How can schools and families partner successfully?
In the 1960s and 70s, American society and family structures became increasingly complex. Schools struggled to meet all students’ needs, and many people called for a more collaborative approach to education[i]. This movement mirrored research showing that children’s development is affected by home, school, and societal environments.[i] In turn, schools expanded their outreach to parents and families, and parent/family outreach became a requirement of Federal education programs, including No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Head Start [ii], and the more recent Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).[iii]
A growing number of schools now have family engagement programs for family and community members in addition to parents [i,iv], and view families as full partners for planning and implementing education.[iii,v] Program offerings extend beyond traditional on-site Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meetings, classroom volunteering shifts, and parent-teacher conferences. For example, in some neighborhoods, community schools work with local partners and families to host school-based health, parent education, and social service programs.[v] Some schools also provide families with strategies to support students’ learning at home[ii,vi], and invite families and the community to participate in school decision-making [i].
Yet despite best efforts, successful partnerships are challenging to implement. Logistical issues, such as demanding work schedules, transportation difficulties, and trouble finding child care can make it hard for families to get involved.[vii,viii] There are even more barriers for low-income families and families of color, who may have had negative interactions with schools in the past, and may not feel comfortable or welcome at schools due to discrimination.[ix,x] Family members who do not speak English also find it challenging to participate, and low-income and immigrant families may lack knowledge of school systems and ways they can be involved.[iii,xi] On the other hand, school staff say they are ill-equipped to overcome these obstacles, and unprepared to engage families.[iii,ix]
In the next sections, we share research on the outcomes of family engagement, and how schools can overcome barriers to implementation.
A number of studies show that students with highly involved parents (either at home or in school) have improved academic achievement, learning attitudes, and positive behaviors [i] as well as improved motivation and self-efficacy.[iii] Positive academic and behavior outcomes can also occur when there is strong parent-school relationships.[xii] Engaged family members may reap benefits too, such as a sense of empowerment, enhanced social connections, and personal well-being.[xiii,xiv] Researchers caution that specific outcomes differ according to variables like student grade level, school climate, teacher practices, and socioeconomic status/culture of the community.[xi,xii] For this reason, schools must experiment to find out which approaches work best.
Providing families with resources to support students at home often has a stronger positive effect than school-based involvement, such as classroom volunteering or attending school meetings. Specifically, schools can provide guidance for families to have discussions about school, create an organized learning space at home, and complete interactive assignments.[xv] They can also encourage family members to communicate high expectations for their child’s learning.[vi]
Across several studies, texts to inform families about their student’s progress, as well as general tips for supporting children’s learning, both led to improved student outcomes.[xvi,xvii] As above, outcomes vary according to family demographics, so schools must again experiment to find out which messages are effective for their population. Further, technology must be adapted to reach family members who do not speak English or have limited reading skills.[ix,xii]
Successful engagement programs are embedded throughout a school’s structure and are sustainable. Further, these programs involve families participating in activities that are central to students’ academic learning[iii], and evaluate programs to determine which offerings are effective.[xii,xviii] Finally, many successful programs are led by a school principal who values family
involvement and is willing to share power [viii], and has high expectations for all students.[xiii] These principals create a welcoming environment by engaging in frequent, positive interactions with students, families, and faculty.[xiii]
This means training in the behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enable effective cross-cultural relationships.[xii] In particular, school staff should shift from deficit to strengths thinking, which views families as having significant expertise and resources that can inform and improve student learning.[x,xix,xx] School staff should take time to get to know families and local community resources and partners[xiv,xix,xxi], and create a welcoming school culture that emphasizes equality, acceptance, and shared values and goals.[xiii] For example, families and staff can work together to identify and address school and community needs, and families should be encouraged to share suggestions at any time.[xiii]
A variety of options will improve overall participation, particularly for families that have significant barriers to engagement. For example, in addition to school-based involvement options, some educators now make home visits, and/or provide materials to guide families in supporting children’s learning at home,[xvi] and with technology.[xxii,xxiii] Schools and families can also regularly communicate via email and text.[xvi,xxii] As part of their offerings, schools should find ways to connect family members for peer-to-peer support [iii,xiii], and partner with local organizations to offer family members ways to learn skills needed to become leaders in schools and the local community.[i, e,xii]
Message content should be tailored for different populations, such as non-native English speakers, families with different cultural backgrounds, and those with students in special education.[vii,ix,xi] When possible, messages should focus on the individual student’s progress [xxii] or contain steps families can take to support their child[i]; texting can be an effective way to share both types of information.[xvi,xvii] Schools should also offer modes of two-way communication between educators and families, such as open houses, quick surveys, interactive websites and email platforms, and parent liaisons.[ix,xv]
[i] Epstein, J, and Sanders, M G. 2002. “Family, School, and Community Partnerships.” Handbook of Parenting. Johns Hopkins University. 407-437.
[ii] Fantuzzo, J, McWayne, C, and Perry, M A. 2004. “Multiple Dimensions of Family Involvement and Their Relations to Behavioral and Learning Competencies for Urban, Low-Income Children.” School Psychology Review. 33(4), 467-480. https://eportfoliocathymendoza.pbworks.com/f/Fantuzzo.pdf
[iii] Mapp, K L and Kuttner, P J. 2013. “Partners in Education: A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family–School Partnerships.” https://www2.ed.gov/documents/family-community/partners-education.pdf
[iv] Weiss, H B, and Lopez, M E. 2015. “Engage Families for Anywhere, Anytime Learning.” Phi Delta Kappan 96 (7). Phi Delta Kappa International:14–19. https://www.kappanonline.org/engage-families-for-anywhere-anytime-learning/
[v] Stefanski, A, Valli, L, and Jacobson, R. 2016. “Beyond Involvement and Engagement: The Role of the Family in School–Community Partnerships.” School Community Journal 26(2), 135-160.
