- Define family engagement.
- Recognize and understand the importance of a family engagement.
- Discuss the elements that create a welcoming environment for families.
- Plan activities that promote family engagement.
Family Engagement: What Is It?
What are your feelings about working with families? What do you enjoy about it? What seems difficult? While you may feel motivated to develop relationships with families and to support family engagement, it is common to feel more success in focusing on your teaching practices and your direct interactions with school-age children. It may not seem simple to combine these practices.
Family engagement has different meanings for different people. In many cases, it relates to an ongoing partnership between you and families. School-age programs are committed to engaging and involving families in meaningful ways, and families are committed to actively supporting their child’s learning and development. The literature around family engagement highlights the following characteristics:
- Strong, trusting relationships between staff members, families, and community
- Recognition, respect, and support for families’ needs, as well as differences
- Strength-based partnership where decisions and responsibility are shared
- Activities, interactions, and support increase family involvement in their school-age child’s healthy development
- Families take responsibility for their child’s learning
- Acknowledgment that family engagement is meaningful and beneficial to both families and the school-age program
It’s important to realize that family engagement can look different and take on many forms. What family engagement means and looks like depends on the unique characteristics and the individual comfort levels and understanding of each family.
To help make sure that families are committed to their school-age child’s learning and engaged in the school-age program, families should be invited to participate at whatever level they feel most comfortable. Does participation mean monthly meetings or taking part in a parent advisory committee? Donating cookies for a bake sale? Going on a field trip with the program? It is important for families to feel supported and recognized for the ways in which they are able and choose to participate and engage—from bringing their school-age children to the program each day to sharing their concerns or serving on committees. See the handouts attached in this section for additional ideas and considerations to support family engagement.
The Importance of Family Engagement
Family engagement in school-age programs can benefit children, parents, families, teachers, and program quality in various ways. Can you remember what caring adults in your family, community or school-age program did to help you grow and develop?
Families are their children’s first teachers, and this important relationship continues throughout the school-age years. Ongoing family engagement supports children’s ongoing academic and social success. When families are involved in the school-age program, they may also feel more vested in what happens there and more competent in their role as parents. Through these interactions and relationships, families may learn additional strategies from you to promote development and learning at home. Such strategies include helping with homework, engaging in conversations and problem-solving, and responding to the growing importance of friends and peers.
According to research conducted in 2002 by the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools, there is strong evidence to connect parent involvement with student achievement. In their research, authors Henderson and Mapp found specific benefits were found for children and youth from schools and programs that have opportunities for family involvement. Many of these benefits are important in a school setting, such as improved test scores or higher grade point averages. The benefits that may be observed in before-school, after-school or summer-care settings are:
- Better social skills
- Improved behavior at home and school
- Better attendance
- Improved family relationships
Family involvement not only increases child achievement, it also creates a high-quality learning environment. Programs that encourage and expect families to be involved should see benefits such as:
- Effective communication between staff members and families
- Feeling of community between the staff members, children and youth and their families
- Stronger activity plans that include families, make use of families’ unique and diverse backgrounds, and respond to families’ specific education requests
Helping Families Feel Welcome
The first step to creating a family partnership in your school-age program is to ensure that families feel welcome. Families do not need an invitation to visit the program. They should feel comfortable being in the learning environment, asking you questions about their child’s day, and knowing how to find information. As a staff member, you can create a welcoming environment by being kind, professional, understanding, and respectful toward the families of the school-age children in your care. The best way to make a family member feel welcome is to have an open-door policy, allowing family members to visit during any time of the day. Be sure to check with your trainer, coach, or supervisor for your program-specific policy on family visitation.
You can do the following to support families in the school-age program:
- Invite families to tour the program prior to enrolling.
- Ask families about their school-age child’s interests, extracurricular activities, hobbies, and preferences.
- Encourage families to connect with other families from their child’s school or neighborhood. Ensure there is a space in the program for families to talk.
- Ask families to share their hopes, goals, and priorities for their child.
- Give families information about the different ways they can participate in the program.
- For children with special needs, provide information about how your program works with the school district, transportation, etc.
- Make sure you ask families about their preferred method of communication in case you need to reach them about their child.
- Display photos of families in the program.
Encouraging Families to Be Involved
There are many ways to encourage family involvement in school-age programs. If parents feel welcome and that their experiences, opinions, and feelings are valued, they are more likely to want to volunteer for committees, assist with projects, and attend special events.
Within your program, there should be a specific plan as to how to engage families throughout the year. Though families’ participation is voluntary, it is your job to make them feel welcome by actively encouraging involvement. Program activities should reflect families’ interests and motivate them to participate. Additionally, your program may have a family involvement committee. This committee is composed of family members who encourage communication and involvement with the goal of strengthening and supporting the well-being of children and families. This committee is a resource and asset to your program as families may discuss issues or concerns and suggest changes to improve family satisfaction and involvement. Collaborate with a trainer, coach, or supervisor to promote family involvement. In the table below, you will find are a variety of methods for involving families in your school-age program.
