Family engagement has many definitions. Generally, it’s the process caregivers take to be involved in their child’s life at various stages of development. Many social service organizations (federal, state, and private) approach family engagement as a collaborative process whereby families are “empowered” to help their children thrive. K-12 schools have often taken this traditional approach, one in which the schools are the leaders and impart wisdom to families to help them. While this approach is necessary for some situations, it lacks the collaborative and strengths-based attitude essential in the modern era. Evaluating your school’s family engagement approach can help you identify barriers to family and community engagement, create individualized solutions to develop family-school partnerships, and better meet the needs of the children and families you serve. The result is increased engagement, enrollment, retention, and student achievement.
What Barriers Prevent Increased Family Engagement in Schools?
While barriers to family engagement have been researched extensively, one truth becomes apparent about all of them. Barriers are individualized. What may help one family feel more welcome at school may be the very thing that drives another family away. That’s precisely why it is so important that school leaders consider a multitude of potential barriers at a school and take a holistic approach to welcome families and make them feel valued as a member of your school community. While not an exhaustive list, some of the more common barriers include the following:
Time to attend school meetings or events (schedule, time of day, advanced notice, childcare concerns, parents with multiple jobs, etc.)
Families’ experience with formal education (good, bad, or even none)
Immigration issues including cultural transitions to a new country, distrust of public institutions, and even their original country’s educational approach to families
Teachers’ limited time and training to work with families
Lack of administrator support – time, training, substitutes, etc. – to facilitate greater family-school partnerships
A mismatch between an educator’s family engagement practices and what families can do or believe they should do
A misconception that a lack of parental involvement means families do not want to be involved. This one can damage parent-teacher relationships!
What Do Family Engagement Initiatives Look Like?
The national Office of Head Start defines family engagement as “a collaborative and strengths-based process through which early childhood professionals, families, and children build positive and goal-oriented relationships.” Adopting this definition through the K-12 educational environment requires a commitment to help parents develop relationships with at least one staff member who is approachable, friendly, receptive, and one whom the family sees as a champion for their children. In addition, families must feel welcome and valued at the school. Teachers must then accept and respect cultural differences related to communication, education, family values, self-awareness of their own culture, and an understanding of interpersonal dynamics.
Family engagement in school is not limited to parent involvement with school staff alone. It also includes how parents develop relationships with families at school. Traditional ways for parents to connect are limited by the growing geographical diversity present in today’s schools. Even the most well-intentioned efforts will fail if they don’t meet families where they are. Utilizing technology-based family networks allows parents and family members to connect in multiple settings throughout the school year and involve families in new and innovative ways.
When families are engaged in this way, the outcomes are significant. Students see the adults in their lives working together. Families are aware of what is going on at school, and learning becomes almost seamless across home and school. Teachers are aware of critical issues at home and can better support their child’s learning when needed. And both families and staff members come to value the school, the school community, the education provided there, and the individuals that are part of that community.
Building Family-School Partnerships
The most important step an educator can take to address any barrier to family engagement is to build trust as they develop and nurture relationships with families around the shared goal to support learning and development and partnering in the decision-making process. . This is the door through which all other family engagement activities must enter. Create activities and opportunities for interaction that support this relationship-building. Commit to learning about each family and listening to them. Then teachers and school leaders can use that understanding to identify and address individual barriers to family engagement.
Pause and reflect on the activities your school takes to engage with families. For example, do you have a plan in place to welcome families when they first visit your school and continue to make them feel valued throughout their time at your school? Does your website have a chat feature that helps them get questions answered quickly? Do you have a family network that helps to connect families with one another? Do you have information about staff on your website that humanizes them, allowing parents to get to know the people with whom they entrust their children? Do you regularly provide opportunities to hear from parents using multiple formats rather than simply imparting information to parents?
Committing to family engagement means it becomes part of your “business as usual.” It’s not something done for an open house, a school carnival, meetings, or when a school needs parental assistance. Instead, it becomes part of the daily commitment of school staff to build trust and rapport with families. Are you ready to make that commitment?