Family Engagement Participation: Helping Families Build Competence and Confidence

Over the past few months, my colleague Jenni Brasington and I have been writing about the four areas schools need to focus on in order to create a pathway to effective family-school partnerships.

We first explained how critical it is to welcome families as partners in learning, and offered suggestions on how to tell whether your school is doing it well (hint: start in the parking lot).

Next, we explored different methods of communication with families (start by asking yourself: “What is the best method for someone to contact me so that I will likely respond?”).

Most recently Jenni described the information families need to support their child’s learning. For example, when considering how to use the hallway wall space, do you know the difference between displaying student work and showing evidence of student learning?

The final piece of the pathway to effective family-school partnerships is participation.

What do we mean by participation?

Participation means families take action at home to support their child’s learning. It’s not enough just to tell families what they should do to help their children learn. Schools need to provide the knowledge families need, support them in their learning, and create a learning community in which they are actually engaged—not just in theory, but in practice.

Confidence and competence: how to empower all families to support learning at home

Have you ever tripped while walking down the street? The first thing most people do is look around to see if anyone saw it happen—all of us want to appear competent. As we help families participate in their child’s learning, it’s important to keep the idea of competency in mind. If we minimize the risk for families to learn by creating safe environments, they can practice without feeling embarrassed. Family engagement events should provide diverse families with a safe place to acquire and then practice new skills, so they develop the confidence and competence to apply the skills at home.

For example

Family literacy nights are often structured such that families learn alongside their children. And yet when families are with their children at an event, it can be difficult for them to focus. With children in a different space, family members can concentrate on learning and practicing new skills. Once they practice a few times, they are more likely use the skill with their child at home. A good way to end the family night is to bring the adults and the students back together, and provide an opportunity for families to try the activity they just learned with their child.

Learn, practice, collaborate, assess

Make sure to provide multiple opportunities for families to practice and get timely feedback during every event, and don’t forget to use positive reinforcement as they demonstrate their new knowledge.

During the practice time, allow families to direct their own learning through inquiry and small group discussion. When families share their experiences and challenges with their peers, they can learn from and support each other. By empowering families to share ideas and strategies, they expand their social networks and increase their outside-of-school support. 

Remember: it’s emotional

Just as not all children come to school ready to learn, families may also be apprehensive, nervous, or skeptical at first. They may carry the memories of discouraging experiences with their own schooling. In order to support families so that they develop confidence and competence, schools should employ a nuanced approach to learning that is personalized, responsive, and collaborative. With this support, families will gain the knowledge, skills, and ability to be full and equal partners in learning.

Read previous posts: welcoming, communication, and information. Curious about how family engagement assessment works in real life? Read this principal's story.