Building stronger families and stronger communities: From family involvement to family engagement

What does learning look like? Picture two classrooms. In Classroom A, students sit at desks arranged in straight rows facing the board. They listen as a teacher imparts their wisdom. Some take notes. In Classroom B, students sit in desks that face each other. They talk through their questions and take part in hands-on activities. Instead of lecturing, the teacher moves around the classroom, facilitating learning by meeting students where they are. In which of these classrooms is learning more likely to take place?

Most practitioners today would point to Classroom B. That’s because educators know that engaged learners are more likely to be successful. Instead of simply being present for their learning, they take ownership of it. That makes them more likely to monitor their own understanding and seek help when they need it. When families learn together, engagement is still an essential piece of the puzzle.

“Stronger Families, Stronger Communities,” took a look at the evolution of family engagement. Often, schools have strived for family involvement. Room mothers help with classroom activities and family members attend PTA meetings. Family members attend family nights and other school events. But when it stops there, many families and educators feel there’s something missing.

Today, family engagement is the goal. The phrase better serves the meaningful ways parents take part in their children’s education. What’s the difference? Engaged families see parents as the primary educators of their children. Engaged families experience education that impacts adult learning and academic achievement. Most notably, learners from engaged families experience higher achievement than their peers.

How do we move from family involvement to family engagement? There are many steps practitioners can take to actively engage families in learning:

  • Home Visits: Several Toyota Family Learning Teachers of the Year cited home visits as a major contributor to family engagement. Home visiting allows educators to learn more about families on their own turf and become part of learners’ communities.
  • Two-way Communication: Too often, communication between practitioners and families only flows in one direction–newsletters, emails, and notes home move from school to home without any invitation for open dialogue. However, two-way communication, in which this dialogue is embraced, encourages family engagement and often improves family attitude toward school and educator understanding of family strengths and needs.
  • Family Journals: Several Toyota Family Teachers of the Year listed journaling as a way to end the day with students. Taking this a step further with family journals is a great way to promote family engagement. Family journals invite students, educators, and family members to communicate via writing together.
  • Family Events: Events at school often encourage family involvement. Families attend PTA meetings, after-school recitals, and sporting events. However, providing family events in which families can participate in learning activities together, such as NCFL’s Community Jamborees, will encourage family engagement in education.  
  • Family Projects: Design one or two projects per year for families to engage in together. Use Wonderopolis or Say and Play With Words as springboards for family projects surrounding literacy development.
  • Family Service Learning: Help families find ways to get involved in the community. By partnering with local businesses and nonprofits, practitioners can help families engage in learning and build social capital within their communities.

How do you invite parents to become actively involved in your classroom activities and engaged in their child’s education?