At Family Engagement Lab, we value our customers and how much we learn about the existing and evolving needs of students and their parents/caregivers, teachers, schools, and districts in equitably engaging families with academics. For every implementation of our service, FASTalk, we partner with customers to understand their goals for family engagement and its role in their instructional strategy to support student learning. While we have always put the customer first in our work, what that means and how that looks has changed over the last 5 years and especially since the pandemic and its impact on students, their families and the school community.
When our Customer Success team launched in 2018, the team's priority was simply to help teachers use FASTalk and to have a great experience with it to build relationships with families and to boost their students’ learning. But, with the pandemic and shifted priorities in schools, we noticed a change in our level of support for our district partners as well. Families had more visibility into their child’s education and teachers experienced stress and challenges as never before. This dynamic, combined with our existing practice of supporting customers, resulted in even deeper levels of empathy and partnership. Sometimes we zoomed out to a big picture view with customers to understand an overarching goal or zoomed in on an immediate need and customized their FASTalk service to be timely and relevant.
At Family Engagement Lab, our support for customers goes beyond ensuring success with our product. We start by spending time with district-level academic instructional leads and family engagement coordinators to gain an understanding of the unique needs of each of the communities we serve. Only then can we work alongside the schools and school systems to set goals around academic and family engagement priorities and implement our products, professional development, and/or coaching services with an asset-based approach. Given the shifted priorities since March 2020, our department's name "Customer Success," didn't quite reflect how our district partners thought of us or how we think of ourselves.
So effective this year, our Customer Success Team at Family Engagement Lab has changed its name to District Partnerships. The name change more accurately reflects how Family Engagement Lab works with our customers; as valued partners.
To better support teachers’ unique needs and build teachers’ capacity to form meaningful partnerships with families, we also welcomed Kelsey Hodge as our new Partner Success Manager. Kelsey is a former secondary classroom teacher and understands first-hand the role family engagement plays in learning and the common barriers that prevent it. Through trainings, PD, 1-1 support, and innovative beta testing opportunities, Kelsey works closely with teachers to try out new family engagement strategies to build authentic relationships with their students’ families.
The District Partnerships team is committed to helping our customers reach families equitably in their home language with content linked to student learning and helping teachers to build trusted relationships with their students’ families. These are, and will continue to be, our team’s highest priorities.
To learn more about how the District Partnerships team can help support your family engagement efforts, contact Hannah Lee, Director, District Partnerships.
Family Engagement Lab and Stand for Children have proudly partnered since 2019 to support improved student learning outcomes through family engagement. In 2021, Stand’s Home Visit Partnerships’ Director, working closely with Fort Worth ISD’s Leadership Academy Network, identified a critical need to provide continued connection and relationship building between teachers and families after a teacher’s initial home visit. Because home visits only happen once or twice a year, teachers were looking for additional ways to leverage the positive relationships they established during those visits to build stronger partnership and the capacity of families to support learning all year.
It was with those questions in mind that Stacey Vanhoy, Director of Home Visit Partnerships, began to research best practices on ways to support teachers to extend learning from
the classroom to the living room, while not adding additional work to teachers’ plates. In October of 2021, Home Visit Partnerships and Family Engagement Lab met and excitedly spoke about how FASTalk could support Leadership Academy Network teachers’ need for ongoing, learning-related information that could be sent equitably and easily to their students’ families.
During Spring 2022, Family Engagement Lab and Home Visit Partnerships came together to support ongoing partnerships between teachers and families through home visits and the regular sharing of at-home learning activities through FASTalk at two schools in the Leadership Academy Network, a partnership between Fort Worth ISD and Texas Wesleyan University. FASTalk was piloted for 12 weeks in 6 pre-K classrooms at the Leadership Academy at Maude I. Logan and the Leadership Academy at John T. White Elementary Schools - and was met with resounding success all around. 100% of teachers and families who participated wanted home visits and FASTalk messages to continue. 79% of families responded to the FASTalk text messages and 56% responded 5 or more times. These strong engagement rates generated excitement about expanding the program at the Leadership Academy schools and in other Fort Worth area schools.
At the conclusion of the pilot, Stacey, along with Dr. Elisabeth O’Bryon, Family Engagement Lab’s Chief Impact Officer and co-founder, conducted a series of focus groups with Logan and White Elementary Schools’ educators and families to learn more about their experience with FASTalk and home visits.
