Broadening Family Engagement

We’re delighted to share the following from guest blogger, Eden Segal.

Family engagement in schools is based on relationships

How do you recruit families? Invite and build relationships. Communication is a two-way proposition that is critical to building relationships. We often “push” information to families. We send home fliers in backpacks, post schedules in main offices, and email families from accounts to which we don’t reply. Historically, many believed that families—at least some families—didn’t add much to student learning and development. Some still secretly dismiss what positive additions can be made by families they don’t see. If parents really want to be involved, they will come or call, right? Building a positive school climate demands dynamic communication to engage and welcome families. Caring adults see it. So do students. I take careful note of this when I visit a school.

Questions on which to reflect when thinking about family engagement

When I set up my classroom to be welcoming for students, do I consider families? If I call it “our” classroom, do I include families? Who can be part of our classroom and under what conditions? For school leaders, what is expected of front desk staff to make parents feel welcome immediately? What space and other resources do I ensure we provide in the building? What messages do I send home about family engagement in our school? How do I react if a parent contacts me? For district leaders, what messages am I sending to families that I want them in our schools? Am I making sure that messaging is comprehensive? How do I react if a grandmother contacts me?

When you think of “family,” you are forgetting someone

As we build the role of families in the school, we need to make clear that all caring adults are welcome in the conversation and activities. We can lose the interest of grandparents and foster parents before we have a chance. Many think that they are not included in the invitation if we say “parents.” It is rare that we consider all relevant groups in our family engagement strategies. I have at times forgotten to think about how undocumented parents, non-custodial parents, incarcerated parents, or siblings fit. We might not have a unique strategy for reaching them, but we are more likely to reach our families—and our students—if we consider the range of possibilities.

My thoughts about Relationships and Technology for Engagement

I met with the LivingTree President, Joni Carswell, at a family engagement conference. I asked about the platform to expand my knowledge. We chatted about family engagement and the field, and she provided clear answers. We created a relationship. We talked about running and careers. As a result of the relationship, when Joni invited me to do something I said yes. Building good relationships will get your families to say yes, keep them coming back, and offer positive contributions to student outcomes that you have not yet imagined.

Consider engaging families in decision making about their engagement if you don’t already. This can include what platform to choose, the frequency, and how you use it. Choose a platform that allows you to engage all kinds of stakeholders authentically. Make sure it has the features to help touch your hardest to reach families—the kids most in need of a network of support. Evaluate what it adds to families’ experience.

A technology platform is only as good as the effort put into it to organize, update, reach out, respond, and follow-up. Here’s an analogy: in my education research at Westat, I use a data analysis platform that many people misunderstand. They think that I put responses to interview and survey questions into it, identify what I want to know, and it spits out answers. It doesn’t. The platform helps us find our answers. An information and communications platform for schools and families helps people provide information and communicate. It builds the network that we need in order to maintain solid relationships to help students learn and develop. Whatever platform you select for your district, make the most of what it offers.

Eden H. Segal works at Westat, a social science research company in Rockville, Maryland. Her work includes evaluating educational programs and providing technical assistance to federal grantees on a range of topics, including family engagement. She enjoys connecting about lessons learned and grappling with hard questions about learning. BA, Economics from Northwestern University, JD from Georgetown University, PhD, Education from the University of Maryland.

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