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Association of California School Administrators

Leveraging the crisis

Let’s change the way we engage with families

By Greg Gero | January | February 2022
Albert Einstein said, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” In the current crisis, what might be the opportunities that we should be looking for? We have certainly found opportunities in rethinking teaching and learning. In response to the pandemic, educational institutions were forced to adapt in ways that we could not have anticipated. Many of these changes sparked educators to reimagine what teaching and learning might look like in the future. Creative online platforms, asynchronous projects and virtual collaboration are just some of the innovative ideas that may prove to be valuable additions to PK-12 education.
However, I believe that our most important opportunity lies in changing the way we partner with families. While perhaps less eye-catching than the technology-driven innovations, improving family engagement promises to create lasting improvements to student learning. Two years ago, our school embarked on a powerful family engagement initiative under the guidance of consultant Ron Mirr and with the support of the Cotsen Foundation, and I’ll share some of the valuable lessons we’ve learned.
Uncovering weaknesses in school-family partnerships
As schools pivoted to virtual learning, a light was shone on the ways that we connected with families, revealing both strengths and weaknesses. Many schools had an existing foundation in online learning platforms, making the shift to distance learning smoother than we might have anticipated. But challenges emerged when families were asked to actively participate in helping their child to learn. Families scrambled, unsure about how to help their child. Parents asked, “What is most important for my child to learn?” And, “How exactly am I supposed to help?”
To be fair, these would be important questions to answer even before the pandemic; however, traditional schooling had made it easy to ignore the tenuous connection between families and their child’s learning. And yet, improving the strength and quality of this connection might be our greatest untapped resource in education.
Defining family engagement
Dr. Karen Mapp, arguably the most respected voice in family engagement research, defines family engagement as, “A full, equal, and equitable partnership among families, educators and community partners to promote children’s learning and development from birth through college and career” (Mapp, Carver, Lander, 2017). With her colleague at Harvard, Dr. Mapp created the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships as a guide on how to build these partnerships. The framework emphasizes relational trust, linking families to learning, collaboration and integrating family engagement strategies throughout the educational program. What’s notable about Dr. Mapp’s framework is shifting the role of families from passive participants to meaningful partners and contributors in their child’s learning. While it may seem like a simple idea, the framework prompts educators and families to re-examine the ways we work together and challenges us to move out of our comfort zones. (Mapp, Carver, Lander, 2017)
Changing the paradigm
Conversations about family engagement have typically described parents in roles that are either passive in nature or compliance-driven. For example, educators often talk about encouraging parents to attend school events, check their child’s homework or perhaps volunteer in the classroom. This is something that we did very well at my school for years, and it helped to build a spirit of trust and cooperation. However, there was a limit to the impact families could have on their child’s learning. Very little of what we did with families actually linked to their child’s learning and educational growth. Moreover, a handful of families tended to participate and remain involved with the school, while the families of many of our students most in need rarely attended school events or participated in their child’s learning.
Utilizing Dr. Mapp’s framework as our compass, our school began redefining what it means to engage with families. This meant clarifying what learning was most important, coaching parents on how they can take an active role in their child’s learning, and using every opportunity to reinforce these components. It put teachers, parents, families and administrators in unfamiliar roles, and because of this, it had to begin with trust.
It starts with trust
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of building trusting relationships as an essential condition for success in schools. The degree to which a child trusts her teacher, a parent trusts her child’s teacher and a teacher trusts her student’s family can have a substantial impact on the child’s learning. An increasing body of research indicates the importance of relational trust, pointing to its impact of positive outcomes, including student achievement. When we asked families and teachers to embrace new roles and responsibilities as part of our family engagement initiative, we knew that trust would become even more important. To do this, we harnessed the power of the virtual home visit.
We had been considering a way to launch parent-teacher home visits when the pandemic forced us to pivot to a virtual, video-conference model. Home visits, which are highly recommended by Dr. Mapp, provide a golden opportunity to connect with families in a casual, personalized, non-academic context. Our virtual home visit model, while sacrificing the connection you might only get with an in-person meeting, greatly increased the efficiency and feasibility of the project.
During the weeks before the start of school and into the first few weeks of school, teachers met with the families of each student over a 20-30 minute video conference. Teachers focused on just three things:
1) Create connections and build trust; 2) Learn as much as you can about the child; 3) Ask questions and actively listen. Make sure the family does most of the talking.
Among the most challenging aspects of the visit was resisting the urge to talk about school and learning. While some were skeptical at first, teachers and families expressed a great deal of appreciation for the impact of the visit. Families were surprised that the teacher expressed so much interest in their child. Teachers learned more about their students’ home lives than ever before, triggering deeper levels of empathy, insight and understanding. Perhaps most important, teachers had a palpable sense that they could build upon the trust that they had built with families.
