Family engagement should be a focus – at schools and places of employment. Historically, educators and schools (and businesses) have viewed the family as a peripheral part of the culture. In this blog post, we’ll look at schools specifically…but the business side of family engagement is just as important. Maybe some of these ideas will help businesses and other nonprofits promote family engagement.
In 2020, schools and families became intermingled in a way never dreamed of before: schools quickly realized that families struggle connecting to the curriculum and families realized that teaching in a meaningful way is hard. Really hard. The mindset of schools vs. family The disconnect has schools scrambling to engage families with student learning – and invite them to be part of the school culture. And, it’s not just the families, but the community as a whole. How do schools truly connect and sustain relationships over time?
Family working on a school project together
To make the connection between family, school, and community meaningful and long-term, there must be a collaborative approach to build a culture around the families, teachers, students, and the community.
Creating a culture with a growth mindset involves several key components:
Showcasing Special Events: While Open Houses and Trunk or Treats are super valuable, there is a next-step that is often overlooked. How can these events be reframed to make more meaningful connections with families and the community? Besides just meeting teachers and entertaining the students, how can the school offer something along the lines of family development? Families want to connect to the school – and not everyone can be in the Parent / Teacher Association or volunteer at school-day events. Literacy nights, Math nights, study groups, homework help….model how families can support learning at home, review milestones in student development so that families can stay informed, provide resources and tips for parents to take home so that learning continues after the event. Or for an Art Showcase, brainstorm with teachers about using this time with families to discuss process over product, using art to learn math, or enriching reading by discussing art and making connections to the outside world. Fostering these skills will create positive lifelong connections beyond the night of the event.
Communication Pathways: Communication must be effective. Parents are busy. The two biggest family complaints regarding communication: there isn’t enough and what communication there is – is often too long or over-explanatory.
What is the best way to reach families? Every person has a preference, and there are many options for schools to meet that need. Email, text message, or app-based communication? Let the family sign up for a specific two-way communication format. The purpose is to create an efficient and low-pressure pathway for communicating. With Facebook, it’s easy to get parents engaged…post something, ask a question, create a poll – and encourage families to respond to the communication. Create a YouTube channel and share videos of a teacher leading a guided reading session, a circle time, or a math manipulative session. Speaking of math… “that’s not how I was taught” is one of the most used phrases during homework time. Parents often feel helpless when watching their child struggle with a math concept. We fall on two sides of the math spectrum: I wasn’t good at math OR that’s not how I learned to do it. BUT…what if you had a Math Night (see above) and then filmed math teachers teaching a new concept? Ever hear of a flipped classroom? If a math teacher would just film the lesson, post it on social media, and identify the math curriculum used, families would be more confident to help. And, for the families that don’t have time or resources to sit and do lessons with their child(ren), students would have access to re-watch the lessons. I realize that this is asking a lot…but building a family/school culture is life changing for teachers, administration, families, and most of all…students. Wait…how did I go from communication to helping parents help children with math? Easy. Communication doesn’t have to be just news and events. It’s communication – it’s sharing what you know, what you love, and more, and then getting a response or feedback!
Positive Reinforcement is important
Another aspect of family communication (besides the above points of making it two way and making it meaningful) is to make it positive. Often, families only hear directly from teachers or administration in the event of a problem or concern. To have a strong, collaborative relationship, communication should be positive as often as possible. The more supported and heard a family feels, the more likely they are to actively engage. And an engaged parent is priceless! When parents feel comfortable communicating – they are part of the team.
How many times have I heard from teachers “All I ever hear from parents is the negative…they blame me for everything….they only come out of the woodwork when there is a problem.”? Welp, to be honest…that is often the communication that the school has established. Parents are more likely to share the good as well as consult with teachers – opposed to blaming and calling out teachers – when they are part of the team, when they feel heard, when they have been given multiple opportunities to respond to both the good and the bad.
Your goal as a school or teacher is to collaborate and communicate with…not vomit information at… families. Have you had two-way communication with ALL of the families? Are you providing multiple choices in how parents receive information? Don’t we diversify lessons to students? Shouldn’t we do the same for their caregivers?
Along those lines…let parents collaborate with each other: Besides having meaningful family/community events that provide substance, letting parents have the opportunity to engage with each other in a variety of formats builds a positive culture.
Whether it’s talking about the last parent night, planning for birthday parties, getting together for playdates, discussing the latest math homework, or just talking about life as a parent, any time you can encourage parents to talk about GOOD stuff, do it. Then, the times they need to complain, they can do so in a safe, comfortable setting. When they often share life, and the good that goes with it, other parents are more likely to help them see all the good that comes from the school instead of just chiming in with their own negative experiences.
Parent 1: “My kid is making an F in History. That teacher is so hard.”…..
Parent 2 : “Yes…but remember last week when you were saying how pleased you were with the project your little blessing had in that class? And how great the Veterans Day program was? And then your kid was sick for a week…so that probably doesn’t help.”
See? If there wasn’t a sense of community, that conversation would have looked completely differently.
Have a core group of parents serve as mentors to new families, use Facebook to provide an open forum, have mixers early in the year and make an effort to introduce families to each other. Encourage families to support each other with carpooling and babysitting. There are lots of ways families need help. We as a society have lost part of the ability to connect with each other. We are busy. We are new to schools. We work more than full time. BUT – what a great opportunity for schools to foster that connection and bring back the “village” feel to our community.
