Regardless of their background, when families are involved in their child’s education, students are more successful in school. They have better attendance, earn higher grades, have higher test scores, and enroll in higher-level classes (Henderson & Mapp 2002; Wood & Bauman, 2017). In areas of social and emotional learning, students demonstrate positive social skills, improved behavior, and better adjustment to school. Finally, students with involved families are more likely to pass classes, graduate high school, and continue to postsecondary education (Henderson & Mapp 2002; Wood & Bauman, 2017).
Despite this strong evidence, there are many barriers to strong family-school partnerships. Many educators recognize the importance of family engagement but struggle to make it happen (MetLife, 2012). Similarly, many families, especially those in high-needs areas, say they want to support their children but do not know how to become involved in their children’s education (Wood & Bauman, 2017).
There are several strategies that districts and schools can employ to increase family engagement and empower families to become partners in their children’s education.
- Build educator capacity. Family members are more likely to be involved in their children’s education if they feel welcome and have trusting and supportive relationships with staff (Wood & Bauman, 2017). Training for school staff can help address some of these challenges. Topics should include developing a positive front-office staff focused on welcoming all families; helping educators see the benefits of family engagement; recognizing, respecting, and addressing cultural and class differences; strategies for integrating family engagement into school improvement planning; and modeling of ways to have respectful interactions during difficult conversations.
- Identify and address barriers to family engagement. Schools should consider things that discourage families from becoming involved at schools. For logistical barriers, schools can address factors such as work schedules, transportation, child care, and even food when planning family engagement events, especially when trying to engage hard-to-reach parents. There are also relational barriers to family engagement. If families do not have trusting relationships with school staff or do not feel that they have the skills or knowledge to navigate the school system, they may be less likely to be involved in their child’s education. This may be especially true for families from different cultural backgrounds than most school staff or who do speak English as their native language. Parent surveys can help schools learn more about parent needs. Staff training, as noted above, can help lay the foundation for positive relationships. Training for families or parent universities can help build family capacity for engagement.
- Start simple and build. Districts with low levels of family engagement can begin with training events that provide guidance on parenting skills and help families navigate their role in the education system. For families who are more comfortable with school involvement, districts and schools can help families develop leadership and decision-making skills, understanding student data, and relevant education legislation.
- Use a variety of approaches to engage families in student learning. In addition to structured training events, consider other approaches to family engagement such as hosting parent cafes, where family members can talk or learn from peers, or setting up a help desk at school events so that families can stop by and ask a specific question or get information.
- Leverage families’ leadership skills. Families who are already involved in schools can help with family outreach and also lead training sessions. These parent-teachers can provide important insights on families’ needs, and families who are just beginning to get involved in their children’s education may feel more comfortable working with other families. They can also help provide information to hard-to-reach families who may not feel comfortable talking to school staff or coming to the school.
- Make data accessible. Families can advocate for their children more effectively when they have access to and understand data (Wood, Shankland, Jordan, & Pollard, Summer 2014). To that end, districts and schools will want to ensure that data are accessible, understandable, actionable, valid, and reliable. For example, schools might help parents understand their student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), for students receiving special education services. During family training events, schools should provide multiple structured opportunities for families to meet with teachers to review and discuss student data.
Many schools and districts across the country are already implementing successful initiatives to improve family engagement. Examples of efforts in action can be found on our grantee highlights page, which showcases the work of Hornell City School District (NY), Oxnard School District, CA, among others. While each district takes on a unique path in designing ways for improving family engagement, all have one thing in common—time, commitment, collaboration, and planning. As you engage in designing family engagement strategies in your school or district, dedicate appropriate time to formulating solid goals, planning, flexibility, and building strong relationships with all involved. In doing so, best practices can be implemented with ease.