For the last couple of weeks, I have shared about the first two principles in Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles by Steven M. Constantino. Developing a school culture that believes in engaging families is the first important step in developing healthy school/family engagement. Secondly, schools need to ensure they are providing avenues for clear communication and relationship building.
To me, these two principles seem to be foundational. If educators don’t believe every family can be engaged, or they are not communicating regularly with families, then the last three principles don’t matter. However, once the first two are firmly established, schools can look toward how they can begin to empower families.
Principle 3: Empower Every Family
“Families are recognized as essential members of the learning team for each student – their participation is welcomed, valued, and encouraged by the school. The school understands that families are important and influential resources, because they know their children best” (p. 128).
The discussion of this principle includes an in-depth look at efficacy. What it is? How is it applicable to family engagement? Constantino contends that, “…efficacy is not about possessing specific skills or knowledge. [Instead, it] is focused on how the family member approaches a problem or task and accesses needed support” (p. 137).
In other words, families do not need to be able to teach their children everything you do at school in order to feel empowered to affect their education. (If you’ve ever had children in high school math or chemistry courses, you probably know what it feels like to lack knowledge to help!) Should educators try to increase family members’ knowledge about the content being taught at school? Sure, but that knowledge is not a pre-requisite for supporting their children. Knowing where to get the help their child needs is just as important.
One way to empower families to be involved in school matters is to help them ask better questions of their children. I don’t know about you, but I remember asking my son what he did in school today and getting the standard answer of “nothing”. Because of my background as an educator, I learned to change the question to, “Tell me about one thing you learned/did today.” That typically led to a better conversation starter. However, all families don’t know to make this adjustment.
Families can’t ask their children better questions if educators haven’t done a good job of telling them what is going on at school.
Some Ways to Help Parents Ask Better Questions
Instead of exclusively sending completed work home in this folder, send information about upcoming work. This could include a short activity for students to do with their families, or it may simply be a quick preview of what’s coming up. For example…
Next week, we’ll be learning about what plants need to grow (sunlight, water, food). Take your child on a walk around the house or the yard to examine the plants you see. Ask your child what they think plants need to live.
Next week, we’ll begin reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in literature class. In the story, Tom has many adventures and sometimes gets into trouble. Share with your student about an adventure you had as a teen. Ask them what adventures they would like to have some day.
Most elementary classrooms, and some secondary, use a version of the weekly folder mentioned above. However, many teachers use one of the many technological applications available today to communicate with families. Constantino encourages readers to consider how technology could be used to empower, not just inform, families. Could a message be sent via technology that briefly summarized the upcoming week’s lessons?
For teachers covering many subjects, only one or two areas would need to be highlighted. Families could be given a very short overview of what will be learned as well as something specific they could ask their student about. This information will give families tools to be more involved in their child’s education. Technology also provides an easy way for families to communicate information or questions back to you.
What Motivates Families?
It’s important to keep in mind that some families are not as involved in their student’s education because they don’t know that they can make a difference. Educators must consider what motivates parents to be involved. Constantino suggests three major questions that families grapple with when deciding about school involvement.
What is my role as a parent? Should I be involved in my child’s education?
This question will likely involve cultural differences. In many cultures, parents hold educators in high esteem and do not see teaching as a part of their parental role. They believe the educator is trained to be the teacher, and they respect that position. Stereotypical U.S. culture views parents as equal partners in education. It may be necessary for educators to inform EL parents, in particular, of this cultural difference. However, if families remain hesitant to be involved in this way, just know that culture may be the reason.
Do I believe the school wants me to be engaged?
As educators, what can we do to communicate our desire for family engagement? Do our words say we want them involved, but our actions keep them away?
Do I have the skills/knowledge it takes to be engaged?
Families may think they need a lot of knowledge to be engaged, but as discussed above, that’s not always true. Many parents have a lot of knowledge and skills to share with their children. As educators, we can help them discover this, as well as provide them with opportunities to develop additional skills.
One of the best parts of Constantino’s book related to Principle 3 comes at the end. He offers ten practical applications for teachers.
- Relationships are the key.
- Make learning meaningful and relevant.
- Communicate what is coming, not what has passed.
- Share hopes and concerns and make a plan.
- Link communication to learning.
- Use a classroom website/social media/other technology
- Integrate families into lesson planning
- Support the knowledge and skills of every family.
- Develop the efficacy of families
- Believe that family engagement is essential
You will want to get the book to read the details of what Constantino has to say about each of these. It will be well worth your time!
Take a Deeper Look
Constantino, S. M. (2016). Engage every family: Five simple principles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.