Fort Worth teachers shared the importance of having already visited families’ homes and
developed trust prior to beginning the FASTalk program. Teachers loved the outgoing, translated FASTalk messages and the automatic message translation feature that enabled regular two-way communication in families’ home languages. Fort Worth families noted that they loved being able to support their child’s learning at home and that FASTalk helped them feel included in their child’s education. Families wanted even more weekly messages, reporting that the FASTalk activities were really engaging for their children. FASTalk helped families feel connected to what was happening at school and fostered a sense of partnership between families and their children’s teachers. One mother noted that she felt like her child was the “MVP” and she and the teacher were both on his team, helping him succeed.
“FASTalk has been a game changer for our schools. This valuable resource has been one of the tools we have been able to utilize to build our communication efforts with our families. FASTalk has helped equip our parents to best support their students at home!” - Priscila Dilley, Senior Officer, Leadership Academy Network
The pilot results were so positive that Leadership Academy Network’s senior leadership team has expanded the use of FASTalk this academic year to all four campuses for pre-K, Kinder, and 1st grade families.
In addition to Leadership Academy Network schools, Home Visit Partnerships and Family Engagement Lab, with the support of the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, have teamed up with East Fort Worth Montessori Academy in PK-5th grades. As Mrs. Farhanaz Reza, 3rd grade teacher shared, “At the beginning of this year, we learned about ‘FASTalk’ and ‘Home Visit’ as the communication systems available to us. After visiting several families, I noticed that kids are putting extra effort to accomplish their tasks. They are making behavioral changes as well. They were super excited to see teachers at their home. Parents were happy and grateful. They appreciated our efforts to go beyond and help each other to make a difference. Now, parents are comfortable communicating via FASTalk. The majority of my families reach out to me with their daily needs, any concerns, or questions through FASTalk. I have started feeling stronger and I would say, seeing these positive changes in my students, is a great achievement.”
This month, through generous support from Rose Community Foundation, Gary Community Ventures and The Deane Family Fund, a fund of the Denver Foundation, Home Visit Partnerships and Family Engagement Lab will build on their partnership to support early literacy learning in both Denver and across Colorado.
If you are interested in learning more about Home Visit Partnerships and Family Engagement Lab, please visit our websites and learn more about how you can support our work.
Home Visit Partnerships
Family Engagement Lab
I believe that any changes I want to make in the world must begin with a truthful reflection of myself. This belief and my past experiences, including my time as a classroom teacher, have paved the way for me to work with Family Engagement Lab.
In my short time as a teacher, I cannot count the number of long days that I ended up thinking, “Why do I do this to myself?” I truly enjoyed the time I spent in front of my students helping them unlock their natural curiosity about the world around them. But, too many days of arriving early; making a thousand small, quick decisions per second; and staying late to grade and plan left me exhausted. Plus, having to call the families of students who were misbehaving or falling behind in class had me overwhelmed.
I knew something was wrong after countless conversations with colleagues that began with, “No matter how many times I have called her mother, I can never seem to get an answer” to which they’d respond, “I could never get her to pick up last year either. Just document it and keep it pushing. You can’t expect everyone to care about what goes on at the school they send their children to.” This conversation was part of what seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy — we call and don’t get an answer, we converse about how difficult it is to engage families, we don’t see a change, and we become frustrated. It was a demoralizing experience. But quite frankly, it was not a reflexive one. It was not until I stepped away from my position in front of the classroom to a seat within one that I started to unpack this experience and draw a damning conclusion — making one-way calls with the intent to report was not effective, assets-based, family engagement practice. It was an audit trail.
At Harvard Graduate School of Education, I took a course dedicated to family engagement titled, “The Why, What, and How of School, Community, and Family Partnerships” led by the incomparable Dr. Karen Mapp. I was pushed to unpack a lot of what was embedded into those prior conversations and feelings shared by my colleagues and me (and as I imagine, other educators, right?). In short, I learned that we did not dig deep into understanding why the relationship between the school and the families was so fraught. Common themes were:
Armed with this new understanding of my own experience as an educator, I felt compelled to continue learning about a new way forward. While I am not returning to the classroom as a teacher in the near future, I am happy to say that partnering with Family Engagement Lab as a Summer Fellow with Education Pioneers has allowed me to use the knowledge that I have gained to help facilitate a change in perception for other educators and introduce districts dedicated to assets-based family engagement to an organization that is doing the work.
