Building Trust: Four Actions to Elevate Family Engagement

When families and schools trust one another and work together, students achieve more—and everyone feels like they’re on the same team. Consider these actions to level up your family engagement strategy.
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Blog date
7/25/23
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What does strong family and school engagement look like? What does parent engagement feel like?

For many school leaders, the word “team” most likely comes to mind. The best relationships between families and their school communities are a shared and reciprocal responsibility. Schools do their part by engaging with parents and families in intentional, meaningful ways—and families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development.

This teamwork isn’t a nice to have—it’s a need to have. Strong school and family partnerships not only improve student achievement, but they also bolster families, boost teacher and school leader effectiveness, and build community. 

Strong school and family partnerships not only improve student achievement, but they also bolster families, boost teacher and school leader effectiveness, and build community. 

Summer is a great time to dig into the next level of your family engagement plan and think about what’s needed and what’s possible for both sides of this critical relationship. As part of our Restore. Retool. Recommit. annual summer series, we’ve identified some key actions you can take to help you look at your family partnerships with fresh eyes and a new outlook.

Looking for more resources to ensure the upcoming school year is a success? Make sure to check out our full Restore. Retool. Recommit. Summer 2023 series.

Document your family engagement plan

Similar to other long-term strategies, parent engagement isn’t something that can be left up to chance. It requires intentional planning that addresses a range of questions, including:

  • How do you plan to communicate with your families?
  • What resources and support do you make available to parents?
  • How do you help parents ensure student learning continues outside of school?
  • How do you involve your families in school decision-making?
  • How do you regularly ask for parent feedback and insights?

Documenting the answers to these questions—as well as the tactical actions that are needed to make them happen—is essential to keep parent and community engagement top of mind and a consistent part of your efforts. Family engagement is like a flywheel—it has to keep turning in order to build trust. 

Family engagement is like a flywheel—it has to keep turning in order to build trust. 

Having a plan is especially important as you prepare for the upcoming school year. This can be an exciting time for students and families, but it can be daunting as well—even for families who aren’t new to your school. Making sure to prioritize back-to-school by having a specific set of actions ensures you’re doing the work to connect with families immediately and make it as easy as possible for them to find the information they need.

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Prioritize “two-way” events and communication

For a moment, consider all the ways you reach out to your families—email, internal website portal, social media, text message, printed flyers, phone calls, apps, and in-person communications at drop-offs or scheduled events. Some are two-way communications where you are talking with them. And some are one-way where you are talking “at them” like a school-wide text message about an inclement weather closing or a Spirit Week reminder. 

Now, think about how many are one-way communications. Does the list dwindle a bit? 

We’re not suggesting every communication needs to be two-way. Instead, assess your current methods of communication to see if there are more opportunities for collaborative conversation that advance a sense of family-school partnership. For example: if you’re hosting a Back to School night, consider surveying parents before the event to see which three topics they think are the highest priority for discussion. Or, make sure you’re building in time for parents to share feedback at the event. Making space for even a bit of discussion goes a long way toward helping families feel seen and heard.  

Actively co-create with families rather than seek input

One important piece to remember when prioritizing family engagement is that there’s a big difference between the words “engage” and “involve.” When you involve your families in something, you’re asking them to experience or participate in a specific activity or situation. Engagement, on the other hand, is an opportunity to create or work through something together to develop a more genuine and trusting partnership. Like communication, parent involvement is more one-way and parent engagement, two-way. 

When you involve your families in something, you’re asking them to experience or participate in a specific activity or situation. Engagement, on the other hand, is an opportunity to create or work through something together to develop a more genuine and trusting partnership.

Take this example of a school leader who brought together a group of families whose students had Individual Education Plans. After she presented her thoughts and rough plan, she asked what was missing or not considered. She also asked if there were parts of the plan that could “unintentionally harm students with specific needs.” Her transparency paid off. Not only did the families appreciate that they could contribute, they did in fact ask a question about a big piece of the puzzle that was missing—differentiation.

We know it’s scary to show your vulnerability as school leaders, or admit that we don’t have all the answers. Examples like this show us it’s actually a strength, as we’re better able to move from seeking input to co-creating the future of our schools with our families. 

Challenge your own assumptions and biases

Sometimes, it’s just plain tough to reach families. And when we call or email a family member and don’t get a response back, our first reaction is usually to take it personally (school leaders are humans, too!). We don’t think about the fact that there are many reasons why a parent isn’t easy to reach—multiple jobs, complicated family dynamics, and changes in contact info are just a few of the possibilities.

This takes a bit of a mindset shift, and it starts with something simple: assume positive intent. Intentionally believing the best about your students and their families is guaranteed to put you in a better headspace—which will be helpful for when you are able to speak with them. 

The truth is, there will always be parents and families who are easier to reach than others. Don’t let that stop you from prioritizing equity of voice and getting their perspectives.

The truth is, there will always be parents and families who are easier to reach than others. Don’t let that stop you from prioritizing equity of voice and getting their perspectives. It might take a few extra tries to reach them at a convenient time, or additional time to build that trust. But one thing’s for sure—the extra effort you put in will be more than worth it. 

Restore. Retool. Recommit.

We’ve compiled another short list of easy-to-digest resources—this time, all about family engagement. As you’re thinking through your long-term strategy, take a look at these great reads and listens. They might just contain a nugget of information that makes all the difference. 

Read On:

Carnegie Challenge Paper: Next Generation Family Engagement

This challenge paper and related resources, put out by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, dives into various parts of the family engagement equation. Through a series of videos, essays by practitioners, and an on-demand webinar, this bank of resources examines the history, current practice, and future potential of family and community engagement. 

Everyone Wins!: The Evidence for Family-School Partnerships and Implications for Practice by Karen L. Mapp, Anne Henderson, Stephany Cuevas, Martha Franco, and Suzanna Ewert

Authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Karen Mapp and her colleagues, this book takes readers through the benefits—and the how-to—of grounding family engagement strategies in an evidence-based framework.

Listen In:

EdVoices: How Can Families Join the Curriculum Conversation?

In this videocast from EdReports.org, an independent nonprofit that delivers evidence-based reviews of K-12 instructional materials, EdReports’s Chief Strategy Officer Lauren Weisskirk chats about how family engagement with instructional materials can supercharge student learning. 

For more resources and effective strategies, explore our full series: How Education Leaders Can Restore. Retool. Recommit. Now and All School Year—Part 2.

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