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, grounded in research, that gain the funding and necessary 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 him/her/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) For example, 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. More specifically, a middle schooler may be “listening or watching” a video, and engagement could be deeper by connecting it to an objective or learning goal, assuring the content is culturally relevant to their context, and providing probing questions for discussion, prior to watching the video. Likewise, for educators, professional learning that is engaging takes into account the experiences and context, providing structure and strategies, but also room for the professionalism, personality and creativity of each educator to shine, grow and scale their practice.

What happens when we connect this to families? Well, first we must appreciate the various structures and forms of families. Then, we need to build relationships, in order to understand what “hooks” or motivates each family to contribute to their child’s learning and what might be some “easy wins”. Using a “less is more” approach is a good way to start, for our current context through the COVID Pandemic. 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 would teachers suggest? What is one thing a family might want a teacher to know about their child?

Now, if we put the definition of engagement together with a 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 Speciliast at MASFEC. She is a policy specialist and single parent, who conducts training and supports outreach to Spanish, Portuguese and French speaking families.