Six Questions about Family Engagement
As a new school year begins, I find myself reflecting on the challenges we face building family engagement into our education landscape. I’ve written about the benefits and ideas on implementing it in our schools. When I work with staff and parents, I see the same practices being used year after year. Is it a misunderstanding or a matter of choosing comfort over efficacy?
Keeping in mind the words of Dr. Steve Constantino, who urges schools to see families as a “foundational core component …to greater student learning…”, here are six things to remember about family engagement.
1. What is family engagement?
Learning happens through-out one’s life. It occurs in all the places we live, work and play. Recognizing
this, family engagement in education looks to build partnerships between home and school. Meaningful and
effective engagement encourages family commitment to, and participation in, their children’s learning and
growth. (from: Family, School and Community National Working Group)
2. Why should families and schools be partners in learning?
Did you know that children spend only 12% of their life in school? After the 33% they spend asleep,we’re
left with 55% of their lives spent outside the classroom. When we don’t take advantage of this time, we are
losing the opportunity to reinforce learning.
Dr. Karen Mapp asks teachers two questions: 1. What were your class learning goals last
year? 2. When families were invited into the your classroom or the school, was it in connection with those
learning goals? Research has proven over and over again that when families engage with the school to support
learning goals, students do better.
Listening, learning, and sharing builds trust, respect and engagement. Dr. Debbie Pushor
encourages educators to use parent knowledge to facilitate a better understanding of the student. Asking
“What can you tell me about your son/daughter that would help me?” is one of the first questions parents
should be asked. The information will help you make better, more effective connections with your students.
3. Is it contact or engagement?
Engagement is intentional. It is linked to learning. It lasts over a period of time. Contact is spontaneous,
usually linked to a specific need and happens in isolation. Many of the activities schools identify as
engagement are actually contact – bake sales, music nights,Curriculum Evenings. They help meet a need
identified by the school and they occur when and how the school decides.
To shift contact towards engagement, teachers must ask themselves if their plans are (1) relational, (2)
linked to learning, or (3) building the capabilities of their families to support learning in the home.
Focusing your efforts on these three criteria will help guide your work.
4. How do I begin?
Events such as music nights and curriculum evenings are still beneficial. They help to build relationships
between families and school staff. That is where family engagement must begin – relationships. For it is
through sharing ourselves that we learn to trust and respect those with whom we work.
a. Begin the year by introducing yourself to your families – by phone, letter/email, or in person. Make your
first connection a positive one. (This is especially important for those families with children who may be
challenging) It says that you care and will be working with them to ensure a successful year for their child.
b. If relationships are the path to engagement, communication is the vehicle. Survey your parents to
determine the best way to reach them. Be sure to let them know how – and when – to contact you. Today there
are many ways to connect home and school. Whatever method you use, be sure that it is two-way. When
information only flows in one direction it is a monologue. Striving for a dialogue is far more beneficial.
Finally, input from home should inform your work going forward. This builds respect for what each
brings to the table.
c. Engaging with families means seeing them as partners. You might begin that journey at your Curriculum
Night which Dr. Mapp suggests can be a time to share information and learning goals with families. Ask for
insights into their child. Set up your classroom with activity stations where family and child can
participate in games that reinforce some of the learning skills you’ll be teaching that year. Information on
resources that parents might access at home tells families that you see them as partners – and encourages
them to feel good in that role. Needless to say, continue to share learning ideas, activities and growth
information through-out the year.
5. What will families need from me?
We’ve looked at the aspects of family engagement that are both relational, and linked to learning. That
leaves capacity building. All teachers are given professional development opportunities through-out each
school year. Families never get training and yet we expect them to understand what is happening in our
classrooms and why. This is unfair. Recent surveys have told us that parents want to know three things: what
their child is learning this year; how are they achieving on their own and in relation to others; and,
how the family can support that learning at home. What can you do to answer these needs?
a. Share your learning goals with families. As the year progresses, share data on their child’s
progress, from the many ways you evaluate learning. And let it be known that you value ideas,
feedback, and information from your home partners.
b. Provide families with activities and resources for building skills at home.These can include
questions to ask at dinner; ideas on how to read with their child; links to online resources. For
high school students, help families to be the “coach” by providing guidelines on course
expectations; advising how you assess and evaluate students; giving ideas for supporting good
c. For newcomer families, help them to understand our education system and their place in it.