Teach families easy ways to engage with their children: When we communicate with families and create events for the community – we have a great opportunity to let families know what students are learning. Going back to the homework thing…maybe just give suggestions on how to enrich what students are learning…at home. Maybe have a homework assignment to learn to cook something (measurements, fractions, etc), or do laundry (sort, measure, fold, organize), or clean the bathroom (I can’t think of an academic connection, but there surely is, right?). I mean…it’s worth a shot. Maybe send home a scavenger hunt for insects the student is learning about in science. Or have them find all the triangles/circles/squares in their house. Or maybe have them translate their family’s favorite TV show into Spanish. Send/post videos of the students’ presentations or lessons. Make it meaningful and make it fun. Maybe send home nightly conversation starters or sentence stems for students to share with their parents at dinner (assuming they have dinner as a family…try to engage a variety of family types!) (perfect segway)—>
Consider family situations: I recently took part in an online poll about homework. Is it effective? Necessary? Valuable? Many educators and some parents voted “yes”…that homework is effective, necessary, and valuable. When giving reasons to support their vote, the adults stated that “homework is a great time for parents to connect with their children and see what their child is learning,” “Homework is a valuable tool to practice a challenging skill,” and “You can never know something is learned until you practice it yourself or explain to others. So homework is the student’s opportunity to check if they learned, retain and internalize the knowledge.”
On the other hand, “Homework coming out of the pedagogy educational machine is abuse,” and the plain, ol’ “NOPE”…BUT, this is coming from a forum where everyone is a white-collar professional or business owner. Do you see the problem? While certain people might have loved school and loved learning and loved homework…it’s not a positive experience for everyone. Even those who voted against homework were able to verbalize pros and cons.
Spend time together doing homeworking with your kids
However, this doesn’t take into consideration those 10 year olds who are responsible for their four younger siblings, or the seven year olds who have to go to their mom’s work after school until late (and maybe do chores there), or those 14 year olds who work until 9:00 pm to help pay rent, or the children with extensive chores like grooming and feeding horses, moving cattle, or other farm duties (and that’s after an hour ride home on the bus), or the children who really struggle socially and academically…and this is just showing them, AGAIN, that they are lost and can’t keep up. Assigning homework thinking that it’s going to help every child is just not accurate. Many parents can’t or won’t help their children with school work. I could go on about this for a long time…however, when trying to promote a family culture, you have to consider every family: two mom families, single dad families, grandparents, foster parents, siblings acting as parents, absent parents, helicopter parents, neglectful or abusive parents, non-English speaking parents, older parents, younger parents, parents with eight children, overprotective parents….they all exist. Cost of field trips (some families don’t have an extra $5), after school events that require parent attendance (some parents work nights) or a babysitter for younger children (some can’t afford that extra cost), events that require personal transportation to get to (some families rely on public transportation or the school bus…and can’t go to evening activities), social implications of a family structure (conservative school and a two mom family or older grandparents raising the child), language barriers (are there translators) …everything must be considered.
Why “Donuts with Dad?” and “Muffins with Mom”? Why Parent / Teacher Associations (not all families have “parents”)? How can schools ensure that all children can participate and feel comfortable doing so…and that all families feel welcome? Now with Zoom, maybe have family events and forums online. Make every effort toward inclusiveness of all families to create a foundation for a much larger movement within the community. Do day time events, evening events, online events, mixers, and unique events. Inclusivity, compassion, and awareness are key.
Family Education steps in: We take for granted that parents know what they are doing. They really don’t. At least as an educator, you went to college to learn the basics…and have a book to follow if needed – and a team to bounce ideas off of… But parenting? No schooling, no guidebook, no manual. Parents want to do well. Mostly. We are living in an increasingly more nomadic environment. We don’t always live next to our parents or aunts and grandparents to learn from, rely on, and ask questions of. If schools can take the time to develop the skills of parents and families, the results will be amazing. Schools have a classroom management system (usually)…Capturing Kids’ Hearts, Love and Logic, CHAMPS, etc. Why don’t we share these systems with families? Schools can teach parents by providing newsletters, sharing ideas, and modeling short videos. That Facebook page? The YouTube channel? Maybe share some creative ways to extend classroom learning. Share tips on what works in classroom management. Imagine parents using the same style of discipline (good and bad behaviors and consequences) as the school. Families are partners. Praise them for all the work they are doing…praise them for supporting the school community. Support them by giving examples of learning at home. Build their confidence and teach them ways they can be teachers at home. Encourage creativity and critical thinking.
When schools support parents as collaborators in student growth and development, everyone benefits. Empowering parents to be engaged, and giving them the tools to extend learning outside of school, leads to teachers who feel supported. It’s that two-way street. It’s the ying and yang. It’s the village we’ve always heard about. When families are engaged in education, students feel the support. When schools are engaged in developing family strengths, the students feel the support. They feel the connection within their lives – the connection between home and school.
If you feel that your school community could benefit from guided engagement and community building, reach out. We make it easy to collaborate with families! Newsletters, trainings, those videos mentioned above, more blog posts, emails, and consulting on family-centered events is what we do!