Family Engagement Lab is a national nonprofit that “catalyzes equitable family engagement and student learning by bridging classroom curriculum and at-home learning.” My role is to perform a landscape analysis and identify districts across the country that have shown dedication to practicing assets-based family engagement and perform outreach to learn more in-depth about how these districts are approaching family engagement. I analyze each district’s market-facing content on family engagement and assess what I find against a rubric I designed. Then, I reach out to districts to gain extensive insights into their family engagement practices and goals to help Family Engagement Lab learn more about how districts materialize their value for family engagement.
This experience thus far has been challenging and rewarding. The team is supportive and capable, which has been a very safe environment for me to learn, make mistakes, and pivot when necessary. I have been able to learn about their operations, strategies, internal DEI work, and their dynamic technology-based tool that bridges the relationship between the classroom and the home — FASTalk.
Admittedly, I am not a techie by any means, but the amount of care that the team has put into this tool is impressive. I found myself reflecting on my time as a teacher and imagining that with both the new knowledge that I gained about what assets-based family engagement means and access to FASTalk, the tides would have changed dramatically for my students and their families.
First, I would not have spent so much time reporting, but rather creating opportunities for thought-partnership and capacity building for my families so they would have known how to use the wealth of knowledge they have about their students to support their educational journey. I would have forgone so much effort on tasks that surreptitiously were used to account for the “gaps” that the families had with supporting their students and search for the root cause of the disconnect I felt. Finally, I know that if I had a tool like FASTalk on my hands, I would have been able to further build the capacity of my students’ families to support the classroom learning we were doing by providing them with targeted questions and tasks aligned with our curriculum. Not only would the families be able to support the students’ retention of our lessons, but also this would have improved the relationship the families had with the schools. With these benefits in mind, I would not have seen it as an extra task or some new tool that the district was requiring that I use. Instead, I would have seen it as something that accomplished what my ultimate goal was: to inspire learning in and outside of the classroom.
It’s my sincere hope that my outreach efforts can at least result in teachers and administrators becoming more curious about how it could look if they invested in two-way, capacity-building family engagement as an academic strategy. While I also have a vested interest in districts becoming curious about Family Engagement Lab and its tools, I feel that their three-fold vision built on the premise that “authentic family-school partnership is critical to a child’s successful learning journey” their creation of tools that “bridge classroom and at-home learning to raise student outcomes,” and their goal of helping students “achieve their full potential by catalyzing partnerships between the most passionate advocates for children — teachers and family members” are a recipe for more equity in the educational landscape in this country.
Back to school season is upon us! As students return to classrooms for the new school year, we recognize that this is one of the most exciting times of the year for those working in schools. We also know that it is one of the busiest. Between reviewing curriculum, setting up materials, and establishing classroom communities, we know teachers and administrators are hard at work to create the foundation for a successful year.
As a way to support your efforts to build partnership with students and their families, we’re sharing simple FASTalk messages for teachers to share with families. The messages focus on building trust and relationships with the families in your school community.
These messages can be accessed in English and Spanish.
Teachers, feel free to copy and paste them into a text or email, or use them in conversation with families. Administrators, please forward these messages to the teachers on your team.
Thank you for the incredible work you do with students and families every day. Have a great start to the school year!
It’s the end of the 2021-22 school year and teachers have given their all during another challenging year. Many are tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed. They have continued to educate students in environments where their roles, their students’ roles and especially the roles of families have irrevocably changed. Teachers know that families can be a powerful partner for student success, yet family engagement often becomes a secondary activity instead of a priority to support student learning.
Dr. Megan McNamara, Associate Superintendent at Redesign Schools and a FASTalk client, recently shared:
We all agree that engagement from family members strengthens our school community and enriches experiences for our children. Still, when other school operations sidetrack our plans, we tend to work inward instead of reaching out for support. Likely, it is the same at home for a busy parent or caregiver. We must be intentional about our outreach as it is imperative in building lasting relationships and meaningful communities.
With the challenges currently facing educators, we know that providing teachers with meaningful opportunities for professional learning around family engagement, especially equitable family engagement, is critical. Decades of research, including our own, point to the fact that when families are engaged in at-home learning, student performance improves.
Coaching and supporting teachers to engage their families in meaningful ways is valuable at all levels of our education system. However, in a recent study of K-12 teachers conducted by Edge Research, only 32% of teachers said that professional development has been an influential factor in how they engage with their families (C.1).
