Family engagement names a core responsibility of a school community: to build partnerships that involve families in a student’s education, provide the information and resources that families need to support academic success, and listen to and act on families’ needs and wants for their children.
To fully reopen schools and begin to correct for pandemic-related interruptions, students need to reliably attend class and meet expectations for behavior and out-of-school assignments. In the current pandemic, many families have been through significant trauma, from illness or losing loved ones, financial hardship, or losing a job or a home. And of course, many children have been away from classrooms for over a year. A return to full-time schooling for these students is far from assured, and getting back on track at school will take hard work and focused support both at school and at home.
Family engagement has always been critical to student success, but never more so than now. Schools and families will need to rebuild in-person connections and shore up trust—first, so parents can feel secure in sending children back to school buildings full time, and second, so families can support educators' efforts to accelerate student learning. Some of the digital tools that schools and families have put in place to keep connected over the last year can help. Accessible forms of communication like text messages can build trust and “nudge” families, to the benefit of students.
School disconnection has played out differently for different families during the pandemic. While some families gained insights as daily instruction played out over Zoom, even the most engaged students have experienced some degree of physical isolation from school environments, while the least engaged students have experienced no schooling at all.
Understanding the cultural factors that shape families’ immediate concerns and priorities is important. Schools and families can more easily agree on short-term objectives, like daily attendance, homework, and reading, when they are connected to a shared goal of a meaningful future for students.
A 2016 report by the Pacific Regional Education Lab suggests that two-way communication that includes frequent data sharing with families about children’s general academic progress, including both formative and summative assessment scores, has a particularly high impact on students’ academic success. These positive impacts are enhanced when school asks families about students’ interests, behaviors, and challenges. For example, a 2019 study out of Germany found evidence that frequent communication between schools and families, wherein schools share data on students’ homework completion on a recurrent basis, can increase students’ completion of homework assignments. The study found that simply assigning homework without a strong and sustained school-family relationship did not result in high homework completion rates.
Though there is some debate over the value of homework, especially in the younger grades, we know that well-designed, high-quality homework assignments that build on what students are learning in class are beneficial. They also can communicate with parents what their children are learning at school, particularly when teachers review assignments and offer clear feedback. Anecdotal evidence reported in E.D. Hirsch’s How to Educate a Citizen indicates that knowledge-rich curriculum enriches the discussions between parents and their children. Two recent IES practice guides for second-grade teachers and third-grade teachers provide concrete strategies to support families to practice foundational reading skills at home, including evidence-based literacy activities and model language teachers can use to explain how they support student progress.
In addition, reading at home for at least 20 minutes a day at home has significant academic benefits. A compelling 2020 longitudinal study from the Oxford Review of Education found significant academic benefits correlated with students reading at home, but only when the materials read are books and not other printed materials (such as comics or newspapers). Schools should therefore consider ways to provide low-income families with books.
Finally, both families and schools have a role to play in reducing student absenteeism. A 2007 study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University points to the devastating academic costs of chronic absenteeism. Chronically absent students score 5 percent lower, on average, on math and reading standardized assessments compared to their peers.
In short, family engagement should be based on principles of transparency and mutual trust, as articulated in the following delineation of roles/responsibilities:
|CORE PRINCIPLE||ROLE OF THE SCHOOL||ROLE OF FAMILIES|
Respect for Families and their Cultures:
The heart of family engagement is trust, and that means building real relationships.
|Find concrete ways for the principal and classroom teachers to know students, their families, and their cultures||Participate in school events, both the academically-oriented ones (like “back to school night”) and ones intended to build community and celebrate cultures.|
Attendance and Readiness:
Students make the most academic and social-emotional progress when they have enough sleep and are present every day.
|Provide rigorous and engaging lessons that start on time every day. Offer social supports to families if attendance and readiness are significant challenges.||To the extent possible, ensure that students get enough sleep and arrive at school on time every day. Take advantage of supports offered by the school to ensure their child’s academic success.|
The daily completion of aligned homework assignments supports students’ mastery of the school’s rigorous curriculum.
|Assign meaningful homework assignments that support students’ mastery of the curriculum.||Ensure that students complete their homework every day and bring it to school.|
Students need a high-quality curriculum and should read independently for at least 30 minutes every day.
|Implement a robust, research-backed ELA curriculum in school and make concrete, low-cost recommendations for literacy-boosting activities and texts to read at home.||Read to young children every day. Ensure that older students read for at least 30 minutes per day.|
Excessive screen time can create attention challenges for young children, and keeps them from moving their bodies.
|Provide concrete, realistic suggestions for how families can set and enforce screen time limits while children are not at school.||Set and enforce screen time limits and steer children toward reading, exercise, and play instead.|
Students’ success in school is dependent on parents and teachers routinely and actively communicating with each other.
|Share routine academic performance updates with families on at least a weekly basis, in families’ preferred languages. Solicit families’ feedback via regular, valid, and reliable surveys.||Actively communicate with their child’s teacher, including reading all emails and texts that come from the school. Offer feedback proactively or via surveys.|
Dettmers, S., Yotyodying, S., and Jonkmann, K. (2019). Antecedents and Outcomes of Parental Homework Involvement: How Do Family-School Partnerships Affect Parental Homework Involvement and Student Outcomes? Frontiers in Psychology. 10.
Garcia, M.E., Frunzi, K., Dean, C.B., Flores, N., & Miler, K.B. (2016). “Toolkit of resources for engaging families and the community as partners in education. Part 4: Engaging all in data conversations.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Pacific.
Hill, N., Liang, B., Price, M., Polk, W., Perella, J., and Savitz‐Romer, M. (2018). Envisioning a meaningful future and academic engagement: The role of parenting practices and school‐based relationships. Psychology and the Schools, 55(6), 595-608.
Jerrim, J., Lopez-Agudo, L., and Gutiérrez, O. (2020). Does it matter what children read? New evidence using longitudinal census data from Spain. Oxford Review of Education. 46(5), 515-533.
Pondiscio, R. (2019). How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Avery.
Romero, M., and Lee, Y. (2010). “A National Portrait of Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades.” New York, N.Y.: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University.
Sharkey, P. (2010). The acute effect of local homicides on children's cognitive performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(26), 11733-11738.
Sheldon, S. (2007). Improving student attendance with school, family, and community partnerships. Journal of Educational Research, 100(5), 267-275.