Parent Advisory Board (or your program’s equivalent)
Invite family members to join a committee that meets regularly to discuss your school-age program. These family members might work together to plan events, staff appreciation days, field trips or special experiences for the children and youth. This board would also work to contribute ideas and goals to the program director. Your program handbook should designate where all parents can access board meeting minutes.
Family Movie Night
Invite families to your program to watch a movie and share refreshments. It is a good idea to make the movies friendly for younger siblings as well. This is a great way to have the whole family participate in one event.
Celebrate holidays throughout the year by hosting parties and events. These parties could include refreshments, crafts, games, activities and movies.
Encourage healthy lifestyles by hosting fitness events at your program. There are many national days that celebrate fitness that you can tie into or create one of your own. You can host field days, mini-Olympics and other fun events.
A special event could be just about anything! Have a dance, a birthday party for Dr. Seuss, vacation photo contests, science fairs, a potluck dinner, or any event that would bring family members into your program and allow them to spend time with their child.
Plan a talent show, play, or musical performance for the families. School-age children will enjoy using their skills and talents, and this type of environment will take the pressure off, unlike a school performance that may be graded or scored.
Cultural Appreciation Events
Invite family members to share their diverse cultural backgrounds with the program. This could be done in a variety of ways, such as having cultural celebrations, potlucks, or presentations.
Family Show and Tell
Invite family members in to share their experiences and careers with the children and youth.
Create opportunities for families to get involved in their community by helping those in need.
Strategies to Promote Family Involvement
There will be times when you find it challenging to engage all families in your program. Families may not be actively involved in your program for a variety of reasons, such as work and social commitments, time constraints, and cultural practices. Continue inviting less-involved families to school events to ensure that they feel welcome to come when they are able. The Harvard Family Research Project offers some strategies on promoting family involvement:
Family partnerships will look different from program to program. Creating a partnership between yourself and families should revolve around the specific needs of the school-age children in your program.
The following videos will provide you with some insight on the importance of creating family partnerships.
First, listen as a staff member and parent discuss the importance of family partnerships.
Next, you will hear from a parent and staff members on the effectiveness of family advisory boards.
In this last video, you will hear and see ways of encourage family engagement in a school-age program.
Here are some ideas to help you continue to engage families, to increase their involvement in the program, and to build relationships:
- Communicate with families and take time to observe their body language to help you measure their comfort level in the school-age program. Find ways to ask them how they are feeling about the program, such as a family survey, and discuss any concerns they might have.
- Smile and greet families by name.
- Arrange the environment in a way that encourages families to spend time there. Keep the entrance area open and uncluttered with simple but attractive signs welcoming them. If possible, have a space for families' coats or belongings. Consider setting up a large board on a wall near the center of the program for parents to leave daily messages. Include some comfortable spots, such as pillows on the rug or a small sofa, so parents can read, watch a video, or relax with their children.
- Spend time observing families as they interact with their children to learn strategies for supporting them while in your care.
- Include special materials or customs from a family’s culture.
- Establish regular times to meet with families face-to-face and help families design a plan or create activities to reach the dreams and goals they have for their children.
- Share observations and other strength-based information about their children.
- Ask families questions about their children.
- Share something personal about yourself (e.g., “I remember I never wanted to do my homework right after school, either. We’ll set up a great routine for Carlos and make sure he gets a break after school. That always helped me.” ).
- Offer multiple ways to communicate daily with families (e.g., note home, phone call, newsletter).
- Invite families to share what they see and hear their children doing at home or in the community.
To explore the importance of engaging the fathers of the children in your program, follow this link for the National Center for Fathering (NCF): http://www.fathers.com/.
Think about a relationship that you value and list the characteristics that make that relationship successful. Which of those characteristics would be important in family-professional partnerships? Take a look at the Relationship Characteristics activity. Write your thoughts on this document. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.
The goal of a family partnership is to enrich the experiences of children and youth spending time in school-age programs. It is important to have partnerships in place that encourage a strong relationship between family members and staff members. View and complete the Planning Activity and think about the importance of family involvement. Share answers with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Henderson, A. T., Mapp, K. L. (2002). “A New Wave of Evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools.
Harvard Family Research Project: Focus on Families! How to Build and Support Family-Centered Practices in After School. www.hfrp.org/content/download/1075/48578/.../focus_on_families.pdf
Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., & Soodak, L. C. (2006). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Hanson, M. J., & Lynch, E. W. (2004). Understanding families: Approaches to diversity, disability, and risk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.