Family Engagement: Aligning Values and Beliefs Within Your School Community
Knowing your school community’s values and belief systems is essential to developing effective family engagement strategies and creating a shared vision.
As school and district leaders, we know the value of partnering with families, but too often we center family engagement on one-way communication and sparsely attended parent nights. It can be easy to make robocalls, send out emails and text messages, and respond to the parents that contact us with grievances or the occasional gratitude and think that we’re connecting.
There’s always a lot of work to be done in schools and rarely any formal training offered or guidance given for developing effective family school partnerships. We often communicate our beliefs and values to our communities without knowing or understanding if that vision aligns with that of theirs. Yet, building your school community’s capacity to engage is critical to creating a shared vision and increasing student learning outcomes. So how do we do better? How do we deepen the work?
Personal Leadership: Step outside your comfort zone
Taking the time to reflect on your personal leadership is a good starting point. Specifically, reflecting on the aspects of your interpersonal leadership that help build trusting relationships and facilitate community engagement. How often do you step outside your office and connect with families in an authentic way? Think about the last time you had a meaningful conversation with a parent or group of families about their vision for their child’s education or how they think things are going in the school year. What safe spaces are you creating for some of your hard-to-connect-with parents outside of when there is a present challenge?
For school leaders, this kind of engagement can be a vulnerable position. You’re opening yourself up to spontaneity and unpredictability, which may feel a lot less secure than drawing up plans around parent engagement in the confines of your office. Yet, how good are these kinds of plans without testing them for alignment with your school community?
It’s the act of stepping outside of comfort zones and creatively engaging families that helps build relational trust with your school community. Doing so helps us to check our own biases or blind spots and helps us to build change that is long lasting and inclusive. Research has shown that taking the necessary steps and going above and beyond to build trust is an important factor underlying effective family-school engagement.
Parent and Community Values: Ask first
So, after reflecting on your personal leadership approach, where should you start in creating and implementing a family engagement plan for your school? Research shows that knowing your school community’s values and belief systems helps to develop engagement capacity for teachers and families and acclerate student success. A part of your family engagement plan should be to gather information about your families’ beliefs and values.
The Brookings Institute found in communities where families or teachers have different beliefs about what the school stands for and what they should do, schools are likely to struggle, being pulled in multiple directions or experiencing significant pushback to any changes that are made. In contrast, communities with a well-aligned vision of the purpose of school can move forward constructively playing their respective roles in helping to advance this vision.
To dig deeper, Brookings surveyed over 24,000 parents and over 6,000 teachers. They asked questions about their respective beliefs about the most important purpose of school, what a quality education looks like, what types of teaching and learning experiences they thought were most important for their children and students, and how their educational beliefs were formed. Their goal was to get a detailed picture of family and teacher mindsets—insights that are important if families and schools are to work together to create a shared vision.
Out of all the insights Brookings found in their study, these three stood out the most to us:
1. Different communities have different motivations.
- School leaders should guard against long standing narratives in education about how parents’ socio-economic status shapes their beliefs about what a quality education looks like for their child.
- School leaders shouldn’t assume that they understand family beliefs and perceptions about what makes for a quality education without asking families directly first.
2. Both parents and teachers support a holistic vision of education, but each group believes the other is narrowly focused on academics.
- Many parents prioritize their child’s socio-emotional development equally to, if not more than, their academic development as the most important purpose of school.
- Parents and teachers have very different perceptions of each other’s beliefs about school and the purpose of school.
3. The more receptive teachers are to parent input, the more parents feel that they share teachers’ beliefs about schooling.
- Parents who have higher levels of trust in their children’s teachers feel more aligned with them and are more likely to share their teachers’ beliefs about what makes for a quality education.
These findings help school leaders gain perspective on potential parental views within their school community and, moreover, in thinking about how to engage families to gain a better understanding of their values and beliefs. Aligning around a shared vision of the purpose of school is a powerful way for schools and families to work together and guide how schools operate and improve student outcomes.
Family Engagement Plan: Steps to deepen family engagement
So are you ready to set up or revise your family engagement plan? Make sure you follow the three steps below:
- Take time to reflect on your personal leadership, specifically interpersonal leadership approach to families. Be creative and step outside of comfort zones to better engage families personally and build meaningful partnerships.
- Review your district’s strategic plan on family engagement and use resources like the Department of Education’s Framework for Family-School Partnerships and New Leaders Transformational Leadership Framework to get a good sense of best practices in creating your plan.
- Ask families directly what their values and belief systems are. Gather, analyze, and use the data to find community alignment and operationalize your school community’s family engagement plan.