Updated: Oct 23, 2021
In today’s education system family engagement most often refers to the school programs, events and activities designed to create a meaningful relationship between parents and the educators at their child’s school. The focus is typically on currently enrolled students and finding ways for parents and teachers to work together to support the child’s learning and development.
Given the current climate of our education system, having an effective family engagement strategy is critically important. The pandemic has had a significant impact on school enrollment and learning outcomes, and families are demanding higher quality educational programs which they feel better meet the needs of their children.
Family Engagement Defined
Family engagement, parent engagement and parent involvement are phrases commonly used to describe the same idea. For simplicity in our organization and the schools we work with, we have adopted the following definition on family engagement as outlined by the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth:
“Parental (family) engagement consists of partnerships between families, schools and communities, raising parental awareness of the benefits of engaging in their children’s education, and providing them with the skills to do so.”
When school leaders talk about family engagement, they are often referring to activities which pertain to currently enrolled families. At home this might include reading to a child and helping with homework. Although most often the focus is on getting parents physically present at school events such as attending parent teacher conferences or volunteering time for various projects.
What’s missing in all of these definitions is a holistic view of the components which make up the entire family experience. Family engagement doesn’t begin on the first day of school. It begins with the first encounter a family has with your school, and oftentimes this is well before a family has made an enrollment decision.
Additionally, we must recognize that not all children live with their biological parents, thus “family” should encompass caregivers or guardians, extended family members and other supporters of a child’s learning and development.
A school’s family engagement program should encompass every aspect of the school. The most obvious being the quality of your academic program and ensuring the health and safety of your staff and students. Additionally, the program should also consider how schools recruit families, communicate with them, and how they can encourage them to become advocates for their children.
Pandemic Impact on Family Engagement
The pandemic has had an enormous impact on our education system and most significantly, it has given parents a front row seat into their child’s learning experience. As remote learning became a reality for far longer than we imagined, we saw enrollment in our public and private schools decline as frustrated parents sought alternative learning options in homeschool programs, learning pods and microschools.
Recent research from Tyton Partners revealed a meaningful shift in how parents viewed their child’s education as a result of the pandemic. Parents now have higher expectations for their child’s educational experience with an increased desire for more social and emotional learning programs and individual support.
Additionally, parents state they have a desire to be more actively involved in their child’s education by helping them with homework, providing tutoring services, collaborating with their child’s teacher and purchasing additional supplemental learning products.
As we brace for another pandemic year of schooling, it will be important for school leaders to check in with parents and get insights on their overall experience. Without an intentional focus on family engagement, schools risk parents doubting their decision to enroll in their current school and moving their child elsewhere.
Benefits of Family Engagement
There are numerous studies which highlight the positive impact family engagement has on student achievement and outcomes. The National Center for Family & Community Connections with Schools summarizes these benefits:
earning higher grades and test scores, and enrolling in higher-level programs.
being promoted, passing their classes, and earning credits.
attending school regularly.
having better social skills, showing improved behavior, and adapting well to school.
graduating and going on to postsecondary education.
One additional factor often left out of the family engagement discussion is school budgets. And with public school funding tied to student enrollment and attendance figures, having open seats at your school means less funding for school programs and personnel.
Family engagement can play a huge role in your student recruitment strategy. Families who are actively involved in your school are more likely to return next year, enroll siblings and encourage their friends to join them.
Insights from Hanover Research state that schools with quality family engagement programs can see “a statistically significant increase in their reputation...and the school becomes known as a valuable place to receive an education and student support.”
Before the pandemic, student recruitment programs were primarily a focus of private schools and public “choice” schools. But the pandemic has resulted in a sharp decrease in public school students forcing all schools to consider how they might attract new students or risk additional budget cuts.
5 Steps to Better a Family Engagement Strategy
Family engagement is about building long-term relationships with the members of your school community. It’s a strategy that needs regular input from parents, planning and feedback. Below are five steps to help you get started.
