The experts are still debating exactly how to define family engagement–a term historically called parental involvement.  The change in terms reflect a deeper understanding of the stakeholders involved in contributing to successful academic outcomes for students in the K-12 school system. The shift in language is more inclusive and pushes us to consider the variation in stakeholders who might make up a family unit–all students are not raised by parents.

Some experts define family engagement as all of the things that families

do to support their children’s success, both in relation to school

and in relation to society.  Many imagine family engagement as a shared responsibility between schools and the adults–parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, mentors, or any other adults in the lives of children who commit to the role of education support outside of the child’s school environment.

Karen Mapp, former Consultant for the US Department of Education reveals that, “Johns Hopkins did a recent study on how, when families and school staff meet through an initiative called the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project — this is a home visit that is very much focused on building trusting and respectful relationships between teachers and parents — their [children’s] attendance rates go up and these are children who are more likely to be on or above grade level by third grade.

It is my view that  family engagement speaks directly to the home’s role in preparing each child to have an optimal educational experience.  Many make the mistake of focusing on parent-teacher meetings as the major indicator of family engagement, but engagement begins long before that 1st parent meeting.  I think of family engagement in 3 broad categories–family philosophy, childhood experiences and advocacy. 

Family Philosophy
Family philosophy includes the caregiver’s beliefs about the importance of values like discipline and chores, and how we demonstrate discipline and show love; the vision for that child’s future; our belief in whether children deserve agency; how we protect children against predators, how we demonstrate kindness and love and nutrition to children, how we think about reading to / with children, how we feel about religion, about making a contribution to society, about role modeling–what caregivers demonstrate to children, things like abuse of alcohol and drugs, and being mean to others.  I think of these types of factors as the foundation for family engagement because they have a profound impact on childhood development.

Childhood Experiences
Family engagement in my view includes a caregiver’s commitment to positive childhood experiences.  This sounds self explanatory but it fundamentally includes ensuring that children grow up in positive communities. For under-resourced caregivers, this will mean seeking out  free programs offered by local governments or nonprofit organizations  in which children can participate.  Childhood experiences mean that the early years should focus on whole child development–exposure to the arts, sports, religion, STEM, a myriad of experiences.  Fundamentally, children should be exposed to diverse people and experiences, not only will it help them to identify their core loves and strengths early–allowing for enrichment activities like membership in clubs and teams for activities they enjoy, but it contributes significantly to the development of confident young people who view themselves positively and who have an appreciation and respect for the diversity of people in the world. 

Finally, we get to that component which we often think about as ‘family engagement’ or ‘parental involvement’.  It is my view that without the foundation of the aforementioned values (family philosophy and childhood experiences), advocacy simply becomes conflict resolution, fire fighting and behavior management.  This advocacy component includes  attending parent teacher meetings, understanding the curriculum for the child’s grades, ensuring that homework and projects are completed on time, providing access to tutoring when necessary, placing a focus on attendance and participation and ensuring that students generally understand why school is important.  Students should be considered thoughtful contributors to the education process–their views should be sought and seriously considered and their feelings should be considered valid.  Counseling should be made available to children who need it.

Finally, it is important for parents (caregivers) to understand that they do have agency when it comes to the education of their children.  Caregivers also need to understand how their commitment to their child’s whole development ultimately contributes to educational achievement.  The data is clear, armed with a solid relationship with a child’s teachers, parents can support learning outcomes for students making the process much more effective, but the preparation begins years before that 1st parent teachers meeting. The research is clear, there are very few cases where children excel academically without the commitment of parents (caregivers) to the process of learning.