It is important to note that although the home visits were voluntary, every teacher visited with each of their families. This would not have been possible unless teachers were convinced that this was worth their time. But there were two key things that also made a difference: teachers were paid for their time, and they were provided their student rosters much earlier than usual. In my conversations with teachers, these are what they said would be important. The compensation served as an acknowledgment of their time, and most teachers conducted the virtual visits in the summer when they were more likely to feel refreshed and excited about the start of the new school year.
The degree to which a child trusts her teacher, a parent trusts her child’s teacher and a teacher trusts her student’s family can have a substantial impact on the child’s learning.
Communicating what’s important: The Big Three and The One Thing
One obstacle that impedes families from meaningfully participating in their child’s learning is uncertainty about what exactly their child should be learning. The sheer number of assignments, tasks and assessments exacerbates an already confusing collection of learning and achievement standards. What parents need to know is: A) What are the 3-4 most important things their child needs to learn this year; B) How their child is learning in these areas; and C) What is the most important thing they can do at home to help their child progress in these areas. Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, schools rarely communicate this information to families. Instead, families tend to be inundated with information, assessment results and grades. Not surprisingly, several studies have illustrated that parents rarely have an accurate idea of how their child is performing in key areas of learning.
Our solution to this dilemma has been to define the essential standards in mathematics and English language arts. For families, we call them The Big Three, and we don’t just communicate these to families, but share how their child is performing in each of The Big Three. But it doesn’t stop there; we also teach families The One Thing, which is the one key strategy that families can use with their child at home to help them achieve one (or more) of The Big Three. Our school’s focus is on math problem-solving, and the one thing families can do is ask their child to find multiple solutions to a math problem, and to explain their thinking. A simple, yet powerful approach to working with families.
An important next step is to develop a calendar of events to help parents effectively apply The One Thing with their child. Just as our students are unlikely to learn new strategies the first time they’re taught, parents need repeated opportunities to see the strategy modeled, to practice the strategy and to receive constructive feedback. Every event that parents might attend becomes an opportunity to model, practice and provide feedback. I feel guilty if we miss an opportunity. Our consultant, Ron Mirr, has reinforced this idea to the extent that I hear his voice in my head before every family event, Coffee with the Principal and school gathering, asking, “What strategy will you practice with families?” Traditional family events like Back to School Night and parent-teacher conferences have become platforms to reinforce The Big Three and practice The One Thing.
Practicing The One Thing with parents is not limited to the standard academic school functions. We brought our PTA on board with our initiative, and together we reframed our family nights to include The One Thing. As I write this article, we’re planning our PTA Family STEAM Night, and in addition to guest astronomers, art activities and agricultural science displays, families will visit a math problem-solving station where students will be encouraged to find their own solution strategy and asked to explain their thinking. Teachers will serve as the facilitators, modeling what questions to ask to promote students’ thinking, and encouraging parents to participate as well.
A pathway to more meaningful partnerships with families
Just as Albert Einstein reminded us to look for opportunities in a crisis, we can leverage this time of challenge and change to reimagine how we engage with families in ways that will have a more lasting impact on student learning and achievement. We can move beyond the surface-level engagement that maintains the traditionally passive role of families and instead enlist them as partners and co-creators of learning. Family engagement as a practice, a school culture and a lens through which we look at everything meaningful that we do at school, has the capacity to impact the most intractable struggles in education, like the achievement gap or the historical underperformance of U.S. students in math and science. It is a rich resource that has long been untapped.
Change is difficult, and it is almost always easier to resume familiar roles, practices and responsibilities. Even as we push for more meaningful family engagement, educators and families will be tempted to avoid the discomfort of stepping into unfamiliar roles and practices that might trigger feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. And yet, we cannot afford to let this opportunity slip away, for who knows when family engagement will have the attention and carry the weight that it does today. A window of opportunity has emerged from this crisis if only we have the wisdom and the courage to take advantage of it.
Mapp, K.L., Carver, I., and Lander, J. (2017). Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success. Scholastic.
Mirr. R. Family Engagement Participation: Helping Families Build Competence and Confidence. Scholastic EDU, August 3, 2017. https://edublog.scholastic.com/post/family-engagement-participation-helping-families-build-competence-and-confidence.

The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships, https://www.dualcapacity.org/.
Greg Gero is the Principal at Plymouth Elementary School and the Director of Elementary Dual Immersion for the Monrovia Unified School District.
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