While there are many ways to build family engagement in schools, different strategies have varying levels of impact. Events, volunteer opportunities, extra curricular activities, and parent school/classroom roles can integrate parents into the life of the school and in their children’s education to different degrees.
The Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) developed a framework for family engagement that is intended to be used in conjunction with their definition of family engagement: “Family engagement is a full, equal, and equitable partnership among families, educators and community partners to promote children’s learning and development from birth through college and career” (CSDE, 2018). The purpose of this framework is to encourage understanding and collaboration among stakeholders so that they know what their roles are and what effective family engagement looks like in their school.
As discussed throughout these modules, when families are engaged in their children’s schools, students benefit in different ways, not only in academic achievement, but also in social/emotional development and overall wellbeing. The CSDE and their partners developed seven principles that “reflect a partnership mindset and are grounded in the research.” These are described on the following page, and include building collaborative and trusting relationships with families that are focused on learning, supporting parents to become effective leaders and advocates for children, and listening to what families say about their children’s interests and challenges. https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Publications/FE_Definition_and_Guiding_Principles_Handout.pdf These levels form a foundation for building successful family-school partnerships and can be considered as we discuss varying strategy implace levels in the following sections.
In their (2018) report developed in partnership with the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood and the Connecticut Early Childhood Funder Collaborative, the CSDE developed a framework outlining high, moderate, and low impact family engagement strategies for (a) early childhood programs, (b) elementary schools, (c) middle and high schools, (d) afterschool programs, and (e) for reducing chronic absences. Higher impact strategies tend to have a stronger positive effect on student learning and development than do most lower impact strategies. To see examples of what types of strategies have high, moderate, and low impacts on family partnerships, please see the CSDE impact charts here. Scroll through to page 7! https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Publications/CT-Family-Engagement.pdf
Activity: Imagine you and your elementary teacher colleagues want to plan a “Back to School Night” before the beginning of the new school year. In your staff meeting, you brainstorm ideas for what activities to include. Suggestions are:
- A family night in an auditorium where parents can listen to a panel of speakers share information about the upcoming school year and receive student handbooks, academic calendars, and information about school-wide events,
- An open house where parents can tour the school, meet their children’s teachers, and see examples of past student work that helps give them an idea of what their children will be working on throughout the year,
- Events in individual classrooms where parents and teachers can share their expertise with each other, review student learning goals with tips for how parents can support learning at home, and develop multi-directional communication plans.
Which option do you think is more collaborative and in alignment with establishing equal partnerships among educators and families?
If you chose option 3, you are correct! In this back to school night scenario, parents and families are provided opportunities to share their thoughts and experiences with their children’s teachers in a friendly, welcoming, and supportive environment. This allows teachers and parents to develop multi-directional communication plans that view communication from school to home and from home to school as equally important.
Activity: Let’s look at an example for handling chronic student absences. In Hawai‘i, almost 1 in 5 students enrolled in a public school were chronically absent in each of the last four years. https://www.hawaiipublicschools.org/DOE%20Forms/Absentee1sheet.pdf. Which of the following family engagement strategies do you think can have the greatest impact on student learning and development?
- Flyers sent home in students’ backpacks reminding parents to keep track of their child’s attendance,
- Monthly emails to parents regarding their child’s absences and the impact that chronic absences can have on their child’s success in school,
- Using families’ preferred communication methods, teachers contact families to discuss their goals for their child’s school attendance. Each family receives a monthly letter in their preferred language keeping track of the child’s school attendance that month and comparing this to the family’s goal. Teachers will regularly communicate with families to generate solutions together to improve regular attendance in ways that meet the family’s needs.
Most likely, it is clear that strategy #3 better integrates family voice and helps build trusting relationships between home and school. Asking families directly and respectfully about challenges attending school can help teachers avoid making incorrect assumptions about students and families.
For example, as discussed in module 4, one of the most recent populations to come to the U.S. in large numbers are people from the islands of Micronesia. In most Micronesian cultures, family needs come first, which can conflict with western schools’ priorities. Ratliffe (2010) found that children are expected to contribute their time and energy to the family through cleaning, childcare, yard work, and other household responsibilities. When families move to the US, their responsibilities may even increase because, as children typically learn English more quickly than adults do, they are expected to help with translating and interpreting. This could include making doctor appointments, making phone calls, and reading and answering mail. Additionally, “All respondents discussed being kept home from school when they were young for family obligations, including caring for sick parents (3), funerals (26), childcare (2) and planting (2)” (p. 682). In all Micronesian cultures, funerals are a 1-10 day event, during which children do not attend school and parents are away from work. In the U.S., these factors can contribute to chronic school absenteeism.
Former RMI president Hilda Heine emphasized that most Micronesian immigrants want their children to be successful in school (Heine, 2002). Educators can reach out to families to discuss what families believe their children need to succeed in school and co-construct solutions with parents that support their children’s learning and development. When speaking with a Micronesian guardian of a student who has been chronically absent, ask specific questions such as:
- Does your child have school transportation?
- Does your child take a bus? Walk? Are they driven by you or a family member?
- If you drive your child to school, is there someone who can watch your younger children at home while you are away?
- Does your child help watch their younger siblings? Who else may be able to help with childcare while your child attends school?
Ratliffe (2010) pointed out that “personal relationships are the cornerstone of interactions in Micronesian cultures, [and] developing connections with students and families can be beneficial” (p. 685). Chronic absenteeism may be a sensitive topic for families, and/or families may not know why regular school attendance benefits their children. Building relationships with families and allowing time for them to develop can help educators navigate these conversations and provide opportunities for co-constructing solutions to optimize children’s learning and development.
To view the CSDE’s (2018) family engagement impact charts, visit https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Publications/CT-Family-Engagement.pdf
The extra time spent in designing higher impact collaborative activities with parents will pay off in improved relationships, school climate, and greater engagement with families and children. In addition, the collaborative environment will improve equity between families and educators. The development of relationships occurs over time, and one must make the investment to appreciate positive results.
References and Resources
Heine, H.C. 2002. Culturally responsive schools for Micronesian immigrant students. Honolulu, HI: Pacific Resources for Education and Learning.Open Access Link: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED476109.pdf
Ratliffe, K. T. (2010). Family obligations in Micronesian cultures: Implications for educators. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(6), 671-690.
“How Hawai‘i’s Schools are Tackling Chronic Absenteeism” https://www.honolulumagazine.com/how-hawaiis-schools-are-tackling-chronic-absenteeism/
“A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships” https://www.dualcapacity.org