When families are stakeholders in students’ education, there’s a positive impact on student success. When families get involved and engaged in their child’s education, students are more likely to graduate, earn higher grades, improve their attendance, and go to college.
*As part of our ongoing work to #ReThinkHighSchool, we decided to create a series of long-form posts that seek to explain education topics central to our core work. In the first installment of this series, we looked at inquiry-based learning. This week we are probing the importance of parental and family involvement and its effects on student success.
Family involvement and engagement takes many forms, including:
- Communication between families and students about school and academics
- Help with homework and studying
- Discussions about areas in need of improvement, progress, and achievements
- A home environment conducive to studying
- Clear educational and academic expectations
- Communication between family and school
- Parent participation or attendance at school and at after-school functions
How Does Family Involvement Impact Students?
When families are interested, engaged, and care about student outcomes, students benefit. You may think that the connection between parent involvement and student success is intuitive, and it is. But we don’t need to rely on intuition alone; there’s plenty of research that tells us how closely connected family engagement and student success are to each other.
Parent and Family Involvement is Directly Tied to Academic Achievement
Through a grant from the American Educational Research Association, educational researchers collated evidence from several studies on how family involvement impacts student achievement. Researchers used these studies to analyze grades—both overall GPA and individual subject grades—to measure student success.
Researchers found a strong correlation between parental involvement and overall academic achievement. They showed that parental and familial involvement also improved grades when measured for each subject. Additionally, this research found that parents’ or family expectations and aspirations for their students have the most significant impact on academic achievement. Children whose families take an active role in their children’s education—even if that merely means communicating that school matters—have better academic performance than children with less engaged families.
Parental and Family Involvement Improves Graduation Rates
Studies show that parent and family involvement can also improve graduation rates. Researchers looked at programs aimed at increasing family involvement at schools. In one such study, researchers found that for every year, a parent or guardian participated in the Chicago Parent Centers program, their student’s chances to graduate high school increased by 16%.
When they compared students of families who participated in the program to those who did not, the impact became clearer. The graduation rate was more than 80% for those whose families spent six years in the program and 38% for those whose families never participated.
Family Support Promotes College Enrollment
Another way to measure academic success is college enrollment after high school. Of course, this isn’t a perfect measurement. College is not every student’s destiny. Some prefer to work or train for trade. Others face financial barriers from directly matriculating to a two- or four-year college. But college enrollment is still an important indicator of academic success.
Studies from the Parent Institute for Quality Education, a California program that supports immigrant parents and helps them get involved, show that parent participation in the program increases college enrollment. The program teaches parents and guardians skills and knowledge to best support students. The Parent Institute for Quality Education also helps parents overcome barriers to getting involved.
The results of their studies show the most significant impact on Latinx students. For example, in a group of San Diego parents and students, the program increased the college enrollment rate to 80%.
Similarly, Summit Public Schools surveyed several hundred students, family members, and teachers to determine what increases college enrollment. They found that family support was an essential factor in helping students to enroll in college.
Summit Public Schools’ report suggests that shared educational values, high expectations, active support, positive role models, and family involvement encouraged students to go to college. They also found that personal advisory boards could harness all of these factors. Made up of students, family, and faculty, these groups meet to help students set goals and achieve them.
Why is Family Involvement so Helpful?
Research provides insight into why family involvement supports student success:
- Efficacy. When parents and families believe in their own efficacy—that they can impact their students’ achievements—students begin to believe in themselves. And parents who feel they can make a difference are also more likely to get involved.
- Expectations. Students also respond to expectations. When families have high aspirations for their students, students are more likely to strive and work hard to meet them.
- Support. Research also shows that students do better in school when they feel safe and supported. Family involvement supports these protective feelings by demonstrating to students that they are cared for and reassuring their students that their families do care about their success.
- Guidance. When families guide their students to make better academic choices, those students benefit. For instance, parents may push students to choose more challenging courses, plan for getting accepted to college, or spend more time studying.
Is Engagement Different from Involvement?