[vi] Thompson, K M, Gillis, T J, Fairman, J, Mason, C A. 2014. “Effective Strategies for Engaging Parents in Students’ Learning to Support Achievement.” Maine Education Policy Research Institute. https://cpb-us-west-2-juc1ugur1qwqqqo4.stackpathdns.com/wpsites.maine.edu/dist/e/97/files/2016/09/Effective_Strategies_for_Engaging_Parents_in_students_Learning_to_Support_Achievement-1fn17ef.pdf
[vii] Iver, M, Abele, M, Epstein, J L, Sheldon, S B, and Fonseca, E. 2015. “Engaging Families to Support Students’ Transition to High School: Evidence from the Field.” The High School Journal 99(1). University of North Carolina Press: 27–45.
[viii] Catone, K C, Friedman, K, McAlister, S, Potochnik, T, Thompson, J. 2014. “Family Engagement and Organizing in Pittsburgh: A Research Scan and Recommendations.” Annenberg Institute. https://www.annenberginstitute.org/sites/default/files/product/816/files/FamilyEngagementEducation.pdf.
[ix] Muscott, H S, Szczesiul, S, Berk, B, Staub, K, Hoover, J, and Perry-Chisholm, P. 2008. “Creating Home–School Partnerships by Engaging Families in Schoolwide Positive Behavior Supports.” Teaching Exceptional Children 40(6). https://www.uvm.edu/~cdci/best/IntensiveStrand2014/Day2Muscott.pdf.
[x] Bryan, J, and Henry, L. 2008. “Strengths-Based Partnerships: A School-Family-Community Partnership Approach to Empowering Students.” Professional School Counseling 12(2). American School Counselor Association:149–56.
[xi] McWayne, C M, Melzi, G, Limlingan, M C, and Schick, A. (2016, July). “Ecocultural Patterns of Family Engagement among Low-income Latino Families of Preschool Children.” Developmental Psychology. 52(7): 1088–1102
[xii] Wood, L, and Bauman, E. 2017. “How Family, School, and Community Engagement Can Improve Student Achievement and Influence School Reform.” American Institutes of Research. https://www.nmefoundation.org/getattachment/67f7c030-df45-4076-a23f-0d7f0596983f/Final-Report-Family-Engagement-AIR.pdf?lang=en-US&ext=.pdf
[xiii] Francis, G L, and Blue-Banning, M. 2016. “Culture in Inclusive Schools: Parental Perspectives on Trusting Family-Professional Partnerships.” Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities. 51(3), 281-293.
[xiv] Bryan, Julia. 2005. “Fostering Educational Resilience and Achievement in Urban Schools Through School-Family Community Partnerships.” Partnerships/Community, 22.
[xv] California Department of Education. n.d. “Family Engagement Framework: A Tool for California School Districts.” https://www.wested.org/wp-content/files_mf/1414600912familyengagementframework2.pdf.
[xvi] York, B N, and Loeb, S. 2014. “One Step at a Time: The Effects of an Early Literacy Text Messaging Program for Parents of Preschoolers.” Working Paper Series. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://doi.org/10.3386/w20659.
[xvii] Bergman, P, and Chan, E W. 2017. “Leveraging Parents: The Impact of High-Frequency Information on Student Achievement.” https://www.columbia.edu/~psb2101/ParentRCT.pdf
[xviii] Davis, K M, and Lambie, G W. 2005. “Family Engagement: A Collaborative, Systemic Approach for Middle School Counselors.” Professional School Counseling 9(2). American School Counselor Association:144–51.
[xix] Moll, L C, Amanti, C, Neff, D, Gonzalez, N. (1992). “Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms.” Theory to Practice, 30(2), 132-141.
[xx] Molina, S C. 2013. “Family, School, Community Engagement, and Partnerships: An Area of Continued Inquiry and Growth.” Teaching Education 24 (2). Routledge:235–38.
[xxi] McWayne, C M, Mattis, J S, Green, L E, Wright, M, Limlingan, C, and Harris, E. (2016) “An Emic, Mixed-Methods Approach to Defining and Measuring Positive Parenting Among Low-Income Black Families.” Early Education and Development 28(2), 182-206. DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2016.1208601
[xxii] Escueta, M, Quan, V, Nickow, A J, and Oreopoulos, P. 2017. “Education Technology: An Evidence-Based Review.” Working Paper Series. National Bureau of Economic Research. https://doi.org/10.3386/w23744.
[xxiii] Pasnik, S, Moorthy, S, Llorente, C, Hupert, N, Dominguez, X, and Silander, M. (2015) “Supporting Parent-Child Experiences with PEG+CAT Early Math Concepts: Report to the CPB-PBS Ready to Learn Initiative.” Education Development Center & SRI International. https://www-tc.pbskids.org/lab/media/pdfs/research/Y5-EDC_SRI_RTL_Peg+Cat_Home_Study_Report_Body.pdf