How to Engage and Involve Families for Student Success
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.
The power of family involvement is clear in XQ schools across the country, where school leaders routinely involve families at the ground level. For example, when the pandemic brought unprecedented disruptions to high school, school leaders at Brooklyn LAB—an XQ school in Brooklyn, NY—knew where to turn. The school immediately implemented focus groups, town halls, and one-on-ones to seek input from the people most affected by the pandemic and its impact on education: families themselves.
Engaging families is central to the mission and culture of Brooklyn LAB. Brooklyn LAB educators work to meet the needs of students who are traditionally underserved by schools—low-income students, students of color, students from immigrant backgrounds, and students with disabilities. By engaging with families, educators build a better understanding of the supports these students need to succeed in school and create a community where all voices are heard and valued.
Through their engagement with families during the pandemic, Brooklyn LAB designed connections with families that met their current needs and helped students succeed. For instance, Brooklyn LAB created a Family Emergency Fund to provide families with access to food and supplies. They also designed a hybrid model for schools tailored to the specific needs of their students, which allowed classes to continue with minimal disruptions.
This approach embodies the importance of family engagement at all times—not just during moments of crisis. Since family engagement is integral to Brooklyn LAB, families had established touchpoints with the school and trusted relationships that helped them feel comfortable sharing their needs. When families engage with school, students succeed.
What Does Family Engagement Look Like in Practice?
Family engagement is a two-way relationship, where families and educators work together to support each other in order to set students up for successful learning. The effects of parental involvement on student achievement are clear: family involvement increases the likelihood that students will graduate, improve their grades, have better attendance, and go to college.
Family engagement also creates an overall environment of support that enables students to feel cared for and valued at school. One of our core XQ Design Principles is caring, trusting relationships—investing in students personally, both in and out of the classroom. Engaging with families, and understanding the experiences students are having outside of school, is one key way to do just that.
Family involvement and engagement can take many forms. Some common examples include:
- 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
Is Engagement Different from Involvement?
Although the two are similar, there’s a difference between family involvement and family engagement. Involvement often implies a one-way, prescriptive approach to the school/family relationship: for example, a high school might tell parents what they need to do to support students, or give parents a list of ways they can volunteer. Engagement implies a two-way approach, a true partnership between families and schools. Fostering engagement means inviting families to design, problem-solve, and contribute to the school community at high levels.
Any degree of family involvement holds benefits for students—but schools can get the best results by pushing for deep engagement. Educator and author Larry Ferlazzo examined the difference between involvement and engagement, honing in on several features of how schools interact with families.
|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|
How Does Family Involvement and Engagement Impact Students?
When families are interested, engaged, and care about student outcomes, students benefit. The connection between parent engagement and student success isn’t just intuitive: research shows the effects of parental involvement on student success.
Family and Parent Engagement and Student Achievement
Through a grant from the American Educational Research Association, educational researchers collated evidence from several studies on how parent involvement affects 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 parent involvement and student 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
Research shows that parent and family involvement can also improve graduation rates. A report published by the National Education Association draws evidence from several studies to conclude that when parent and family involvement is high, students attend school more regularly and stay in school for longer.
Several studies examining the impact of family involvement on graduation rates also demonstrate how programs that intentionally support the relationship between school and family can increase graduation rates for students. For example, Wendy Barnard used data from a longitudinal study of the Chicago Parent Program to show that parental involvement in early grades led to higher graduation rates and significant decreases in the likelihood of students dropping out of high school. Similarly, a study of the Parent Institute for Quality Education program—a nine-week parent training course—showed that children of parents who completed the San Diego PIQE program had a 93 percent high school graduation rate and only a 7 percent dropout rate, vs. the 41 percent dropout rate in San Diego County.
Family Engagement Promotes College Enrollment
Parental and family involvement also increases college enrollment, creating vital opportunities for students. 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.
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.
Family Expertise Helps Teachers Support Students
Families have first-hand access to students’ needs. Their perspective can help teachers see beyond the classroom to understand students as individuals. From there, teachers are better able to build supports that meet students where they are.
This was especially true during the pandemic when many families spent more time with their students during the school day than ever before. While challenging, this experience also offered an opportunity for families to share insights with teachers about how to support students moving forward. Their suggestions centered on relationships, with requests like “Care for students holistically,” and “Make space for social-emotional learning.”