Although the two are similar, there’s a difference between family involvement and family engagement. Think of involvement as doing things like volunteering for a field trip or expressing concerns to teachers. Engagement takes things one step further. It means being a part of the school community, an active supporter, member, and problem solver.
The difference between involvement and engagement is apparent in several elements of how schools interact with families, according to educator and author Larry Ferlazzo.
Telling parents and families what schools need from them
Listening to parents and families to find out what they and their students need
One-way communication from schools to families
Two-way conversations between schools and families
May occur occasionally
Is regular and ongoing
Families have no stake in decision-making
Schools consider family input and concerns and include them in decision-making
Some parents and families help at events or volunteer in schools
Schools rely on all families as valuable resources
Expecting families to ensure homework gets done
Discussing strategies for developing a robust home learning environment
Parents who invest in their children’s schools find that their students are also engaged. They communicate with teachers before there are problems. They partner with schools to make improvements. And they work with their students to set goals and strategize to achieve them.
Barriers to Family Involvement and Engagement
When parents and families engage with their students’ education, there are several positive results. However, there are also a few challenges. Teachers and school communities must understand these challenges and address them.
Remember that parents and families want to be involved, but here are some factors that may get in the way:
- Busy schedules include work and other family responsibilities, leaving no time to volunteer or attend school activities and events
- No or limited access to childcare
- Lack of transportation to get to the school and events
- Language and cultural differences that make communication with schools intimidating or challenging
- Lack of knowledge, resources, or confidence to help or support a student
- Frustration with school bureaucracy or policies
- Failure to hear anything from the school unless a student has done something wrong or is in trouble academically
- Lack of understanding on the part of the school for families with a single parent, grandparents, foster parents, and other caregivers
Lack of communication is a severe barrier to family involvement. Too often, school faculty communicate only with parents or families of students facing challenges or behavioral issues.
Washington Leadership Academy is an example of an XQ school approaching communication differently. The school culture focuses strongly on developing leadership habits in students. To monitor progress, they use something they call “Habit Memos.” Here’s how it works:
- Behavior observations. Teachers observe their students daily, paying close attention to behavior changes.
- Notes. Teachers report student observations weekly. The notes focus on two types of behaviors: (1) positive habits that exemplify leadership, and (2) growth behaviors that indicate a student needs some coaching and correction.
- Habit Memo. Each student’s faculty advisor compiles their weekly notes from teachers. They put them into a format known as the Habit Memo. It provides deep insights on each student to all faculty members. These help them direct a student’s coaching and encouragement of leadership habits.
- Daily discussion and privileges. Each student discusses their notes and Habit Memos daily with a faculty advisor. Students with more leadership notes get more access to more privileges, while those with growth notes have less access.
- Weekly family notification. Families also receive the Habit Memos every Friday. In addition to teacher notes on habits, the Memo includes updates on grades and attendance.
Tracking student habits is useful for staff and students. The real difference at WLA is that the faculty keeps the entire family in the loop. They allow parents and guardians to see progress, identify setbacks, and intervene early when there are challenges.
How Schools Can Improve Parent and Family Involvement and Engagement
When families and schools come together as actual stakeholders in students’ education, everyone benefits. Families and parents want to be involved and want to encourage their students to succeed. Sometimes, they just need a little guidance and encouragement to do so or are unsure where to start.
The good news is that schools can overcome the barriers to engagement, reach every family, and create a clear path for authentic engagement. There are plenty of examples that show how schools already do this. They serve as guides for all educational communities.
What Does Parent and Family Involvement Look Like In Practice?
For any school or district to actively improve parent and family engagement, it’s essential to know how that looks. Successful involvement goes well beyond getting parents into the building or contacting families about grades.
A guide or framework is useful for starting to develop concrete strategies. Joyce Epstein is a Johns Hopkins education professor and director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships. She spent years researching the role of family and community engagement in education. Using her research and experience, Epstein developed a six-part framework of family involvement.
She designed the framework to help schools and educators create plans and programs to improve engagement. Schools must understand what these types of involvement are to make it easier to identify ways to address challenges.
