Let’s start by wondering who the families are that we serve and why families, schools and educators might want to partner. Seems like a no brainer, right?
Maybe, but practices that are grounded in research and able to gain necessary funding and resources are too few across the country and globally. What I will say is that I have never met a family that does not want the best for their child. The key is for family engagement to be equitable – that all families have access to the resources needed, in their own, particular circumstances.
Let’s start by defining engagement. Learning experiences that are engaging are those that spark the learner’s interest, motivating them to want to dig deeper, inquire and be creative in problem solving.
In education, engagement may be gauged by the amount of time or interest a child dedicates to a task (naturally or with encouragement). It is one thing to walk into a classroom and observe that students are “on task,” but it is quite another to collect data on how much active learning, questioning, discussion, challenge and equity of participation is happening. For example, a middle schooler may attentively watch a video, but their engagement could be deepened by connecting it to a learning goal, assuring the content is culturally relevant to them, and providing probing questions for discussion, prior to starting the video.
For educators, professional learning that is engaging takes into account their experiences and context, provides structure and strategies, and creates space for the professionalism, personality and creativity of each educator to shine. These qualities of engaging professional learning allow educators to grow and scale their practice.
What happens when we connect this definition of engagement to our work with families? Well, first we must appreciate the diverse structures and forms that families can take in order to better understand what will make learning about their child’s learning engaging to them. Building relationships can help us understand what will “hook” will motivate each family to maintain their relationship with us as education professionals. Often, this should start by opening the doors of communication and asking families what one thing they want a teacher to know about their child?
When it comes to making suggestions to families about ways to support learning at home, it can help to take a “less is more” approach during this time of COVID – and to approach these conversations with curiosity and openness to the parent/caregiver’s context. For instance, what small steps could each family take at breakfast, breaks, dinner and bedtime, that would make a huge difference for their child? What sentence/conversation starters might be helpful?
If we put our definition of engagement together with an understanding of and respect for the families we serve, then we should be able to approximate a shared understanding and practice of family engagement.
For me, as a researcher and practitioner, family engagement is a set of two-way, system wide, scaled policies, resources and practices that outreach to caregivers and families to connect with each other, their child’s teacher(s) and their school, to share ideas and information about their children.
This allows for an equal partnership with schools and districts to develop and assess how children’s learning and motivation is impacted, when capacity is built amongst caretakers and educators.
Andrea Parker, EdM, is Senior Training Specialist at MASFEC. She is a policy specialist and single parent who conducts training and supports outreach to Spanish, Portuguese and French speaking families.