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Understanding Family Engagement Meaning and Its Importance

“Family engagement means more than simply informing parents about their child’s progress or challenges” [IRIS Center]

When it comes to one of the most important components related to student success and school improvement, it’s mission-critical to understand the meaning of family engagement, including a commonly understood definition of what family engagement is, why it’s important, and approaches for improving it.

While much has changed over the years related to how we as a society interact, communicate, and maintain relationships, the fundamental principles of family engagement in schools remain unchanged. Therefore, most family engagement research needs to be applied using up-to-date approaches.

This article is not as in-depth as many of the research reports you can find about family engagement in schools. Instead, it will help you understand the 8 things you should know right now.

Let’s get started. As an overview, here are the 8 things you should know about family engagement in school:

1. What is Family Engagement?
2. Why is Family Engagement Important for Schools?
3. How Do Schools Improve Family Engagement?
4. How Can Schools Improve Communication with Families?
5. What Should Schools Do to Engage Disengaged Families?
6. Family Engagement is Not All About School Events
7. How to Engage Families at Home? Help Families Ask Better Questions
8. Involve Families in the Decision-Making Process

1. What is Family Engagement?

Family Engagement in the context of K-12 education refers to the process of schools and families working together around a child’s learning in a collaborative and supportive manner to promote the child’s development and wellbeing. In the past, family engagement has been referred to as parent involvement and parent engagement. However, family engagement is now widely accepted as the term used to describe this practice.

The above definition of family engagement is derived from the U.S. Department of Education, NAFSCE, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The term “family” is inclusive of all adults who interact in school systems in support of their child, including biological, adoptive, and foster parents; grandparents; legal and informal guardians; and adult siblings.

2. Why is Family Engagement Important for Schools?

Family engagement is based on decades of research that demonstrates that families play an important role in students’ development and learning. Importantly, it has been proven that when families are meaningfully engaged in learning, students demonstrate better grades, test scores, attendance, and behavior. It also has a positive impact on teachers, as there are typically improvements in teacher satisfaction and retention.

Here’s a short clip from one of Livingtree’s Family Engagement webinars with Dr. Steve Constantino on the ROI of Family Engagement:

3. How Do Schools Improve Family Engagement?

While family outreach might be a common strategy, oftentimes there is apprehension among school staff. This apprehension usually stems from either a lack of understanding, a lack of culture in the school, a lack of capacity – or some combination.

To engage families, the first step for schools is to establish a culture that embraces family engagement as a core value of the school. To do this, staff members must understand the importance and impact of family engagement on student learning.

Additionally, once staff members embrace and recognize family engagement among their school culture, they must then have the capacity to implement effective strategies and practices. Unfortunately, family engagement is seldomly covered in teacher preparation programs, leaving most teachers without knowledge about what good family engagement looks like or how to engage families.

Much like you are doing here, it is important to cover the groundwork with all staff members to build a better understanding of family engagement. Further investing in family engagement training and professional development is another way to fast-track the capacity-building of the staff members in your school or district.

4. How Can Schools Improve Communication with Families?

Family engagement research indicates that two-way communication is a fundamental core process. However, there are also many barriers hidden in communication that can hinder family engagement. This can include using primarily one-way communication, failing to translate communications, and/or not communicating effectively.

One-way communication is easy. It involves sending information home. Folders, grades, newsletters, forms, school notifications and alerts – while important, don’t drive authentic family engagement. These therefore cannot be the only types of communication that schools have with families. There must be real, two-way conversations that take place where teachers and staff members invite family feedback and participation in the conversation.

One Way Communication

Additionally, communication should be delivered effectively. Families should have one place that they can view all communication from their child’s classroom, school, and district. They shouldn’t be juggling several places for bits and pieces.

Unfortunately, with time, districts often accumulate several methods for communicating with families. There are websites, emails, alerts, and mass communications from the district and school buildings, plus even more third-party apps and tools used in classrooms.

After sorting through it all, families find that they are receiving communication in 8 or 9 different ways, causing even the best to start checking out. Many districts have revealed through surveys that families want one simple source for all their communication, such as a unified school communication platform.

Families Frustrated by School Communication App Overload

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to family communication. Because this section could stand alone as it’s own article, here are some quick tips:

Start the year off with a phone call, and check in throughout the year (direct two-way communication!). Use questions to try and exact valuable information about the student and their family.

Don’t only communicate when something is wrong. A family’s first thought when they see their child’s school calling shouldn’t be “oh no” or “something must be wrong.” What does that say about their relationship and expectations with the school? Communicate often and share positive feedback.