Learning at Home
Collaborating with the Community
Action-Based Ideas for Improving Involvement and Engagement
Schools can develop concrete plans, programs, and strategies to promote parent and family involvement and engagement when they understand how it looks. However, there is always room for improvement, and new ideas schools can use to increase involvement and engagement. Here are a few:
- Create parent and family advocacy groups
- Expand volunteer opportunities
- Offer home visits
- Get information out in the community
- Schedule regular student meetings
- Host family workshops
Create parent and family advocacy groups.
Meeting the needs of families is the first step to engagement. Collaborative groups made up of families can help new families feel welcome. They can also help to identify and address the challenges of those with barriers to engagement. For instance, a monthly coffee meetup with faculty and families brings stakeholders together in an informal way. You can also encourage families to seek support from the local school board by writing a letter or attending a meeting.
Expand volunteer opportunities.
Involving families as participants do not have to be limited to the school day. Having parents in the building for activities or field trips is a great way to engage, but it may exclude many families who cannot be there during the day. Expand the options to include after-school events, planning sessions, outreach groups, and more. With more opportunities for parents and families to volunteer their time throughout the week, more parents and families can get involved.
Offer home visits.
Student learning happens in the home as well as at school. Programs that bring faculty into student homes can have a positive impact. Meet students and parents where they live or virtually to provide support services, training, education, and advice.
Get information out in the community.
Families may not always respond to school communications. It helps to present information in alternative ways. Use local churches, businesses, and community centers to hold meetings, advertise events, and provide important school information.
Schedule regular student meetings.
Only contacting parents when a student has a challenge is typical in many schools. This strategy is counterproductive to engagement. Instead, schedule regular meetings for teachers and other staff with each student and their families. Regardless of progress or issues, these meetings encourage involvement and build positive, proactive relationships.
Host family workshops.
Lack of knowledge is a significant barrier to involvement for many parents. They want to engage and support their students but may not know the best ways to do it. Regular workshops teach parents and families about school and education. Workshop topics may include college paths, study skills, or creating a positive learning environment at home.
See how TAPA: Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts encouraged parent and family involvement and engagement through strong communication channels during the coronavirus pandemic that prompted school closures here.
It is crucial to reach out to every family to support all students. Many schools have populations with immigrant students and families, which may present unique challenges for engagement.
There may be language barriers. For instance, parents may not speak English well or at all. Cultural differences and misunderstandings may also present difficulties. And an immigrant family may have different ideas of what it means to be involved in their student’s education.
Brooklyn LAB is a majority immigrant school, with 80% of students coming from other countries. The school strives to make its community open and welcoming to international families. This, in turn, improves involvement and engagement.
Here are some of the strategies used at Brooklyn LAB to help make their school more welcoming:
- The school hosts regular potluck dinners and movie nights. All family members are welcome to join and socialize.
- Parents and families are encouraged to attend any sporting event or other school-related activity or event.
- Staff members develop personal relationships with every student, regardless of immigrant status. This relationship allows them to get to know the families and open up lines of communication.
- The staff also meets with all new families when they arrive. Teachers meet with parents, explain how the school works, and encourage participation and involvement.
- Staff provides new parents and families with strategies for learning English and helping to support their students.
- The school involves community partners in after-school activities to improve student learning experiences and to engage immigrant families with their new communities.
- Student achievement measures are available online for families to access at any time.
- The school encourages parents to join a Parent Leadership Council. They meet every month for coffee.
- Families meet with teachers and other staff to discuss student progress. These occur at least three times per year, even when students are doing well.
Get Involved, Stay Engaged
Involvement and engagement lead to student success. Staff, parents, families, guardians, students, community members, and leaders must all come together to promote academic achievement and solid, strong schools that benefit all students.
Regardless of the inherent barriers, like language, transportation, and lack of knowledge, schools can increase engagement. Use the research and examples of other schools as guides and get everyone involved and engaged.
If you are interested in learning more about how to redesign your school to center family and community engagement, check out this blog to learn how you can apply XQ design principles in your school.