These suggestions support culturally responsive approaches to teaching: approaches that take into account students’ backgrounds and life experiences to create academic opportunities that are relevant and rigorous. By partnering with families, teachers can gain a more robust understanding of who their students are and where they come from—and structure curriculum around that knowledge.
Barriers to Family Involvement and Engagement, and How to Respond
When parents and families engage with their student’s education, students benefit. But high schools aren’t always structured to foster this engagement. Understanding the barriers families face when trying to get involved with their child’s school is vital for teachers and school communities looking to improve the relationship between family and education.
- 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
Washington Leadership Academy, an XQ school in Washington, D.C., works to alleviate these barriers through the way they approach communicating with families. At WLA, educators explicitly involve families in monitoring and supporting student progress. 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. Their success confirms the relationship between family support and academic performance.
Brooklyn LAB is another example of how a school responds to barriers to familial engagement. Brooklyn LAB is a majority immigrant school, with 80 percent of students coming from other countries. This creates potential challenges to family engagement, like language barriers, or previous experiences of exclusion at other schools that have shaped families’ expectations. However, by intentionally building a culture of welcoming and belonging, Brooklyn LAB has built strong relationships with students and families, encouraging family 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. 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.
How Schools Can Improve Parent and Family Involvement and Engagement
When families and schools come together as stakeholders in students’ education, everyone benefits. Looking at patterns in how schools successfully engage families can empower educators to encourage family engagement in their own communities.
What Does Parent and Family Involvement Look Like in Practice?
Family engagement will look different in different schools, depending on the community. However, effective family engagement follows several common patterns. Joyce Epstein, a Johns Hopkins education professor and director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, 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.
Using this framework, schools and educators can identify patterns of engagement already at work in their communities, articulate barriers or problems, and come up with strategies to address challenges and increase involvement.
|Parenting||– Family services and support|
– Parent workshops
– Home visits
|– Reaching all families|
– Family availability to attend workshops
– Receptiveness to home visits
|Communicating||– Regular conferences with all parents|
– Language translation
– Information on school policies, grading, courses, and activities
|– Cultural and language barriers|
– Two-way communication, from school to home and home to school
|Volunteering||– Classroom volunteer programs|
– Family resource center
– Parent telephone tree
– Family safety patrols
|– Getting volunteers from all families|
– Making schedules flexible enough for all families
– Organization of volunteer work and schedules
|Learning at Home||– Information for families on skills needed for academic success|
– Take-home activities for the whole family
– Regular homework schedules with parent or family interaction
– Goal-setting with students and their families
|– Creating a regular homework schedule with most responsibility on students|
– Coordinating family schedules at home
|Decision-Making||– Participation in parent/school groups, like PTA|
– Attendance at school board meetings
– Involvement in school and local elections
|– Including all families|
– Enabling families to be leaders in the community
– Including students with parents and families in decision-making
|Collaborating with the Community||– Information about community programs|
– Involvement in summer activities
– Volunteer or work experiences for students
– Interactions with alumni
|– Getting information to all families|
– Transportation to community events
– Equal opportunities for all families and students
– Matching community activities to student goals
Action-Based Ideas for Improving Involvement and Engagement
Once educators identify the challenges to family engagement in their community, they can invest in approaches that will foster engagement moving forward. Below are several concrete strategies for educators to foster engagement that is relational and sustainable:
- 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.
This outreach is especially important when schools are making big decisions related to design, funding, or other structures that impact students. For example, families have a huge role to play in deciding how American Rescue Plan funds are allocated. Announced in March of 2021, ARP’s Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding is the largest investment in schools ever made by the federal government. Families offer crucial insight into how these funds should be spent to actually support student needs. Schools can empower families to make their voices heard by making sure families know about the funding, hosting town halls to collect family opinions, and encouraging families to share their opinions with the school board.
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.
Get Involved, Stay Engaged
Schools are community organizations: they benefit from the knowledge and resources of the surrounding community, and they offer pathways for students in the community to pursue opportunity and academic success. By fostering family engagement, schools can better support students and enrich the community as a whole.
If you are interested in learning more about how to redesign your school to center on family and community engagement, check out this article to learn how you can apply XQ Design Principles in your school.