Phone calls, emails, and handwritten notes home. School leadership groups that include caregivers, faculty, and community members. Weekly lessons that invite families into the classroom and monthly events at the school where all are welcome. How do you engage families in student learning?
Extensive research shows that parent and family engagement contributes greatly to student success and student outcomes in school. In a 2017 Literature Review, The Nellie Mae Education Foundation found that “engagement at home was a statistically significant predictor of grades and days missed at school. Students with more engaged parents had higher academic achievement and missed fewer days of school.”
In fact, the most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are not family income or social status, but the ways in which a family provides a home environment that celebrates learning, establishes clear expectations, and becomes engaged with the child’s educational experience.
So, what is engagement? It differs from involvement, in which families participate in school activities, but still look to the teacher as the provider of all information, including grades, resources, or learning goals. With engagement, educators communicate with families about educational goals and priorities, build a relationship and lay down the framework for collaboration, and provide a space for collaboration beyond the classroom.
So how can we translate the above “fancy language” into concrete action items for families? Here are three ways:
Communicate with Families about Educational Goals and Priorities
There is no better way to make families feel included and valued than offering a variety of ways to communicate. In addition to receiving important information, regular updates, and additional resources, families also need the space to ask questions and provide their own feedback. And while specific, targeted outreach to families can sometimes be time-consuming and challenging, it does create an environment of trust and dialogue.
Intake conferences can be a great way to get face-to-face with families before the school year ramps up. If you can’t schedule intakes, Mellanay Auman, a middle school language arts teacher, sends home a fill-in-the-blank letter in English and Spanish the first week of school for the parents to write to her about their son/daughter. “They get a chance to tell me about what they want their child to accomplish in my class, and about their child’s strengths, hobbies, and interests.”
Throughout the year, maintain communication by regularly checking in with phone calls, emails, handwritten notes, or a journal sent back and forth between home and school. Blogs, apps, and class websites are also a great way to post daily pictures, provide a calendar of events and exams, send announcements directly to families, and offer downloadable resources. These touchpoints ensure that families are involved and invested in yearlong communication that ultimately benefits their students.
Build a Relationship and Lay Down the Framework for Collaboration
Nothing is stronger than an authentic relationship between educator and family, especially in primary and secondary school when students are establishing foundational life and learning skills. If educators communicate their classroom goals and expectations early, openly, and often, families and students can start the year fully informed and ready to connect. A healthy relationship between teacher and family means that both parties can ask questions, offer solutions, and partner on problem-solving, which will benefit the student in every way.
Offering volunteer opportunities at the school gives families a look at what happens during the school day, and it celebrates them as meaningful individuals in the community. Additionally, the more chances that parents and caregivers get to work together, the more they can learn from each other, network, and act as partners in decision making within the school.
Scheduling conflicts or an intimidating atmosphere can inhibit a family’s inclination or ability to connect, so work to provide alternative event time slots for working caregivers and strive to offer a warm, welcoming environment. Afterward, be sure to show your appreciation for volunteers with handwritten notes, a picture from the event, or a simple email to say thanks.
Provide a Space for Collaboration Beyond the Classroom
A child’s identity is deeply tied to who they are outside of school. Educators honor their diverse student population when they establish respectful relationships among staff, families, students, and community members, while also recognizing, respecting, and addressing cultural and class differences.
In-person conversations at the start or end of the school day are opportunities to connect in this way. Drop-off and pick-up chats can be as simple as, “Hello! Maria tells me you celebrated her cousin’s quinceañera this weekend! How was it?” Caregivers are often grateful for exchanges that aren’t focused on grades or student performance, but rather who they are and how they are doing as a family.
For certain communities, the school is the epicenter for all things educational and social. Providing training, resources, and support for families to learn a new skill, improve the community, or plan an event, engages parents and caregivers on a new level. English language courses, basic technology classes, even sessions with the school counselor on how to talk about tough subjects with young children, are thoughtful opportunities for educators to empower--and collaborate with--families beyond the classroom.
No matter how you choose to engage parents, caregivers, and the community, the important thing is that you try. Prioritizing a child's educational goals by communicating and collaborating with families can ensure consistency for students, better outcomes, and greater growth.
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