The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to virtual and hybrid learning left families and educators with important discoveries, including the realization that family engagement and home-school communication are critical to student success.
One-way communication falls flat, and families must be engaged with schools in order for schools to create and maintain equitable learning environments for students, says Mahnaz R. Charania, PhD, a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute and author of a new report about reimagining family engagement. This engagement requires trust and reciprocity–merely sending information home in student backpacks and out in electronic communications is ineffective.
Communication does not equal connection. There do exist a number of programs and technology tools to help schools harness the “untapped potential of families.” When integrated within robust family engagement strategies, these programs and tools serve to establish families and educators as partners in supporting students and student success.
Within these tools and program, families take the following roles:
• academic support to drive student learning
• guidance support to help students navigate out-of-school and postsecondary pathways
• informal mentors to cultivate and expand students’ career options
• sources of community for each other to promote student wellbeing
Families have social capital, and K-12 school leaders can leverage that social capital to greatly improve students’ experiences and outcomes.
The Christensen Institute defines social capital as “access to, and ability to mobilize,
relationships that help further an individual’s potential and goals. Just like skills and knowledge, relationships offer resources that drive access to opportunity.”
The report details five strategies school leaders can use to take family engagement and social capital to the next level as it serves students.
1. Leveraging technology tools to foster connections and build trust with families can dramatically improve the quality of partnership between families and schools. Being in communication with families is not the same as being in a relationship with them. This has been a hard lesson for schools who have worked tirelessly to increase the frequency of their communication to families only to find parents frustrated with the guidance received from schools.
2. Designing family engagement efforts that support families alongside students can deliver long-term social capital gains for students. For some schools, leveraging families’ social capital to support students’ academic journey will require first equipping families with relevant skills.
3. Enlisting families as partners within students’ learning ecosystems can open up access to extracurricular, postsecondary, and career pathways that can be difficult to achieve otherwise, particularly for underresourced students. The pandemic has forced schools and families alike to recognize the power of students’ relationships outside the school building to support their learning and access to opportunities. Harnessing families’ social capital can power a far more networked and distributed package of K–12
4. Connecting families to one another can create more accessible, affordable, and flexible options for scaling student support. An often overlooked lever for scaling authentic connections—for both students and families—is to nurture relationships between families. Recent research shows the promise of families connecting to one another leading to greater parental self-efficacy, access to resources, and positive changes both in the way families interact with one another and in influencing the schools attended by their children.
5. Integrating metrics to gauge the quality of family-school interactions within existing data dashboards can be a game-changer for driving student success. In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) updated the term “parental involvement” to “family engagement.” While this was a step forward in federal policy, the lack of metrics to enable schools to assess, and in turn, improve upon, the quality of their relationship with families was a limitation for those committed to harnessing the power of authentic family engagement.