Listening and Learning from Families: What Schools Can Do to Really Strengthen Family Engagement


Photos courtesy of  the US DOE Flickr feed & used under Creative Commons license.
Photos courtesy of the US DOE Flickr feed & used under Creative Commons license.

In recent years, schools have undergone a change in their approach to families. Thirty years ago, it was the uncommon school that sought to ally with parents in children’s education and development. Often parents were considered obstacles to children’s education and intentionally kept at arm’s length.  To the contrary, research shows that when families are involved in their children’s education, children earn higher grades and receive higher test scores, attend school more regularly, complete more homework, demonstrate more positive attitudes and behaviors, graduate from high school at higher rates, and are more likely to enroll in higher education than students with less involved families.[i]

Yet, while research has progressed, school practice has not.  It remains the exceptional school that engages families in meaningful, substantive ways that actually affect childhood outcomes. It is, in fact, the uncommon school that partners with a diverse range of families consistently and effectively. And while many schools are successful in engaging middle class parents and parents from all backgrounds who are functioning well, schools tend to be far less effective in engaging low-income parents, and parents who are stressed and facing numerous social or financial challenges, even though it is the children of these parents who tend to struggle the most in academic settings.

Low-levels of family engagement are troubling because a growing body of research suggests that parents have a powerful influence on children’s learning and development, and that effective collaboration between parents and schools can greatly facilitate positive effects.[ii] The challenge for schools is to move away from current fragmented, narrow ways of engaging parents, and to adopt more cogent and embedded efforts that successfully promote family engagement approaches across school cultures, staff, and practices.

To gain insight into what these approaches might be, the Wheelock College Aspire Institute partnered with 13 Boston area schools over two years to implement the Boston Family Engagement Partnership (BFEP).  The BFEP combined graduate coursework, grassroots community organizing, and participatory action research to understand and significantly advance family-school engagement across a diverse range of Boston school settings, from public, charter, and catholic.  Specifically, the BFEP consisted of three core strategies:

  • Data driven planning and action – collecting data from families via surveys and focus groups to understand their experience, perspective, hopes, strengths and challenges. Then based on this data developing school-site specific action plans that outline strategies (e.g. use of social media and technology to improve communication, workshops for teachers in family engagement, etc.), roles and responsibilities, and measures related to improving family engagement.
  • Family Engagement Fellowship – a 4 course graduate-level fellowship designed to develop leadership within schools, collect data, develop action plans, and facilitate effective and responsive family engagement strategies
  • Learning and communication resources for families – based on data across schools developing widely applicable resources to support school-family engagement. This led to the development of a family engagement phone application, designed to create a dynamic social network among schools and families and between families.

At the same time, the Aspire Institute – with the support of Magnolia Consulting—conducted a study reviewing data across schools and over the two years of the project to identify key insights and implications related to strengthening family engagement, particularly in schools that are linguistically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse. Based on this study, we offer the following guidance to schools committed to developing mutually engaging practices where parents are involved in their children’s schooling and education in more ongoing, authentic, and extensive ways:

School climate—how it feels to be in buildings, whether staff convey a welcoming tone— matters to families
Our findings suggest that schools – historically places where families are viewed as “outsiders”– must consider issues of school climate and families’ sense of belonging within the school as necessary precursors to their engagement. Perceptions of school climate and sense of belonging are significant aspects of families’ psychological and lived experiences with children’s schools, and can be particularly salient for ethnic minority families, who are often more attuned to contextual factors in the environment in their interactions.  Thus, schools must engage in deep and honest reflection about whether they are indeed welcoming places for all families. They also must create – and provide staff support for – opportunities to listen to families via parent surveys and focus groups.  BFEP schools gained great insight from their focus groups, for example, on the willingness of parents to support specific learning areas (e.g. reading) or the challenges they faced communicating with teachers.

