5 post-COVID lessons about how to engage families more deeply in schools

Here's how administrators can establish more effective, two-way communication with parents
By: | October 11, 2021

Just because you’re communicating with families doesn’t mean you’re connecting with them or realizing their untapped potential to advance education.

That’s the thrust of the new “Family Engagement Reimagined” report, which offers administrators guidance on leveraging technology and other platforms to establish more effective, two-way communication with parents as communities work to bounce back from COVID.

“During the 2020-21 school year, schools and families learned in particularly dramatic ways that they can’t effectively support students without being in partnership with one another,” writes the report’s author, Mahnaz R. Charania, a senior education researcher at the Christensen Institute, a think tank that studies innovation and disruption.

“For schools committed to creating and sustaining equitable learning environments for students, finding ways to value and cultivate the resources inherent within families is no longer a nice-to-have,” Charania says. “Effective family engagement hinges on trust and reciprocity between families and schools, not simply disseminating information.”

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The report analyzes emerging models that feature families in the following roles:

  • Academic support to drive student learning
  • Guidance to help students navigate out-of-school and postsecondary pathways
  • Informal mentors to cultivate and expand students’ career options
  • Sources of community for each other to promote student wellbeing

“Early innovators are asking families what they want and informing families about strategies that work to support their children at home,” Charania writes.

To report concludes by detailing five innovative strategies for rethinking family engagement to improve student wellbeing and expand access to diverse education pathways.

1. Technology that fosters connections unlocks the next frontier: Administrators who have simply increased the frequency of their communication have sometimes found parents overloaded and overwhelmed with the guidance received. Leaders should ensure that new communications technologies build authentic connections with families and empower them to sustain and support student learning at home.

A radical rethinking

Another resource for administrators working to support parents as authentic partners in their children’s school success is the Radical Family Engagement Cohort just launched by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Participants with work with family engagement experts, share best practices and learn new strategies.

2. Two-generation approaches that support families alongside students yield long-term benefits: The “2Gen” model recognizes the family as the unit of change and focuses on building a family’s social capital. This requires that educators work with families to solve problems, access new resources and sharpen existing talents and skills with the goal of helping communities to thrive economically and socially.

3. Having families participate in instructional ecosystems supports anytime, anywhere learning: Schools that do not partner with families are more likely to struggle to expand experiential and individualized learning opportunities. Nonprofits such as LEAP Innovations and Big Picture Learning help schools scale student-centered work-based experiences and internships outside school buildings.

4. Connecting families to one another expands students’ access to supports: Nurturing relationships between families helps them expand their networks and build social capital that translates to a wider net of support and resources available to children long term. However, traditional models of family engagement, such as inviting parents to slot into pre-specified roles at the schools, failed during the 2020-21 school year. Administrators should consider supporting a decentralized approach where parents aren’t limited to engaging with their schools at predetermined times or locations.

5. Investing in new family engagement metrics can be a game-changer: One simple strategy is to ask families to rate their relationships with schools in climate surveys. This will give administrators data about the number of families who feel they have a trusting relationship with the school. Currently, many tech tools manage only communication or attendance at family-oriented events.