Engage Every Family in Decision Making

Engaging families of English Learners in their child’s education has been proven to affect student academic achievement in positive ways. I was at a conference about ten years ago when I heard a teacher describe a powerful example of this idea at work. 

Her workshop presentation was about the family literacy program in her school. In this program, families attended adult learning and parenting classes within the school, in addition to participating in parent and child together (PACT) activities. As a result of the program, the younger siblings in some families were not qualifying for EL services when they were assessed upon enrolling in Kindergarten.  This was true even though their older siblings continued to be eligible for services. This result from their family literacy program demonstrated for me that engaging families in meaningful ways leads to positive outcomes for children, in this case, well-developed bilingual skills!

It was at this point that my passion for engaging children and families together was reignited.  Families are important in the development of our society, and that includes the education of all children. As educators, we are forfeiting so much when we ignore the value families bring to the table.

Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles by Steven M. Constantino is a powerful text for learning how to develop healthy two-way family/school engagement. That’s why I have been discussing each of his five principles over the past weeks. Principle 1 encourages schools to develop a culture that believes all families can, and should, be engaged. Principle 2 calls for effective communication and relationship building with families. Principle 3 provides guidance for empowering families toward engagement. This week’s principle may be the hardest one for schools to embrace because it means letting go of some control.

Principle 4: Engage Every Family in Decision Making

“The school recognizes the entitlement of families to be consulted and participate in decisions concerning their own children. The school is genuinely inclusive in its approach to decision making. It recognizes that this type of process creates a sense of shared responsibility among families, students, community members, educators and administrators” (p. 162).

Who Gets To Decide?

Most district and school decisions are made by school officials. School boards outline new attendance boundaries or define new programs to be established. Committees of teachers determine new curriculum. Administrators make hiring decisions, establish class lists, and may regulate which events are, or are not, held at the school. 

Families often have little input into any of these decisions. And even when their thoughts are elicited through surveys or town hall meetings, they may feel that their contributions have little effect on the ultimate outcome. So, it’s no wonder families see limited reasons for being involved in their children’s schooling when the school rarely looks to include them in these big decisions.

With this principle, Constantino contends that schools must work hard to purposefully engage families beyond the stereotypical PTA activities. Families must be brought to the table when significant decisions are at stake, not just when another bake sale needs to be organized. They must be given “opportunities to lead and participate in school learning, consultative, planning, social, and community events”, and they must “have representation on the school’s governing body and relevant decision making groups” (p. 162).

The Result?

Engaging families in these decision making opportunities can lead to a school environment that is more reflective of the student body and their needs. For example, when chronic absenteeism is an issue, school administrators can use their authority to develop and institute a new policy with stiffer penalties for both students and families. However, if the root cause of the absences is not addressed, then the new policy is likely to have little impact. 

A different strategy would be to include representatives of the school’s families in the work to address this issue. It’s possible they will be able to provide insight into the reasons for the absenteeism. There may be socioeconomic or cultural causes for the lack of attendance, or perhaps some families simply do not have a clear understanding of how the school views the importance of attendance. Hearing from the families themselves can provide insight into the issue that the school administrators could not have known. Additionally, family representatives are in the best position to suggest creative, effective solutions. There is power in engaging people who can see diverse sides of an issue. Once new policies are established, these representatives will also be key to helping the rest of the school community understand and embrace the enforcement of the policy.

Letting Go

Engaging families in significant school decisions will mean those who currently make those decisions will need to loosen their hold on the reins. Educators and school administrators will have to convince families that they truly want their input, and then they will have to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Education is a helping profession, and educators naturally want to jump in to solve a problem or suggest a solution. However, if families are going to be meaningfully engaged in decision making, educators will have to sit quietly and listen to the ideas that families bring. 

There will likely be hurdles to navigate as families and educators figure out their new decision making process, but the results just might include a more effective educational environment for all.

Next week, we’ll wrap up this series and learn the fifth principle of engaging all families.

Take a Deeper Look

Constantino, S. M. (2016). Engage every family: Five simple principles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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