Encouraging Family Engagement in Learning

A Checklist for Encouraging Family Engagement

There is no doubt about the important role that parents and caregivers play in their children’s school lives.  Researchers have been telling us this for decades but up until now it has been much easier for teachers to just “get on with it” and for families to “leave us to it.”  

It seems that a strong home-school link is a concept that we know is important in theory but implementing it in an effective and meaningful way seems to be easier said than done.  This is an unfortunate situation to be in because, after all, educators and families all want the same thing: the success of our children in their learning and development all throughout their school life and beyond. 

The Center for Universal Education conducted a survey of over 25,000 parents across 10 countries on families’ beliefs, motivations, and sources of information with respect to their children’s education.  The results of this survey suggests that while most schools struggled to make this change to remote learning, those that had already strong established relationships to families before the pandemic were able to adapt quickly and more successfully to the new situation.

So what are the reasons that educators and families struggle to build trusting and effective partnerships? 

Challenges for Educators

  1. Have received minimal training.
  2. Have not been exposed to strong examples of family engagement.
  3. May not see partnership as an essential practice.
  4. May have developed deficit mindsets.

Challenges for Families

  1. Have not been exposed to strong examples of family engagement.
  2. Have had negative past experiences with schools and educators.
  3. May not feel invited to contribute to their children’s education.
  4. May feel disrespected, unheard, and unvalued.

If you are interested in learning more about the research that supports the lists above, take a look at The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships and work by Dr Karen Mapp.

It is very important to do your own research into what might be preventing better home-school partnerships from forming in your specific context.  But don’t stop there!  Take the next step and find specific and actionable ways to improve the situation.

Involvement vs. Engagement

Many educators and school management teams feel they are already doing their bit to create connections with families.  They are sending emails home regularly to keep families updated.  Whenever there is a problem they arrange a meeting to talk.  There might even be a special app that parents can use to talk to the school if they need help.  

However, what research and experience has taught me is that these actions alone are not enough to create the kind of school-family connections that raise student achievement.  For any remote, hybrid,  or socially-distanced teaching and learning experience to be a successful one, we must do more than involve families.  We must engage them.

What would you say the difference is between involvement and engagement?

I like the metaphor that Larry Ferlazzo uses to explain the difference. 

“A school striving for family involvement often leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute. A school striving for parent engagement, on the other hand, tends to lead with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about.”

Practical Ideas 

Over and over again, we have been told by researchers and educational leaders that trusting and authentic relationships are essential for making any family-engagement initiative work.

So in the next part of this post, I’d like to focus on relationship building with families and offer some practical suggestions for how you can start working on this tomorrow.

  1. Send something home to families to start the year on a positive note.

Good relationships are built over time and based on respect and trust. You can start this process now! Think of ways you can reach out to families.  

For example:

  • A start-of-the-year or term message to say how much you are looking forward to collaborating with them and supporting their children through the challenges of 2021.
  • An email about what your hopes are for this coming school period and inviting them to share theirs.
  • An invitation for them to give you feedback about the previous period and suggestions for the coming one.
  1. Get to know your students’ parents/caregivers.
    Remember that conversations with families should not only be focused on admin and student progress. From day one, make an effort to get to know the families of your students. It can be as simple as learning their names and showing interest in them as people (not just as parents/caregivers).

For example:

  • Make sure you have a list of students and the names of their parents/caregivers so you can refer to them by name when talking to them.
  • Be present and available before and after class and look for opportunities to chat with the adults who drop them at school/appear on screen – even if it’s just a quick “Hi, how are you?”.
  • Send home a video introducing yourself and invite families to do the same.
  1. Find out relevant information about your students’ home context.  

In 2021, schools should periodically invite families to share what is going on at home. Have they lost family members, been affected financially or had problems adjusting? This is the kind of background information that can help educators and school management make better decisions about how to support families and students.

  1. Be the voice of reason and reassurance. 

From the very beginning, show parents that you are prepared and ready for any new challenge.  Reassure them, with words and actions, that you are reliable and committed to working in partnership with them to make 2021 a success.

You could:

  • Hold an informative meeting at the start of the school year to propose this home-school partnership.
  • Educate them by sharing research-based information.
  • Ask for and respond to feedback regularly.
  1. Choose an appropriate channel of communication and make sure everyone knows how to use it.  

This has always been important but these days, it has become essential. Without a user-friendly and reliable channel of communication, it becomes incredibly difficult to maintain a good relationship with families. Regular updates are useless if no one is reading them or able to respond.

  1. Don’t wait for families to reach out to you.  

By then, it may be too late. Especially in the first few weeks of the new school year, make an effort to contact them regularly. Check in and see if they have any questions or suggestions. This will create a culture of communication and make them feel more comfortable opening up to you if they need to.  

  1. Send parents regular messages about how the school plans to respond to the changing situation.  

Establish realistic expectations and hear their opinions about a possible closing/reopening of the school in the future. Be transparent, honest, and open to hearing their opinions. 

  1. Share health and safety procedures with families.

Many families will be worried about how you plan to keep their children safe if returning to the classroom. Anticipate their questions by providing them with the official health and safety guideline that the school is following. You could also let them know how you plan to support the children emotionally and academically during the new school year.

I hope you have found the information and suggestions in this post useful.  You can also watch the National Geographic Learning webinar on this topic here and download the pdf with the suggestions here.

References and Further Reading

PTA, N. (2000). Building Successful Partnerships: A Guide for Developing Parent and Family Involvement Programs. (pp. 11-12). Bloomington, Indiana: National PTA, National Education Service.   

Ferlazzo, L., & Hammond, L. A. (2009). Building parent engagement in schools. Santa Barbara, CA: Linworth.10-14. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may11/vol68/num08/Involvement-or-Engagement%C2%A2.aspx

Epstein, J. L,  Sanders M. G,  Sheldon, S.B, and Associates, (2019) School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, 4th edition,. Corwin Press.

See www.partnershipschools.org for more information

Ershad, M., Winthrop, R. (2021) Know Your Parents, A global study of family beliefs, motivations, and sources of information on schooling. https://www.brookings.edu/essay/know-your-parents/

The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. https://www.dualcapacity.org.

Author: Claire Venables

Claire Venables has a wide range of experience as a teacher, teacher-trainer, Director of Studies and materials writer. She spent a decade teaching in Europe, where she obtained her Trinity DipTESOL, before moving to Brazil in 2011. She now works exclusively as an educational consultant, writer, speaker and is the Director of Active English. Join her community of Young Learner Teachers on Instagram @activeenglishforkids.

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