To improve family engagement, start early and never give up

Building a strong school community begins with listening to families.
By: | January 19, 2022
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Candra Morris is a director of family partnerships at Waterford.org.

Candra Morris is a director of family partnerships at Waterford.org.

Throughout my life, I’ve seen how important family engagement is not just to a child’s education, but to their development as a human being. At one of my first teaching jobs in Prince George’s County, I was impressed by the community approach that includes many students getting picked up from schools by neighbors. When I had a student who almost never talked in class, it was through a relationship with her mother that I learned she was hurting because her sister had multiple sclerosis.

In my years working with students and families in and out of the classroom, I’ve found that successful family engagement efforts begin by centering families and their needs, much as teachers center children in their classrooms. Here are four keys to making that happen.

Starting early

It’s important to start engaging families early in a student’s academic career and early in each school year. Engaging families of very young children allows family members and caregivers to begin learning how to engage effectively with their learner. If a student needs an individualized education program or a 504, families who are already plugged in may not have as much catching up to do in terms of intervention and support. Kids who see that their families take school seriously will take it seriously themselves.

To build a culture of engagement with families at the beginning of the school year, take advantage of opportunities like back-to-school night, family night, or meet-your-teacher night. These are great opportunities to meet families and let them know right off the bat that they can speak on behalf of their child—and that you’re eager to listen.

A great way to get to know families is to hold parent conferences at the start of the school year where you ask families to tell you about their students. Then take the opportunity to share more about your teaching style and what they can expect from you as an educator.

At the recent AASA Early Learning Cohort conference, I heard someone share an illuminating illustration of parent engagement. At Meet the Teacher Day, a parent brought a Lego set. On each of a stack of Legos, he wrote how he, as a parent, would support his child. Then he asked the teacher to share what part she would play in his child’s life. He wrote her response on a Lego, added it to the top of his stack, and said, “This is how we’ll work together to make sure my child has everything he needs to be successful.”

Creating a welcoming environment

Teachers already spend a lot of time thinking about how to make their classrooms welcoming to students, but it’s important to ensure that the welcome extends to their families as well. When family members walk through the halls, do they feel they belong there? Do they see their identities in the curriculum resources? Even something as simple as including multicultural shades of construction paper, crayons, and other classroom supplies allows children and families to see themselves represented in their learning space.

To put those supplies to good use, ask students to create a family collage with someone at home. Displaying these projects on the walls not only makes families feel more comfortable in your school, it gives your students an opportunity to feel pride in their caretakers and the work they do together.

Elevating family voices

Families are schools’ number one partners in educating our students. To show families that you see them as collaborators, elevate their voices. If they volunteer to help out at school, in addition to sending them a thank you note, hang up pictures of their service to both welcome other families and show off how fun family engagement can be.

Connecting with families can be as informal as listening to them on an impromptu phone call or as official as sending a survey designed to find out what they want to be a bigger part of their school community. Whatever the method, the key is being willing to change what you’re doing and experiment with new ways to meet families where they are. A survey is only useful if it drives change.

Connecting any way you can

Surveys are also one of my favorite solutions to what is perhaps the biggest bugaboo of family engagement: participation. You can plan the biggest, most exciting event ever, but if no one shows up, it doesn’t matter. Families will tell you what they want from events, but only if you ask them!

One especially effective way to connect with those who may be hesitant to engage is the family academy. After learning a series of strategies focused on literacy, math, and mindset skills, families have an opportunity to practice each strategy with their child. They then take the materials from the session so they can continue practicing at home.

This sort of event provides families with an opportunity to engage in conversations with other families, share their own strategies, and talk about best practices from their own experiences. In this collaborative environment, families and educators can truly work together to find the best ways to improve the academic outcomes for children.

To make it as easy as possible for families to attend, give them multiple times to choose from. If your event takes place onsite, look for ways families can attend virtually. If families speak different languages, include opportunities for sessions to be delivered in different languages or invite an interpreter to attend a session.

And be sure to get the word out through any channel you can find. Send texts. Send invitations in the mail. Email families. Use ClassDojo. Send home stickers. At one of my schools, we even put wristbands on students to send home important information to families. If you can get your students eager and excited about a family engagement activity, they’ll do plenty of communicating with their caregivers for you as well.

Family engagement is, at its heart, community-building, and no one builds a community alone. If your school or district doesn’t already have a family engagement team, start one yourself. Find other teachers who’ve already had success, set yourselves two or three simple goals to work toward, and get to work. Together, you can be the village that every child needs to be successful in and out of the classroom.

Candra Morris is a director of family partnerships at Waterford.org. A former classroom teacher and author of the book Why Every Child Needs a Village for Academic Success, she holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in education supervision and administration. She can be reached at candramorris@waterford.org.

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