What is Family Engagement in Schools?


For schools to build on-going, authentic, and collaborative relationships with families, educators need to shift their thinking from family involvement to family engagement.

Involvement vs. Engagement 

For schools to build on-going, authentic, and collaborative relationships with families, educators need to shift their thinking from family involvement to family engagement.

In simple terms, family involvement is communicating to where family engagement is communicating with families. Synonyms for “involvement” are words like association, complicity, and participation where “engagement” equates to commitment, sharing, and partaking. Family engagement empowers families as stakeholders in their children’s education.

→ See how we can support Family Engagement in your school

Create the Conditions for Family Engagement 

Research has proven that parent engagement corresponds to higher student achievement. Sometimes, teachers’ mindsets need to shift in order for this to occur. Staff must recognize the wealth of insight, ideas, and knowledge that families bring to the table and create a platform for families to share that information.

Administrators can help staff embrace a growth mindset towards parent engagement by training staff on how to create the conditions for genuine partnerships. Margaret Caspe from the Global Family Research Project suggests staff use the 5 Rs with families—Reach Out, Raise Up, Relate, Reinforce, and Reimagine. Principals and coaches can facilitate professional development sessions using case studies involving family engagement where staff creates an action plan on how to implement the 5 R’s for each case study and the best ways to communicate, engage, and respond to each situation.

True Family Engagement in Action 

Parent involvement is our default or standard when thinking about building relationships with families.

Some examples are:

  • Quick parent conversations during drop off and pick up
  • Sending announcements and fliers home in one language
  • Sharing daily schedules
  • Quarterly report card conferences
  • Negative behavior phone calls
  • Negative behavior or academic parent-teacher meetings
  • Field trip chaperone
  • Awards and Promotion Ceremonies

These examples are a good base, but they do not build genuine relationships where parents are co-creators and partners in the school community. In these examples, parents are an afterthought in communication by staff or teachers. Information is dumped onto parents instead of them being thought partners throughout the process.

Here are some strategies to transform your school into a place that empowers and cultivates strong relationships with families.

Staff Should be a Presence in the Community 

First and foremost, staff should go into the community by conducting home visits to introduce themselves to families before the school year starts. Staff should be highly encouraged to attend community events, academic events, and sporting events. Parents want to know that teachers care for their children as a whole and not just within the walls of the classroom.

Make Positive Communication the Norm 

Parents do not want the only time they hear from the school to be an automated call about events or about their child’s bad grades or behavior. This creates negative feelings towards communication from the school.

Establish expectations and norms with staff around how many positive notes, phone calls, and texts your school wants to send to parents each week or month. Parents will be ecstatic to hear positive news about their child and will most likely share with others how caring and thoughtful your school is with members of the community. Remember, parents are the walking-talking billboards for your school!

Giving these positive communication deposits will also help staff with retention conversations, attendance issues, and negative behavior and academic conversations with families. Teachers will have already spent the time building the foundational relationship so parents will be more trusting of the issue at hand.

Create a Flexible Family Engagement Schedule 

Create flexible options for parents to be involved with their child, the classroom, or the school community as a whole. Share a schedule where parents can volunteer to do daily school responsibilities like bus duty, lunch lines, recess monitors, art projects, celebrations, and events.

One way to increase collaboration between teachers and families in schools is implementing an ‘open door policy’ for parents to come and volunteer in the classroom whenever they have availability. This will help educators facilitate art activities, center rotations, read-alouds, while caregivers will feel valued and involved in the classroom learning.

Lastly, parents have a variety of experience and talents in different career fields. Schools can create a system to tap into their knowledge for the school community as a whole. Administrators can compile a list of themes and topics each grade is focusing on per month and send that to families with the dates for potential collaboration. Parents can speak to classes about their careers, assist with projects, science fairs, scheduling field trips to their job sites, and more.

Create a Dynamic PTA 

Most schools have a Parent-Teacher Association where parents meet once a month to discuss school events and participation. Schools can elevate the PTA and really include them in decision-making processes by allowing one representative from the PTA to sit in on the hiring team for new teachers or leaders. Schools can also establish a committee of teachers, administrators, and parents to review educational policies and community events in their neighborhood. The PTA can also plan parent workshops to teach about the curriculum, Family Literacy Night, STEM Night, community outreach projects and more.

Incentivize and Prioritize Literacy and Homework

Studies have shown that when children have positive literacy experiences, it will help set them on the path to be reading on grade level by third grade. One way schools should incentivize literacy is by creating a Reading Log Competition. Parents can track the minutes their children read at home and sign the log after at least 15 minutes. Once the child’s reading log is signed a designated amount of times by parents, the child can receive a prize or a new book.

By incentivizing literacy at home, families will focus on reading with their children and with teacher support, parents can practice important, grade-appropriate literacy skills like retelling, answering text-dependent questions, and writing about a text with their children.

Schools can also assign more interactive homework to students. Families can work together on projects, go to places in the community, send photos of them completing tasks to teachers, and be more involved in the learning process at home.

Create a Platform for Feedback 

Families should be given the space and should feel comfortable enough to share feedback about their child’s school. Determine the best platform for your school community and ask for genuine feedback on your school’s family engagement plan. Set a time for staff to review the feedback and create an action plan to implement at least one strategy to improve your family engagement efforts from that feedback.

As educators, it is our responsibility to listen to, be partners with, and engage families in authentic ways to yield academic results. These strategies will help build positive relationships and empower families as stakeholders in their children’s education. Building authentic relationships, valuing family’s contributions and knowledge, and including them in decision making processes will transform your school into having true and impactful family engagement.