Recognize that the system in which they were educated could have been very different and assure
them that their partnership is invaluable.
6. What will I need?
Initially, you may not get support from your peers or administration. Don’t let that deter you. When others
observe the benefits enjoyed by your students – and yourself – they will be asking for hints. In the
meantime, slow and steady. You won’t be able to do everything at once. Just keep the goal of meaningful
family engagement in sight.
Knowledge does not always equal understanding and the latter comes with training. Ask your Principal or Board
about training workshops. As well, there are great resources online. I’ve mentioned four of my favourite
researchers here. Their work is crucial to understanding and advancing family engagement in our schools.
All families can engage in their children’s learning, regardless of racial/ethnic, economic or educational background. Dr. Janet Goodall advises that parents will act according to how they perceive their roles – and how they are perceived by the school. It is the job of those of us in education to ensure that all families are valued, capable partners in the learning of their children.
Customer Experience as Family Engagement
I recently read two articles from the Disney Institute concerning customer service versus customer experience. (see below) They defined customer experience as:
“the sum of all interactions a customer has with a company…everything from a customers initial awareness or discovery of a company, product or service, through the … use of that’s company’s products or services.”
What I found most interesting was the assertion that “customer experience, …(is) about truly understanding your customer … as individuals, architecting a plan for delivering exceptional experiences, and then …deliver(ing) it across all touch points.” This forces us to consider that it’s not about giving customers what we think is useful; instead it’s about taking the time to discover their needs and fashioning our “product” to meet those needs in a way that is meaningful to them.
I read the article with family engagement in mind. It struck me that schools – educators and councils alike – don’t view families as ‘customers’. Do families disengage from their school (the “hard-to-reach”) because understanding the customer has not been the first priority? We create ways for families to deliver services to the school or Council rather than offering them ‘exceptional experiences’ in learning. We expect families to reach in and forget to reach out. Perhaps schools and councils need to rethink their approach when confronted with low family engagement.
We can learn from the Disney Institute. I’ve adapted three suggestions for improving customer experience to match family engagement:
- “Create an organizational common purpose”: “What do you stand for and why (do) you exist?” In other words, what does your staff, (and Council) want your families’ school experience to be – at an emotional level?
Family engagement is about supporting families to support student achievement. Do you want your families to feel confident in their abilities to do this? Do you want your staff and families to value home-school partnerships? Do you want your families to believe that they belong? Find your purpose and take actions that support it.
2. “Get to know your customers holistically: “Truly understand their needs, wants (and) emotions… assess the customer experience and … identify areas where …expectations are (or are not) being met and exceeded.”
This is very important for schools to consider. Are you aware of the needs of all families? Do you survey your community at the beginning of every year to see how they feel? What they need? Do they have expectations of the school and school council? The results should inform your plans and activities and influence all engagement projects. Your work can provide families with the help they want to support their children’s learning. Finally, don’t forget that consulting your community also includes an evaluation of your work. Understanding your successes and failures will allow you to come closer to achieving your common purpose.
3. “View exceptional service as an economic asset”: Providing our families with the services and experience they need will pay dividends for our children. Research tells us that students are more motivated, have better grades, behaviour and attendance, and continue in school longer when their families are engaged in their learning. That has to be an economic asset.
Why not begin your work next year by figuring out how to provide your families with the customer experience they desire. Plan to deliver “exceptional experiences” that will build their capacity and confidence to support their children’s learning. Provide opportunities to build trust amongst peers and staff. Learn about the beliefs and values of all. When we do that, we have meaningful, successful family engagement.
