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5 Ways to Get Parents More Involved in Schools

When schools figure out how to truly partner and work with parents, caregivers, and families, it can be game-changing for students’ academic achievement and social-emotional skills.

When parents are meaningfully involved in the school community and their students’ learning, that involvement is linked with improved academic achievement, higher student engagement, and increased motivation, according to an American Psychological Association review of 448 independent studies on different forms of parent involvement. In reading, another research review, from the National Literacy Trust, found positive effects on students’ reading achievement, language comprehension, and interest in reading when parents were actively involved in helping their children learn to read. The positive effects also extend to math, according to research from the Johns Hopkins University Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships, as well as school attendance.

But not all parent and family engagement practices are effective at improving outcomes for students, experts say. Schools stand the best chance of ensuring their family engagement makes a difference by making it systemic, so everyone in the building is prioritizing it; accessible, so a school isn’t exclusively relying on an approach, like nighttime school events, that excludes a portion of parents; and responsive to the school’s community and culture.

“What makes strong family and community engagement is when educators are looking at working with families as partners in their child’s education,” said Vito Borrello, executive director of the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, a nonprofit that works with schools, districts, state agencies, and universities to promote family and community engagement. “It’s not primarily about a newsletter, it’s not primarily about ice cream socials or even parent-teacher conferences, but the act of developing relational trust with families in ways that can support a partnership to the benefit the child.”

Schools don’t have to add a family engagement department or hire new staff to do this. In many ways, experts say, family engagement is about a mindset shift so that all teachers and staff in the school understand the importance of building trusting relationships and are committed to doing the work to support that.

Here are five principles behind effective family and community engagement.

1. Meet parents where they are

Families come to schools with varying backgrounds. Some caregivers may not have had positive experiences at school or have had limited interactions with the American school system. Others might not have the time and resources to travel to the school building, talk to teachers during pickup and dropoff, or attend parent-teacher conferences.

When educators assume that families will come to them with questions or concerns, they’re immediately alienating much of their school population.

“It’s so important that we put things on the families’ terms, where we’re not making things so complicated and difficult and hard for them,” said Yvonne Johnson, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, the umbrella group for PTAs across the country.

Meeting parents where they are can have both a literal and figurative meaning, Borrello said. For example, some districts rely on home visits, where teachers hold meetings at parents’ homes or at local parks or cafes twice a year to build trusting relationships.

“The ideal is where a teacher is literally meeting a family before the school year or right at the very beginning of the school year with the sole goal of better understanding that child, that student, through the lens of their parents,” Borrello said. “When that happens, and if that’s what the sole focus is, then you’re building trust.”

That kind of program comes with extra costs and training, however, as districts must pay teachers for the time spent in those meetings. It also requires interest from teachers and parents.

Schools and districts can start smaller by hosting small group listening sessions, in which parents from all backgrounds are represented, said Karen Mapp, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has focused her research on parent and family engagement.

“Meet families where they are, meet families in the community, have small group discussions where you get to say, what does everybody want for our kids?” Mapp said. “Make sure you reach out to the families whose voices may not have been heard. Then, as you have new families come into your schools you could start on a better foot with them.”

Such groups should be 10 to 20 people rather than hundreds of families at once, Mapp said. That way parents feel more comfortable sharing their opinions.

Schools can also invest in translation services to ensure that all families can understand school communications. They can also survey parents on their experiences with the school to get a better understanding of what parents need from their children’s educators.

“The feedback that schools and districts collect from families should influence the tools and tactics they use to communicate,” said Shana McIver, senior director of learning and practice at Learning Heroes, a nonprofit that works with educators and families to help them build trusting relationships. “That’s the No. 1 most important thing that needs to take place.”

2. Make space for parents in school buildings

While educators should make an effort to reach parents, it’s also important for school buildings to be welcoming, positive environments for parents and families.

Rather than allow parents in only at designated times, schools can develop open-door policies for parents. At some schools, spare rooms can become a designated parent space.

