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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)           

  1. 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 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. 

  1. 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.  

  1. 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.

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.

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. 

  1. 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?

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.

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 study habits.

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.  

  1. 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.