It’s Okay – They Come in Peace
I was recently speaking with Derek Rhodenizer on his blog “Beyond the Staffroom” about engaging families in learning. He asked me why new teachers were afraid of parents. I know many experienced teachers are leery but it was disheartening to hear the fresh ones were, too.
I don’t believe we prepare our pre-service teachers for the beneficial world of home-school partnerships. Family Engagement training is not embedded in the pedagogy of teaching, as it should be. In how many Faculties is it even mentioned? When the new teacher reaches the classroom, do they find family engagement embedded in the practice of the school? Or is it clear that a parent’s place is outside the school and beyond the reach of teaching?
I could write pages on the reasons for family engagement, proven by years of study. I could list the significant benefits for students, families and teachers. For now, here are three thoughts for new teachers (and seasoned pros) on families, students and why it’s going to be okay.
Chicken or the Egg?
When I ask educators to describe their first teacher, invariably I hear about the one in kindergarten. They sound like wonderful people but… wrong. Our first teachers were our parents/guardians. The first four years of our lives were in their hands and we learned so much – walking, talking, eating, drawing, singing. Then we began our formal education.
As educators, we need to be respectful of what came before, honour the knowledge of those first teachers, and seek their input. In The Essential Conversation (a must-read) Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot reminds us that the parent’s child and the teacher’s student is one-in-the-same. What if a parent could give you good advice on how to work with that shy student? How to help the distracted pupil focus on a task? Suggest the most successful way to motivate a discouraged essay-writer? What if the teacher could show families how to support in the home what was learned in the classroom? Give insights into the person they see in their class? Our job is easier when we realize our truest partner is at home.
Dialogue is not a monologue
Get to know the names of your parents/guardians and greet them in the hall, the playground, the parking lot, the store. Then communicate. Communicate. Communicate. About your student. About you. About the family, community, school. Send information home regularly in a variety of ways (email, newsletter, twitter, website, phone calls). Strive to make communication two-way. Ask for information back and when you hear, acknowledge their input in the future work you do. When parents feel they are heard and respected, they become more engaged in their children’s education and more content with the school. Don’t forget – the more we dialogue, the more we communicate.
Fear breeds anger
Dr. Steve Constantino advises that much of the anger expressed by some parents comes from fear. And, I’d suggest, much of that fear comes from years of dealing with systems that seem deaf to their concerns. Whether you teach kindergarten or grade 11, your experiences with “that child” are limited compared with those of the parents. They have spent years trying to understand, cope, encourage, and keep the faith. Parents have dealt with educators in all forms – supportive, obstinate, forward-thinking and blasé. They are tired. Frustrated. Suspicious. Their experience may have taught them that few teachers listen, less understand, and most think they know better. So begin by trying to understand that the anger isn’t about you; it’s about fear, exhaustion and who came before. You may never break through the wall constructed to protect themselves and their child but keep trying. Your desire to support and build partnerships is just want they’ve always wanted. And it’s what you both need!
Years ago, my husband returned home from a field trip with our daughter’s class. He walked through the door, fell on the floor and moaned, “They don’t pay teachers enough.” Well, duh! One afternoon had educated him on the trials and tribulations of simple class management. As educators, we should strive to understand that we have a lot to learn from our families and communities. They will be our biggest supporters – when we build partnerships with them.
A Seat at the Table
I joined Twitter as a way of hearing new and different voices in the field of education and parent engagement. I found amazing people blogging and having great online conversations about these topics. (And I see only a minute fraction!) Some inspire me; others almost cause my head to explode; a few make me stop and reconsider my beliefs, while many confirm my convictions. But here’s the problem – I am a member of the converted, being preached to by my brethren. What about all those parents who are not connected – to twitter, to blogs, to their schools? How do they hear the many viewpoints expressed? How do they participate in the discourse? How do they learn about, argue over, and understand all that is happening and could happen in education?
