Last week, I began an in-depth review of Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles by Steven M. Constantino. Principle 1 encourages school staff to consider whether they truly believe that every family can and should be engaged in their children’s education. The school’s culture, including artifacts, policies, and interactions between staff and families must be investigated closely in order to determine areas to target for improvement.
Principle 2: Communicate Effectively and Build Relationships
Constantino’s second principle focuses on evaluating the communication between schools and families. He contends that healthy, two-way communication can lead to strong, trusting relationships with families.
“There is consistent evidence that effective communication and relationship building creates environments in the schools that are welcoming, respectful, and conducive to family engagement. The school places an emphasis on effective communication with every family and stakeholder within the learning community and seeks to build trusting relationships with every family” (p. 80)
Emphasis on effective communication
All schools communicate with families. They use technology to robocall families each week or in the event of a school closure. They send printed information home in backpacks and folders on a routine basis. Administrators and teachers talk with families about their children’s progress both over the phone and in person. Some teachers use apps to send pictures and texts to families throughout the school day.
These are obvious forms of communication, and Principle 2 encourages educators to consider the effectiveness of these methods. Are all families getting the messages, both literally and figuratively? For non-native English speaking families, is the information going home in a language they can understand? Do families understand what the school wants them to do with the forms and completed schoolwork they find in their child’s backpack?
However, the school also communicates in less obvious ways. The building itself, the signage, and the reception families receive all send clear, but potentially unintended, messages. For example, do families know where to park when they come to the school? Is it clear which of the many doors is the front? If the building is locked, are there clear instructions for gaining entrance? Once in the building, is it easy to find the front office? How are they received once they arrive there? Do they stand, unacknowledged, for several minutes? Is there someone who can speak to them in a language other than English? When they are allowed to proceed into the school, can they find their child’s classroom? Is there any indication what is happening behind all of those closed doors and covered windows?
Even when you spend your working life in a school setting, arriving at a new school building can be unnerving. I’ve experienced many of the uncomfortable situations above, and I speak English and understand schools! Imagine how much more unwelcome a family feels attempting to visit their child’s school for the first time. I don’t believe educators are trying to send negative messages to families, and that’s why this principle is so important. Constantino encourages schools to look at their building and procedures from the families’ perspective. What are we saying, even if we didn’t intend to?
A simple, but eye-opening, exercise is for small groups of school staff to literally go outside the school building and approach it from the standpoint of a new family. Take note of what you see and feel.
- Can I easily determine where to go in?
- What do I notice as I walk up to the front door?
- What’s in the foyer?
- Are their clear directions to the office?
- How would I know how to find the school library, cafeteria, or Room 220 where my child spends her day?
- What messages are posted on the walls?
- How do I feel in this building?
Talking with your colleagues about your observations may help to make the school environment new for you again. It is only in this way that you can begin to make necessary changes to any negative messages you may be unintentionally sending to families.
Build trusting relationships
Most teachers would agree that developing relationships with their students is vital to teaching them well, but not all would go so far as to extend this idea to families. When we don’t reach out to families, Constantino believes we are missing the mark.
“It is impossible to think that teachers can cultivate strong relationships with the students they teach, yet not create the very same strong relationships with their students’ families” (p. 87).
In other words, if you do not develop relationships with families, then you may not have as strong of a relationship with your students as you thought you did, or as you could.
A true relationship must be built upon a foundation of honesty and trust. There are many factors that can degrade this foundation. Families can develop mistrust of the school when they receive inaccurate information, or no information at all. They may not trust educators’ decisions regarding discipline and other policies when they have not been properly informed of the policies in the first place, or if they feel they were not consulted in the development, or enforcement of the policies. Educators may mistrust families when children attend school sporadically, when efforts to communicate with families go unanswered, or when a defensive posture is displayed by families toward the school.
It can be easy to brush off many of these circumstances as beyond the educator’s control. Although this is true in some circumstances, there are many issues that can, and should, be addressed. For example, schools can ensure that accurate, timely information goes out to families. Realizing that people are bombarded with information these days, the school will likely need to communicate important information multiple times through varied mechanisms. Schools can find ways to include parent representatives in policy decisions, and they can investigate the reasons behind frequent absences. Often, there are solutions to these issues if we choose to look for them.
Extending Principle 1 here, educators must believe that all families have value they can contribute to a child’s education, and then they must effectively communicate that belief to families.
“We cannot fix socioeconomic disparities, but we can convince every family, regardless of their station in life, that they have value and are truly needed to complete the circle of people that will successfully educate their children.” (p. 87).
When educators communicate this message to families, both verbally and non-verbally, they can begin to develop the trusting relationships needed for effective family engagement.
These first two principles lay the foundation for effective family engagement. Without a school culture that honestly believes in the value of families and welcomes them into the school, any family engagement activities are short-lived and superficial, at best.
Next week, Principle 3 describes ways that schools can help to empower every family.
Take a Deeper Look
Constantino, S. M. (2016). Engage every family: Five simple principles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.