At Stevenson Elementary School in Southfield, Mich., the open-door policy has been instrumental in creating a positive, welcoming environment, Principal Tonya Hickman said.

To maintain security, only parents and community members who have passed background checks can walk throughout the school. But the school has also cordoned off portions of its hallways and library to allow other parents or community members to meet with educators and school leaders.

“Parents know that if they come to the door that we will make time for them no matter what,” Hickman said.

Schools can also achieve this by hosting events for families and establishing family committees to give parents leadership opportunities.

“If families feel inferior about their own education and are uncomfortable coming into a school because they don’t feel valued, then they’re not going to want to come, and they’re certainly not going to be well positioned to be a partner like they can be with an educator in supporting student success,” Borrello said.

3. Tie family engagement directly to academic achievement

In a 2023 Learning Heroes and Gallup Poll survey of nearly 2,000 K-12 parents, 88 percent said their children were at or above grade level in reading, and 89 percent said the same for math.

Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tell a much different story. On the 2022 assessment, 25 percent of 4th grade students and 38 percent of 8th grade students met basic benchmarks for math. Just 37 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders met them for reading.

The disparity shows how easy it is for parents to be misinformed about their children’s learning. Most parents see that their child earns mostly B’s on report cards and accept that as evidence that they’re doing well in school, said Bibb Hubbard, Learning Heroes’ founder and president.

“Nobody has told parents that a B does not equal grade-level mastery,” Hubbard said. “A B equals a lot of important factors—are you showing up on time, are you turning in your assignments with your name on your piece of paper, are you asking good questions, being a good peer … but it doesn’t mean that you’re reading at 4th-grade level.”

That kind of misconception isn’t as common in schools with strong parent and family engagement, she said.

It’s important for schools to put substantive discussions about academic achievement at the center of family engagement efforts. It might mean having more focused and granular conversations in parent-teacher conferences with detailed action items parents can take home to practice reading and math skills with their children.

It could also mean hosting webinars and workshops for parents to explain how they can better interpret standardized test scores and student grades.

“The communications need to be around learning and development,” Mapp said. “You don’t want to just call families and say, ‘Well, hi, how’s it going?’ and that’s it. Families really want to be included in, what are the things that we could do to be helping to support our child’s development and growth?”

4. Bring in community and cultural partners

Family engagement can’t be effective unless it’s responsive to the specific and diverse cultures and community the school serves.

At a minimum, that means translating school communications for non-English speaking families, but it should go much further, Hubbard said.

Schools can partner with community organizations, such as churches, nonprofits, and businesses, to host after-school activities, plan events, and offer workshops for families. The idea, in part, is that the school becomes a community hub where parents and caregivers are comfortable.

Schools can also invest in professional development to help teachers grow in their understanding of cultures different from their own, Hubbard said.

“The majority of our teachers are still white, and more and more majorities are nonwhite students coming to school,” she said. “[Give] teachers that cultural understanding and appreciation for how those families are their assets, [are] their allies, are so important to their work.”

Most teachers know this to be true, but they need the training and support to confidently and effectively engage with parents across cultural and community barriers, Hubbard said.

That means district and school leaders could change school schedules to allow teachers more time to meet with families or partner with outside organizations to help.

5. Use technology as a tool, not a crutch

Effective family engagement should always involve two-way communication, experts say. That means mass newsletters or messages sent home with students aren’t the best ways to ensure parents are involved and engaged with the school.

ClassDojo, Seesaw, ParentPowered, and other companies have created apps and other programs that generally allow teachers and parents to message each other easily and instantly.

If used effectively, the technology can build trust between parents and teachers and strengthen family-school relationships. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of relying on those tools too heavily, experts say.

Ultimately, technology should be one of many ways teachers connect with parents. And all technology should be used to help educators get families into the classroom and invested in student learning.

“It’s the starting place for good parent engagement, not the ending place,” said Helen Westmoreland, director of family engagement at the National Parent Teacher Association.

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