Opinion

Analysis: 4 Steps Schools Can Take to Boost Family Engagement and Make Parents Partners in Their Kids’ Success

By Jessica Lander | November 10, 2017

One of the most important factors affecting children’s academic success doesn’t come from the classroom — it comes from the support of students’ families.

The research is clear: When parents are engaged, children are more likely to succeed. Studies from the U.S. Department of Education, Harvard University, and elsewhere have catalogued the powerful effects of schools’ partnerships with families. Attendance and grades shoot up, as do a child’s likelihood of taking higher-level courses, graduating from high school, and enrolling in college. Dropout rates decrease and students act out less. Children say they are more excited to learn.

Not only does robust family engagement support students, but research reveals that such partnerships are an essential component of teacher success in the classroom and job satisfaction. Teachers who have strong family partnerships report that their workload decreases and they find their work more enjoyable and fulfilling. Teachers also tend to remain at their school longer.

Truly engaging with families goes far beyond asking parents to make cookies for a school bake sale or holding a twice-yearly open house. True engagement is a partnership between equals, both working to support individual children.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act has elevated the importance of parent engagement, setting aside funding and requiring states to develop strategies for effectively engaging with families.

Yet for too long, there has been minimal guidance, training, time, or support for teachers and schools in creating strong partnerships with students’ families.

For the past two years, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Karen Mapp, 20-year veteran Boston Public School teacher Ilene Carver, and I (a teacher for five years, primarily of English language learners) have been exploring and documenting the steps that teachers can take to best connect with families. We talked with teachers and other educators from across the country, learning about strategies and best practices.

This past summer, we published Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success, capturing a year of key practices that teachers can use — from home visits in August to parent-teacher conferences in November to special education meetings in February.

What can teachers and administrators do to more deeply connect with their students’ families?

Examine biases

Our core beliefs affect how we interact with our students’ families. Teachers and families often come from different backgrounds, and those differences can cause us unintentionally to make assumptions and judgments about the desire of families to be involved or their strength of commitment to their children’s education.

We believe it is essential to recognize the assets that families bring to such partnerships. Being willing to honestly examine our assumptions and appreciating families’ many strengths is a necessary foundation for creating strong working relationships.

Build trust

Powerful partnerships require trust on both sides. Unfortunately, families often have many reasons to distrust schools. From the education hierarchy to all-too-common histories of disrespect and racism toward certain demographics of students, barriers stand in the way of building trusting relationships between schools and families.

Yet we know that when trust is established, students benefit. A University of Chicago study that followed 400 schools found significant academic gains by students in schools that prioritized relationship-building between families and teachers, compared with schools that didn’t.

Take the first step

Teachers’ initial conversations with families set the tone for the rest of the school year. The first contact should not wait until a child acts out. Rather, schools should reach out and invite families to engage as full partners, asking some essential questions: What are the family’s hopes and dreams for the child? What does the family need from the school to ensure the child succeeds? This initial conversation sends a clear message that families are the experts about their children, and we want to learn from them so we can best support their futures.

Those first contacts can take place in school, on the phone, in emails — or in students’ homes. Organizations like the national Parent Teacher Home Visit Project train school staff across the country to conduct home visits at the start of the school year.

But building (or rebuilding) trust takes persistence and dedication.

Follow through

Events that schools already have — open houses, meetings to discuss students’ Individualized Education Programs, parent-teacher conferences — can be great opportunities for developing and sustaining these partnerships throughout the year. But too often, they are structured in ways that don’t invite families to be equal partners. We’ve heard of plenty of open houses where families stand in line to talk to teachers for five minutes, or IEP meetings where families are intimidated by the education jargon that is used.

We can make these events more successful by restructuring them to allow for two-way communication, rather than being one-sided opportunities for school staff to share rules, knowledge, or opinions.

Open house nights can be a place where families get to know one another, instead of just meeting the teacher. Classroom expectations and curriculum content can be easily shared in a one-page handout, so when a teacher sit downs with a family, that precious time can be spent listening. This same strategy works well for parent-teacher conferences.

At IEP meetings, school staff can make sure to speak in plain English and focus on sharing and discussing short-term and long-term goals of both the family and the teachers. Creating a one-page, easy-to-understand summary of a student’s strengths and areas for growth provides a starting place for families to engage in an academic discussion about their child.

And there are texting apps, like Remind, that allows teachers to connect with families throughout the year in more than 80 languages.

These are just a few of many ideas, drawn from teachers across the country, that reshape traditional school events into opportunities for families to feel they are engaged and respected partners. Building such relationships takes time, commitment, and trust. But they are essential for our work as teachers and for our students’ success.

I see the importance of engaging with families every day. In my classroom, where I teach 150 teenagers — mostly recent immigrants and refugees — my students’ families are my closest allies and best collaborators. Together, we are working to support these young people both at home and in the classroom.

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