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6 ways principals can improve family engagement

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As a school administrator, I thought a lot about family engagement. How could I get more parents and guardians to feel connected and interested in getting involved? How could I get my staff to connect with families? I researched articles and tried different strategies.

Approximately two years ago, I had the opportunity to work with an internal team providing technical assistance to a district as part of a grant through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One of the focal points of our collaboration focused on creating resources to support and increase family engagement. Our team conducted research and focused on the work of Karen Mapp, PhD, and the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family–School Partnerships for this work. This framework made me rethink family engagement.  

In “Partners in Education: A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family–School Partnerships,” Mapp and Paul Kuttner explain that there are six process conditions “that are important to the success of capacity-building interventions.” They argue that “process conditions are key to the design of effective initiatives for building the capacity of families and school staff to partner in ways that support student achievement and school improvement.”

The six process conditions call for family engagement initiatives to focus on these six areas.     

1. Take a relational approach: Built on mutual trust: Supporting a relational approach built on mutual trust is the first process condition listed in the Dual-Capacity Framework, and this isn’t by accident. Mapp is well-known for saying that relational trust is the factor that enables all the other conditions to be possible. Too often, the first contact between families and a school is not positive. Many times, these initial interactions are about tasks that need to be completed or requests for school supplies. This can be off-putting for families. Instead, aim for proactive communication that seeks to build trust and supports ongoing communication. Commit to early positive phone calls focused on learning about them and their student.

2. Connect family engagement and learning and development: This supports student achievement, especially when we help families and students develop knowledge and skills. Sharing learning strategies can help empower families. Can you create online resources that help parents and guardians teach their kids strategies for solving math problems or improving reading at home?

3. Take an asset-based approach: Recognize that families have strengths, skills, and resources that support students’ learning and school improvement. Encourage parents and guardians to leverage those assets. Invite families to visit classrooms and share their lived experiences. A family member can share with a class how they use math in their medical career, for example.

4. Be culturally responsive and respectful: Respect families’ values, cultures, languages, and heritages. This process condition doesn’t ask us to invite families to share their backgrounds with us, as the previous condition does. Instead, it asks us to recognize that not all families are alike and to respond positively to these differences. Families engage with schools in different ways, and this can be partly due to their cultures. Schools should identify and recognize different types of engagement to appeal to all families. Where possible, provide families opportunities to talk to you and teachers in their preferred language. This may need to be in collaboration with community resources and services. 

5. Be collaborative: In many schools, school-home collaboration can be limited. The fifth process condition in the framework asks us to be collaborative, and is strengthened when educators, families, and communities have positive community-building experiences together. When planning for school or district events, bring educators, families, and community members together so everyone can take part in making them a reality. Consider reaching out to families in different ways when asking them to participate. Consider including students in preparing for school events such as having an event flyer competition. If staff members have cultural ties to different communities, ask them to help promote events.

6. Offer interactive opportunities: Interactive family–school partnerships engage educators, families, and community members in learning together. Think about a traditional open house, where families come to your building, meet the teacher, and are told about things like rules and curriculum. The communication is very one-way, and kids usually stay home with a sitter. Are there opportunities to invite children to join their adults? Just seeing their child excited to lead them to their desk or point out the gym and library can help parents and guardians feel more engaged. Another suggestion is to ask teachers to invite parents and guardians to leave a note on their child’s desk or in their locker.

Family engagement can feel like a lot when your plate is already full. Keep your goals realistic. Ask yourself, what is one thing I can do differently this week that can help my students’ families feel like a bigger part of our school community? Maybe you decide you’d like to try a family math night with games and activities aligned to the curriculum. Next week, you can take a second action to help make it happen.

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