Communicate what will happen, not what already happened. Letting families know about a grade on last week’s test doesn’t promote engagement. Families can’t engage with (or fix) things that happened in the past. Instead, provide families information about things ahead of time that are going to happen.

Ensure that families can receive classroom, school, and district communication in one place. School districts often have different methods of communication at the district-level than they do at the school and classroom-levels. As a result, families are going here for this, and there for that – and eventually it becomes frustrating. Instead, provide a way for families to choose how they are notified and receive everything in one place. You can do this with a district-wide or school-wide communication platform.

Eliminate language barriers by ensuring that families can receive all communication in their primary language. You can do this by ensuring that your school’s or district’s communication platform translates everything into a family’s primary language.

Bonus info: Get the Family Engagement Technology guide for the 4 capabilities your engagement platform must have and the best practices for school districts to implement a unified solution.

5. What Should Schools Do to Engage Disengaged Families?

When families are disengaged and not involved or participating, you can’t just do things at school – you must go to them. There are a number of reasons why you might not ever hear from a student’s family, but continuing to reach out from your school site and expecting engagement is ineffective.

Instead, you have to get out into the community in order to reach and build trust with the families who are disengaged. A common saying is that before they come to you, you must go to them.

Here’s Todd Nesloney’s take on this idea from one of Livingtree’s Family Engagement webinars:

Here are a few ways you can “go to” families:
• Conduct home visits
• Host events out in the community (cookouts, family fun nights, car parades)
• Hold school meetings in the community (at places of worship, community centers, public libraries, etc.)

6. Family Engagement is Not All About School Events

A common misconception is that schools must host events and get families to physically attend school functions. While events are a great way to bring families together and provide different resources to those who need it, events and event attendance are not correlated with, nor a measure of family engagement.

Research has shown that the most powerful family engagement that best promotes student learning happens outside of school. The most authentic engagement between a parent and a child happens in the car, on the walk to the bus stop, at the kitchen table – away from school.

The challenge for schools is to focus less on hosting events at school, and more on finding ways to effectively reach families in ways that promote family efficacy and engagement outside of school.

Here’s Dr. Steve Constantino on one of Livingtree’s Family Engagement webinars and his take on this challenge:

7. How to Engage Families at Home? Help Families Ask Better Questions

If the best forms of family engagement happen outside of school, then the key is to empower families to engage in their child’s learning. The easiest way to do that is to help families ask better questions.

Too often, the extent of the conversation about school is (get ready, bet this sounds familiar!):

Family member: “What did you do at school today?”
Child: “Nothing.”
Family member: “Do you have homework?”
Child: “Not much”

The goal is to change that scenario so that families don’t have to ask, and instead already know. One of the best techniques is to provide families with effective questions to ask their children at home. Take this example:

“This week in mathematics we will be learning about the order of operations. This is simply the order in which students should multiply, divide, add, and subtract in their math equations. Ask your child about the following:
What acronym did you learn to remember the order of operations? (Answer: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”
What does the acronym stand for? (Answer: Parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction)

Quizzing your child on these questions will help them memorize the concept and successfully use it on our test next week. Please let me know if there are any questions or struggles.”

Think about how much more well-equipped a family member is with that information and how much easier it is to be engaged in their child’s learning.

8. Involve Families in the Decision-Making Process

Involving families in the decision-making process of a school or district is important. Not only does it build trusting relationships with the school system and staff members, but families also become more supportive of the school or district.

When families feel as though they have a role in the school, the school becomes more communal – where they feel like they can refer to it as “our school.” If families aren’t involved in any decisions, they don’t feel like they have a role at the school and it simply becomes “the school.” So it’s extremely beneficial to give families the ability to provide feedback and engage in decisions that impact their children.

Here are just a few areas that you can involve families in the decision-making process:

• Inviting families to attend and participate in school improvement meetings
• Creating an open and accepting process to invite family concerns and complaints
• Gathering family input on testing dates
• Gathering family input on the types of events that will be held throughout the year
• Gathering family input on event dates and times
• Gathering family input on how conferences will be conducted
• Gathering family input on field trips

Conclusion: Remember, Family Engagement is a Partnership

Family engagement requires teamwork between schools and families. Family engagement is a strategy that requires families and school staff to work collaboratively in order to benefit the student.

Regardless of whether you’re approaching this for the first time, or a seasoned veteran looking to further enhance family engagement, hold on to this: both sides care. Teachers and school staff members care about their students and want them to succeed. Families also want their children to succeed simply due to a common desire among all parents for their children to exceed them in their quality of life.

If you remember that, and apply those 8 pieces of knowledge about family engagement, you can make a difference.

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