletter. Look for small things families can integrate into their daily routines and do consistently over time to support their children.
Strengths-based / empowering
The mindset with which you approach family engagement matters. Family engagement is all about building relationships, and relationships require mutual respect and trust. To be strengths-based or asset-based rather than deficit-based, educators should begin with the assumption that families want what’s best for their children and have a wealth of knowledge that can be leveraged to support them and enrich the community. Another important way to be strengths-based is to hear the voice of families on important issues, from family engagement programs to school activities and policies. Families have a wealth of knowledge, especially about their children. Asking for input enables them to be part of important decisions for what happens with their children’s education.
What families need to feel empowered will differ depending on culture. Communication with families should be in a language and format that’s comfortable for them. Translations of written materials and interpretations of live content are actually required by federal law for families who speak a language other than English.
According to Kara Sammet and Linda Kekelis in their report Access and Inclusion in STEM through Culturally Responsive Family Engagement, culturally responsive family engagement “intentionally taps into family culture and history to develop curriculum that is engaging and meaningful, while also avoiding essentializing cultures.” Even when we don’t know everything about another community’s culture, values, and communication style, being aware of not knowing and being curious and open can go a long way. Specific training for school staff on culturally responsive practice can help build cultural proficiency and create a culture where diversity is valued.
Grows With The Student
Family engagement programs are often most robust at the youngest grades. Both schools and families can see the role of families as less critical to student success as they build their learning skills and independence. But research shows that family engagement is just as important (if not MORE important) as students enter adolescence. While the need for family engagement in adolescence stays the same, what that looks like does evolve. Learning best practices for middle school family engagement will help your team give older students and their families just-right insights to support their tweens and teens during these critical years.
The learning and growth of a child is a process full of joyful moments. There’s no reason that building relationships to support this learning and growth can’t be fun!
The dual capacity-building framework‘s nine “Essential Conditions” for family-school partnerships is another great compass toward building a strong family engagement strategy.
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