Too many of the postings I’ve read bemoan the lack of support parents give to education initiatives. But how many of those authors/educators have taken the time to provide ‘inservicing’ for the parents? How many have created opportunities for parents and guardians to learn about an issue and “engage meaningfully and concretely in dialogue…?” How many have viewed parents as partners in the education of their students?
Let me give an example. Many online discussions have been about student awards and “losing”. This is a hot-button topic. I remember arguing with my children’s principal about this 18 years ago. “Awards are necessary and to deprive hard working students of the chance of winning is unreasonable”, I argued. The principal, a wise woman, took me to a meeting on the topic to engage my point of view. And so began my conversion, aided by watching how awards were handled, working with students who would never win the awards being given, and learning more about the topic. I now see things differently.
How many parents will get the opportunity for thoughtful consideration of this – or any – issue? In twenty-four years of parent engagement, I have rarely seen opportunities for parents to sit around the school table, learning and debating the latest trends in education. Yes, the school council might offer a workshop on Cyber safety. But will the staff present seminars on using technology in the classroom? Or open up discussion on the concept of flipped classrooms? Resilience may be addressed in ‘parenting‘ sessions, but will schools teach their communities how it is demonstrated in their building. Will they seek advice on implementation?
Is it any wonder that parents balk at the newest initiatives? Many educators, themselves, resist change and they are schooled in the topic. Why do we expect our communities to shift beliefs and practices without support?
If we don’t treat parents as partners, we restrict the information they receive, underestimate the value of parent knowledge (Dr. Debbie Pushor), neutralize their input, and convince ourselves that a monologue is really dialogue. The disconnect leads to misunderstandings and grievances with the system. The result affects student achievement because what is learned in the school is not supported in the home.
But let me not put the onus for partnership-building solely onto schools. In workshops with school councils, I encourage members to use twitter and other social media to connect not only with their parents, but the education community at large. In today’s world, information and discourse is at their fingertips. If we encourage the concept of life-long learners, that should include understanding how our children are being taught. Let parents take part of the responsibility for learning, questioning, and supporting their schools in the 21st century. This means school councils, teachers and principals must first send that information out into their communities and then encourage a discourse with parents/guardians on the wide variety of educational topics. That is partnership.
1the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit
I was listening to “Ideas at 50” on CBC radio. One of the segments involved the late Dr. Ursula Franklin – Canadian metallurgist, research physicist, author and educator. She was speaking about communication technology and its effect on reciprocity, which she described as “some manner of interactive give and take” or “genuine communication”. I was intrigued as the programme continued and I kept thinking about family engagement.
The new world of technological devices inside and outside the classroom is a subject of great debate, worry…and opportunity. Many schools, and school councils, use technology as their road to home-school communication. Most think it means they are engaging their families. Posting events, news, happenings to a website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc, makes everyone feel they are bringing the school into the home. And they are – to some extent. But let’s not be too quick to assume so it’s engagement.
There is already a distance between what is taught in our schools and what parents feel capable of understanding. If we rely too much on the new forms of communication there is a danger, as Dr. Franklin warned, that
“once technical devices are interposed, they allow a physical distance between parties; the reciprocity is distorted, it can be reduced, it can be eliminated”. In other words, will we become too reliant on these devices as a quick, easy method of contacting parents? In doing so, will parents become more and more isolated from their schools? Is Dr. Franklin correct in calling this “non-communication technology”?
Genuine communication occurs when “face-to-face discussion or transaction between people, needs to be started, it needs to be carried out, and terminated all with a certain amount of reciprocity.” I have often warned that advising parents what is happening is not a dialogue – it is a monologue. Schools and councils will argue their devices allow parents to reply if they wish. I am not convinced that this is reciprocity. At best it is feedback.
