We’re all familiar with the term family engagement. In the past, academics have used the term “parent involvement” or “parent engagement”, but family engagement acknowledges that parents aren’t the only ones involved in a child’s educational journey. Family engagement is crucial to a child’s success in school, but we also can see the limits of just engaging families. By giving families a voice and truly empowering families, schools will see a complete mindset shift to working with families.
We already know that the benefits of family engagement are endless. We know that students benefit when we increase family engagement, especially during this time where in-person engagement isn’t possible. Research has proven that family engagement improves test scores, increases achievement in both reading and math, students pass more classes, and have improved behavior at home and school, just to name a few. (Henderson, Mapp)
Definition of Family Engagement
Family engagement in schools is defined as:
“parents and school personnel working together at the classroom, local, and system level to support and improve the learning, development, and health of children and adolescents. Family engagement in schools is a shared responsibility in which schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to reaching out to engage parents in meaningful ways, and the parents are committed to actively supporting their children’s and adolescents’ learning and development.”-https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/protective/parent_engagement.htm
Out of this long definition, the highlights is that parents and school work together to support and improve the learning and development of children. Engagement is more school-initiated and school-led.
But there is more than just engagement and having the school initiate how parents can support their child. This is where family voice and family power come in. Family engagement, family voice, and family power should be used at some point during a school year. Parents should feel engaged, feel their voice is valued, and feel empowered all at the same time. Different situations during the year require different actions within the school to family partnership.
So what exactly is family voice and family power?
Definition of Family Voice
We see family voice as: “…the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving students’ academic learning and other school activities.
Parents are encouraged to be actively involved in their children’s education at school.
Parents are full partners in their children’s education and are included, as appropriate, in decision-making and on advisory committees to assist in their children’s education” http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/index.html
Family voice is when there is two-way communication and parents are given a voice and input in decisions made about their child’s education.
Definition of Family Power
We see family power as “...parents who are (1) informed and (2) organized so that they can (3) exercise their power. Empowered parents, with the support of nonprofit allies, can then deploy a broad set of strategies to set the agenda for education change, achieve that change, and then sustain that change for their children, their schools, and ultimately their school systems.” https://www.the74million.org/article/notes-from-the-field-if-you-want-great-schools-first-work-with-parents-to-create-actionable-demand/
There is the reality that different school communities need different things. There can be different ratios of engagement, voice, and power for each school, but there should be elements of all three somewhere in your partnership with families.
Building a Collective Vision Statement for Family Partnership
So thinking about what is the ideal vision for your family to school partnership is crucial.
The steps we recommend doing this are first reflecting on your personal beliefs about what you want it to look like. What do you want to be true for this partnership?
The second step is assembling a team of leaders to capture similarities in your vision and theirs and craft a collective family partnership vision together.
Then discuss tangible action steps for what that vision looks like in real life. Make sure to delegate action steps and have clear follow-up so they really happen.
How to Build Family Power
And here are a few tangible ideas to start thinking about how to build family power at your school.
Ask for Collective Parent Voice and Close Feedback Loops
Ask parents for their feedback, praise, and concerns regularly. Let parents know you heard their voice and value it. This builds trust and allows them to know their voice is being heard.
Open and Honest Conversations
Listen to parent’s agenda and what they want. Make time to have conversations with families in a way they feel comfortable being open and honest. It takes time to build this trust.
Invest in Parents
We support, develop, and retain great teachers and school leaders. The same mindset should apply to parent leaders. Invest in the development of parent leaders through training, retaining talented parent leaders/organizers, support, and appreciation. Connect them with organizations that can support the parent agenda.
Expand Diversity in Education Leadership:
For diverse parent communities, having a leader who mirrors the community is crucial to building trust, respect, and facilitating powerful parent partnerships.
Focus on Equity in Voices
We can’t build family power if we’re only hearing from a specific set of parents. Find a way to hear more equitable voices in the community and ensure that all parents have a way to be in two-way communication with the school. A 2019 Pew Research Center report found that 96% of adult Americans have a cell phone. Black and Latino adults remain less likely than whites to say they own a traditional computer or have high speed internet at home. Think about ways you can use texting instead of web-based or app-based communication. Additionally, think about translation needs and how you can create more equity by breaking down language barriers. Hearing all of your families is crucial to giving them the full power they deserve.
How to Increase Family Engagement
And we wanted to share a few quick tips on how to encourage family engagement at home. This is crucial to starting family partnership work and greatly benefits students. A few ways to get parents engaged at home include:
Share the Curriculum with Families
Give them key points about what students are learning at school so they can talk about content and continue the learning at home
Send Home Conversation Starters
Send parents daily or weekly conversation starters that they can ask around the dinner table or in the car to spark conversation about academics at home
Provide Clear Expectations and Directions for Parents
Let parents know what you want or expect them to do with their child at home (i.e. at-home reading expectations, level of parental support with homework, etc.)
Family engagement work is truly the work of building student, school, and community success. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or needs on this topic.