Step 1: Consider the Entire Experience
An effective family engagement strategy requires schools to consider the entire journey, beginning with how you reach new families, deliver a quality education experience to students, and provide a welcoming school environment that families want to return to each year.
By looking at the entire family experience, you can identify key points of contact along the way. Where do you have opportunities to better understand a family’s expectations? How can you gather feedback on how well your school is delivering on its mission?
Step 2: Be Intentional
A family engagement plan should be an intentional part of your school’s annual plan with dedicated resources and personnel. It is not a one-time event. Ad-hoc plans are a drain on resources and often lead to inconsistent messaging, lack of follow-up and missed goals.
Take the time to create a plan that can be supported year-round. Be reasonable with your expectations because it is likely your plan will evolve as you gather feedback from families.
Step 3: Be Inclusive
An effective family engagement strategy should support all families enrolled at your school as well as all members of the individual family unit including parents, guardians, children and other supporters actively involved in the student’s educational experience.
Many of today’s family engagement programs are criticized for “engaging the already engaged.” Program activities need to consider opportunities for families who work full-time, single parent households, or other situations where parents are unable to be physically present at school.
Step 4: Communication is Key
A successful family engagement program has a well defined communications plan at its core. The more groups involved, the more important it is to scope out how information flows from school to home and back to the school.
We hear frequently from parents regarding their frustrations with how their school shares information. This feedback ranges from schools using too many tools to not having enough options, or schools sending information too frequently to not often enough. Some parents want everything in email and others are heavily dependent on text messaging.
The bottom line, parents have different needs when it comes to what, how and when they receive information from their child’s school. Sometimes a good first step is to do a needs assessment and look at your current communication practices. What tools does your school use to share information with parents? What information is being shared, by whom and how often? Look for ways to simplify processes and ensure all families have access to relevant information.
Step 5: Measure Impact
Seeking regular feedback is a critical step in your family engagement plan. By actively seeking input, you can keep parents actively involved in the process and help eliminate the unexpected empty seat at the start of a school year.
We know schools love their SMART goals and sometimes counting volunteer hours or attendance at parent teacher conferences is a desirable measure because it is easily quantified. Yet, knowing if you are truly reaching all families and if they feel welcomed and supported at your school requires additional inputs.
Annual family surveys are a great way to capture feedback about the school year (and we could probably spend an entire blog discussing well-designed family surveys). A key point - try not make this a dreaded end of year requirement for families. Less is more!
Information meetings with prospective families or perhaps monthly check-ins with enrolled families is another great way to capture feedback throughout the school year.
Be sure to share what you’ve learned. Parents are more likely to respond to your survey requests if they see results from the feedback in action.
Join the Discussion
Our education system is being challenged right now, and parents are taking a more active role in their child’s learning journey. School leaders should make family engagement a priority. Programs need to be intentional, inclusive and encompass the entire experience, from student recruitment to retention. Finding ways to more effectively engage families in the learning process has numerous benefits for students, families and your entire school community.
What are some of the unique ways your school is supporting families this year?
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About the Author
Jennifer Larson is the founder and CEO of Hive Digital Minds, mother to four children, and passionate about finding innovative ways to engage parents in their child’s learning journey. Her company’s flagship product SchoolBzz is the culmination of Jennifer’s 17 years in education – working with thousands of parents and educators on their school marketing and engagement strategies. Before founding Hive Digital Minds, Jennifer led the efforts of two successful charter public school initiatives in Douglas County, Colorado. These schools have been recognized nationally for their educational programs and currently serve over 1,800 students in grades PK-12. Jennifer has a degree in mathematics from the University of California, Santa Barbara and also received her MBA from the University of Denver, Daniels College of Business. She enjoys speaking on the topics of school marketing, family engagement, entrepreneurship, and the future of work and frequently guest lectures at the University of Denver and several high schools in her local community. Jennifer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.