Dr. Franklin argued that feedback is a “technique of systems adjustment…(it’s purpose) is to make the thing work… it can improve performance but it can’t alter the design.” When parents receive information, do they know they may respond? Do they believe their responses have to be supportive? Are they confident that any suggestions or comments will be received and reviewed with improvement in mind? Is there any possibility that responses will “alter the design”? Should we be concerned, as she suggests, that this absence of reciprocity in communication technologies can lessen the need to listen and thus the need to understand, accommodate…and engage?
So how do we bring reciprocity into the building of partnerships between home and school? We could begin by considering Dr Franklin’s advice that how we absorb an event is very different when we only see it, as opposed to experiencing it. Therefore, administrators, their staff and School Councils could:
1. work to provide opportunities for parents to learn what is being taught in the classroom and how, building their capacity to support that learning at home;
2. encourage staff to talk with parents about teaching practices and how they impact learning, increasing understanding and support;
3. teach parents how to be effective advocates for their children, as well as the education system, resulting in beneficial home-school partnerships;
4. keep abreast of Board or Ministry initiatives and seek meaningful input, allowing parents to affect the design of education in positive ways;
5. provide avenues for reciprocal communication – opportunities that result in a give and take, “bring(ing) in new and unforeseen things” for consideration. In other words, face-to-face gatherings where parents and educators discuss and learn together on a regular basis.
All of these things create constructive parameters for engagement. Of course, these actions must be done with “a need for listening… (a need) to understand or to accommodate” on the part of parents and educators.
Reciprocity is work. Dr. Franklin said it requires “the tools of co-operation – listening and adjusting”. It begins and ends with relationships built upon respect for what each brings to the table, an acceptance of our strengths and shortcomings and an acknowledgement that we are here for the same person – the parent’s child and the teacher’s student.
“Ideas at 50” http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/ideas-at-50-part-4-1.3296382 Dr. Franklin’s segment begins at minute 25:24.
@stephen_hurley posted this link. It’s good place to begin learning how to have conversations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6n3iNh4XLI
- Parents as partners wasn’t thinking outside the box; it was just making the box bigger
- Parents were not perceived as hovering helicopters
- When principals heard “engagement” they thought “welcome in” and not “run for the hills”
- Parent engagement meant more than council meetings, going on trips and donating money
- Schools did not see ‘parent knowledge’ as an oxymoron
- Schools wanted to call you back – and vice versa
- Parents were asked “What are the outstanding things you do with your child?” and not “What on earth are you doing with that child?”
- Families were be greeted warmly at the school door and not coldly shown the door
- The over-worked office staff welcomed you as a friend and not an annoyance.
- Parents were asked to tell what they knew about their child at parent-teacher conferences
- Parent-teacher meetings were always attended because they were arranged based on parent availability
- School council decision-making was not about which chocolate bar to sell
- School councils were places where all parents were supported
- All school councils were about student achievement and not building cliques
- Home-school partnerships were more Modern Family and less Father Knows Best
- Exceptional children weren’t treated as the exceptions to the rules
- Parent advocacy was not parent adversary
- ADHD was treated as Artistic, Delightful, Happy, Demonstrative
- Parents acknowledged that their ‘jewel’ could also be a ‘Precious’
- Principals were curriculum leaders not administrators, plumbers, painters, cleaners, paper pushers
- The profession of teacher was hailed as one of the most valuable in society
- Staff fitness began with a get-to-know-the-community walk before the first day of school
- All students understood they had a role & responsibility in their learning
- Learning spaces went beyond the walls of the school and into the community
- Community perceived the school as a place where they could learn and teach
- ALL families were seen as gold bullion; none as pennies
- Being multi-lingual was perceived as an asset and not a deficit
- Parent behaviour was not pre-judged by cultural and racial background
- Parent’s past experiences did not colour perceptions of their children’s schooling
- Equity meant multi-lingual books, relevant resources, valuing differences
- Our various cultures were incorporated into the everyday life of the school
- We asked “How does your family do this?”
- Parent engagement was everybody’s business
- A unified chorus proclaimed “Let’s work together!”