Teachers and parents generally agree that families should be involved in their child’s education. Yet according to a 2019 study by Learning Heroes, there can be widely differing perceptions of what involvement looks like. The majority of teachers believed that parents are not involved, and the majority of parents believed that they are. This research brings up two questions. Why the difference? And who decides if families are engaged?

Family Engagement: Surfacing the Whole Iceberg

Educators often assume that families aren’t involved because they have certain expectations about how family engagement should be done: coming into the school, listening to a teacher’s ideas about what the student needs, and agreeing to help with specific teacher requests. In order to understand the degree to which families are actually involved in their children’s school life, it’s necessary to shift the focus from a traditional teacher-directed, school-centered view of family engagement to a broader view of how families interact around education outside of school.

One easy comparison is seeing the tip of an iceberg (attendance at parent events, parent-teacher conferences, student performances, or school wide cultural celebrations) while understanding that most of the iceberg isn’t visible from the surface of the water. Educators rarely see the family support that happens in conversations around the kitchen table, the pep talk before the first day of school, or the Google search for a video explaining fractions. These engagements are as important as showing up for parent-teacher conferences. So the challenge for educators is respectfully acknowledging and supporting the work of families in their home to support their child in school.

Springboard Collaborative helps teachers integrate the visible and unseen parts of family engagement. We bring families into school for our family workshops to increase the quality and quantity of at-home reading and conversations about books. We want families to show up for workshops, yet the bigger goal is supporting the invisible (to us) ways that they might already be engaged with their children’s literacy development. To revisit the preceding comparison, we’re addressing the entire iceberg, not just the visible part.

The 5 Unseen Roles

The Flamboyan Foundation offers a framework of Five Roles Families Play to Accelerate Student Learning, a holistic view that helps us value all the unseen and seen ways that families support their child’s education. Please note: this isn’t a ranking or sequence. Each role is important for families engaging with their child’s education as best they can.

  1. Communicator: Ask what their child earned in school and communicate high expectations. Educators might easily miss seeing families in this role because these conversations happen outside of school.
  2. Monitor: Check on their child’s performance or progress by engaging directly with both child and teacher… and ensure that the child gets to school!
  3. Supporter: Make sure that homework is complete, help with homework when needed, and provide enrichment activities. Teachers can provide helpful recommendations for this range of support.
  4. Guide: Help a child navigate the education system, select the best school to meet the child’s needs, assist in college applications, and have conversations about future goals and planning. Again, educators might not always be aware of families in this role.
  5. Advocate: Ensure that the child gets the necessary personal attention and support to be successful in school, and offer input on school policy decisions that affect all children. Feedback-friendly schools encourage this level of family engagement.

Encouraging Family Participation

How will a holistic view of family engagement affect student outcomes? In How Family, School and Community Engagement Can Improve Student Achievement and Influence School Reform, a literature review by The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Lacy Wood and Emily Baumann write:

“Some of the strategies that were found to be most related to student achievement include engaging parents in their child’s learning through social networks, empowering parents with leadership roles in the school environment, providing parents with classes to help with their own education and their child’s education, providing families with opportunities to engage with their children’s education at home and at school. Schools that reach out to families and the community and build strong parent-school relationships also were found to have a positive impact on students.”

To illustrate how educators typically engage families, here are three versions of a letter that teachers commonly send home:

  1. “Hello. Reminder: your child is required to read 15 minutes a day for homework. Please log it on the sheet provided. Thanks, the teacher.”
  2. “Hello. Reading for 15 minutes a day is proven to improve reading skills. Please log your child’s reading time on the log provided and reach out with any questions. Thanks, the teacher.”
  3. “Hello. Thank you for supporting your child’s education at home. Please make sure your child reads at least 15 minutes at home each day. This helps them cement the reading skills we are practicing at school. This week, do the following: help your child write their time on the reading log, and ask your child to help gauge what they are understanding. Try something like, ‘Who is the main character in this story? What did they do in the pages you read?’ Email me with any questions or concerns. We will also talk about reading at the report card conferences next week. Thanks, the teacher.”

Of these three examples, the third is most likely to encourage a successful family partnership. First, we know that one of the most important activities to build students’ literacy skills is engaging in conversation with an adult. So this teacher focuses on those academic conversations, inviting families to talk with their child about what happens at school. We also know that families need explicit guidance on how to engage with the learning from school. It’s not enough to say something like, “Work on reading comprehension at home.” Instead, this teacher gives families some sample questions and background as to why they’re important. Finally, we know that if we want to build a partnership, we have to be specific, available, and inviting.

So when schools involve families in children’s learning, children do better at school. The more schools work in partnerships with families, the better the schools become. Children in K-12 who are the furthest behind gain the most from these partnerships.

Effective Family Engagement Is Transactional

Involving families in children’s learning is not a new approach. For decades, researchers have pushed schools toward family engagement activities, but it’s not easy and not done consistently. Springboard Collaborative appreciates the work of Dr. Karen Mapp of Harvard, who believes that family engagement isn’t something that we do to families, but rather something that we do with families. She and her colleagues developed the Dual Capacity Building Framework to implement effective partnerships that support student and school improvement.

Family engagement is more than sending a report card home. It’s about creating a real partnership between families and educators where both value the visible and invisible work that each is doing. This kind of partnership helps the whole school to improve. When schools truly engage families, they’re not just upskilling them. Instead, families and educators are learning and growing in service of helping students and schools improve.

How does this relate specifically to literacy skills? Families engaging in some or all of the diverse roles mentioned above will learn more about the reading process (code-based instruction, what kinds of questions they can ask at home, what letters the child is working on, modeling effective reading practices) as they support their student’s skills at home. Teachers will learn more about how to guide and facilitate families who ask for specific help in the at-home portion of literacy education. Springboard has seen these results in teacher responses to the follow-up surveys from our family workshops.

Funds of Knowledge

As teachers work with families, they learn how to create what we call funds of knowledge — welcoming cultures and how to honor the strengths that families bring to their children’s education. Through this work, invisible family engagement becomes visible and honored. The more teachers can engage families, the more they can see and value the whole iceberg. Effective family engagement initiatives are not one-sided, but rather they build the capacity of both teachers and families.

Note: This blog was adapted from a 5/8/23 webinar delivered by Amanda Hamilton Roos, Senior Director of Learning Design for Family and Educator Partnerships at Springboard Collaborative.