A family is a child’s first teacher. Before students reach an actual classroom, their early caregivers will have accumulated tens of thousands of interactive hours with them, presenting many opportunities for learning, such as storytelling, counting, imaginative play and alphabet recognition. But the involvement in a child’s learning doesn’t end there. Keeping students’ families and communities involved throughout their education leads to better academic outcomes, building confidence and more ambitious learning behavior.
Researchers have found that familial involvement creates long-lasting educational benefits that continue as a child matures. Analysis of the Child-Parent Program in Chicago public schools, for example, found that economically disadvantaged families that are active in their child’s pre-K education are associated with educational and social benefits that endure throughout the student’s learning career. The more closely schools work with parents and families, the better for their students.
But fostering familial involvement remains a challenge for many American schools. While parental participation in a child’s education — as indicated by their attendance at parent-teacher meetings, school events or PTA programs — is generally on the rise, it varies widely by parents’ socioeconomic and educational status. Children growing up in poverty — those who need the most educational support — are less likely to have parents who have attended a school event or served on a school committee. While 93% of parents with a graduate or professional degree have attended an event at their child’s school, that’s true of only 54% of parents with less than a high-school diploma.
When families and schools don’t prioritize sharing information and learning goals, students lose vital connectivity between time inside and outside of school. Families risk missing out on their chance to play evolving roles not just in students’ learning but also in their social and emotional development.
Strategies for Educators
Collaborating with families is a process, and school leaders must first recognize the importance of this goal if they’re to gain community support. Effective school leaders identify the barriers families face in terms of being involved in students’ learning and develop community-based, culturally responsive solutions to combat them. Here are a few strategies:
- Avoid generalizations. Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, there’s no single, correct way to interact with families. Listen and pay special attention to ways in which families’ culture, language and experiences shape their lives. Be on guard against biases based on socioeconomic status, language, culture or race.
- Prioritize engagement, not just involvement. Education researchers have identified family engagement and involvement as two different frameworks. The former is characterized by allowing families to take leadership roles in identifying goals and strategies to develop equal partnerships with school leaders. The latter is characterized by subordinating family priorities and voices to those of school leaders. Effective schools work to engage families, showing respect for their expertise and vision.
- Connect outside of school. Some families may find an institution like a school to be intimidating. When school leaders meet families on their home turf — at churches, sporting events and neighborhood gatherings — it may serve to level perceived imbalances in authority and encourage families to feel more comfortable.
- Speak their language. Linguistic barriers hinder familial engagement. Schools serving multilingual or non-English-speaking students should evaluate whether families are able to advocate for and receive information about their students. School leaders can work with community members to share newsletters, emails, school signs, and other written and oral communications in appropriate languages and formats.
- Surveys and community listening sessions are just two methods of determining what issues matter to families. Asking the community to put forth ideas, suggestions and priorities for the school gives them ownership in shaping it. Meet families as resources and leaders of the school community, not merely as clients.
School leaders have a critical role to play in creating responsive, culturally sensitive and collaborative communities that value family engagement in student learning. Achieving that goal is a process that begins with the simple recognition that support at home is crucial to a student’s success.