Families strongly desire rich, ongoing communication with teachers and other school staff
It is clearly evident from this study that families desire timely and consistent communication from schools, as well as efficient and clearly articulated ways for them to communicate with school staff- in particular, with their children’s teachers. Families expressed a need for more transparency around curricular issues – for example, why particular curricula were chosen, and how parents might support classroom instruction at home. Families do less well with infrequent and sporadic communication from schools that they cannot access easily. Schools must develop predictable and reliable forms of communication. Technology – specifically smart phone technology – has the potential to offer this consistent source of communication.

Families – across backgrounds – are ready and willing to assume responsibility for their child’s learning success
It is clear that many families who might otherwise be considered “uninvolved” due to their low-income or non-native speaking status are, in fact, heavily vested in the home-school collaborative process. Across schools, families expressed the desire to be: (1) active participants in their child’s learning, yet needed more guidance and resource in order to assume these active roles, and (2) engaged and informed in the culture of, decision-making, and advocacy efforts on behalf of schools. We believe this finding suggests that schools consider the question of: how do schools capitalize on low-income families’ leadership potential and the seriousness with which they appear to take their own role in communicating with the school? 

Families seek to be a part of a ‘community of families’ within their school
It is clear to that families have a strong desire to connect not only with the school, but with each other. During our many interactions with families across different segments of the project (e.g., focus groups, in the classroom, at a “Family Reunion” on the Wheelock campus), they often lamented that they didn’t really know other families in their child’s classroom/school, and felt “isolated” and/or “uninformed” because of it. This sense of isolation may, in fact, be more acute for school populations such as the ones represented in the BFEP, due to barriers identified through our data collection such as transportation, child care, inflexible work schedules, or limited proficiency with English. Conversely, many parents commented on how much they enjoyed particular focus group sessions because of the interaction with and connection to other families that it provided, even if the session occurred at the end of a long day; the fact that many of our focus group sessions lasted well beyond intended time limits is a testament to this. Having solid connections and relationships with other parents in and outside of the school environment affords numerous affective, social, cultural, logistical, and informational benefits for families, and has been positively correlated with parents’ physical presence at school in some studies.[iii]  Here again, technology – specifically smart phone technology – has the potential to offer effective avenues of communication between families.  Increasingly, this is the medium that families and teachers use for communication and information exchange.

Provide family engagement training for school staff
Identifying and supporting key staff to develop new knowledge and skills for understanding and fostering meaningful, two-way family engagement is a critical component.  The BFEP Family Engagement Fellowship provided a unique opportunity for schools to build facilitation, research/data-collection, problem-solving, program-design, and coordination skills among staff specifically focused on improving family engagement. BFEP Fellows emerged as leaders and advocates in their school settings – often the engine behind a schools family-engagement work.

Family Engagement2We encourage school leaders to consider these finding as they plan their family engagement strategies. They are powerful, yet very ‘doable’, strategies that can change the culture of schools in positive ways for children, families and teachers.

For more information about the BFEP and the BFEP Study visit this link


[i] See: Eagle, E. (1989). Socioeconomic status, family structure, and parental involvement: The correlates, of achievement. In A.T. Henderson & N. Berla (Eds.), A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement, 59–60. Washington, DC: Center for Law and Education.; Henderson, A. T., and Berla, N. (1994). A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement (A report from the National Committee for Citizens in Education). Washington, DC: Center for Law and Education; Henderson, A. and Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family         and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory; U.S. Department of Education. (1994, September). Strong families, strong schools: Building community partnerships for learning. Washington, DC: Author.; Ziegler, S. (1987, October). The effects of parent involvement on children’s achievement: The significance of home/school links. In A.T. Henderson & N. Berla (Eds.), A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement (pp. 15 I–I 5 2). Washington, DC: Center for Law and Education.

[ii] See: Henderson, A. and Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family    and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

[iii] See: Durand, T. (2011). Latina mothers’ cultural beliefs about their children, parental roles, and education: Implications for effective and empowering home-school partnerships. The Urban Review, 43(2), 255-278. DOI 10.1007/s11256-010-0167-5.