The teaching landscape looks different now, largely due to the pandemic, and the way we engage families can change too in order to ensure equitable access for all. Now more than ever it is imperative that families are engaged with their child’s development at all ages and stages. Families are valuable partners in their child’s educational journey when they are included in innovative, accessible ways. - Dr. Lisa Holliday LeBoeuf, Supervisor of Literacy Professional Development, Louisiana Department of Education
At Family Engagement Lab, many school districts we work with simply don’t have the time and/or resources to implement regular professional learning across their schools, especially around family engagement. Some districts implement traditional practices of family engagement, requiring parents and caregivers to be physically present, which was not possible during the pandemic and may not reach all families equitably. Other districts focus on family engagement at the district level but struggle to see that focus translated into ongoing, 2-way communication and collaboration between teachers and families in support of student learning.
What We’re Learning: What professional development do teachers need to build a trusted partnership with families?
Teachers want teamwork with families to support student success. So what does high impact professional development on family engagement look like? Let’s start by looking at the research. Effective professional development on family engagement must prioritize:
1. Teacher readiness to learn new strategies and tools,
2. Creating an ecosystem of support for teachers as they try out new strategies and,
3. Teachers being able to track progress towards goals and receive feedback on implementation (C.2).
According to a recent research study from Rivet Education, “96% of teachers believe that the number one factor leaders should consider when planning professional learning is whether it will help teachers effectively use their instructional materials.(C.3)” Knowing that, it’s important that professional learning around family engagement is designed with a clear connection to classroom instruction and builds equity when supporting families with learning at home. This type of professional learning should be active, ongoing, and collaborative as teachers need and want opportunities to reflect on their practices to ensure that they are prioritizing effective family engagement strategies.
At Family Engagement Lab, we have seen this play out in our practice. At our partner sites, meaningful professional learning occurs when the entire school community, from the literacy coach, to the teachers, to the front office staff, engage together in action planning. During the action planning process, educators are encouraged to reframe current notions of in-person parent involvement, and think more deeply about their own school communities and the traumas or barriers their students’ families may be facing. These barriers may make it difficult for families to get engaged or even enter the school building. Participants create and commit to short-term and longer term goals around high impact engagement strategies that are inclusive and accessible to all families, often incorporating FASTalk as part of their implementation strategy.
Parental involvement is a key component of our mission and vision, but communicating the “why” behind the importance of effective family engagement can be a challenge. This next year, we will be focusing our teacher professional learning and FASTalk training opportunities to set specific goals on how to involve and inform families about their students' day-to-day instruction. We want to improve our family engagement plan and build partnerships between families, educators, and the greater community. - Georgia Gross, Academic Coordinator at Redesign Schools
Our partner sites are desiring to move away from the brief, one-time teacher training option and opting into our yearlong model of building in regular touchpoints and coaching for teachers to feel successful in their family engagement efforts through FASTalk. Through a series of 3-4 sessions, teachers will be provided with the latest research around effective family engagement strategies; provided time to reflect on their own readiness and create goals to try out new strategies; and given hands-on practice time to carry out the new strategies through FASTalk. District and school leaders are also invited to participate in the training sessions to collaborate on how to effectively and authentically engage their students’ families.
We recognize that as school leaders, we have work to do to build connections, and our professional development strategy now has intentional checkpoints to make sure we are making family engagement a part of our learning, mindset, and scheduling. Just as we train and plan for curriculum and instruction, we must also plan to build regular habits in making lasting connections with our children’s families. - Dr. Megan McNamara, Associate Superintendent at Redesign Schools
Going forward, we are continuing to take a critical look at our own training and professional learning opportunities for teachers. We are focusing on research-based practices in order to build teacher’s capacity to form meaningful relationships with the families that they work with. When teachers are supported in their growth, we believe that school system change around family engagement is not only possible but powerful.
C.1: Learning Heroes, Parents 2021 “Going Beyond the Headlines”; Findings from Surveys of K-12 Parents, Teachers and Principals, December 8, 2021, Research Conducted by Edge Research
This month, I sat down for a Zoom chat with Amy Walker, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Committee for Children, creators of the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program series, Second Step. Amy and I previously had the chance to discuss the role of families in SEL on a webinar titled, “Engaging Families with Social-Emotional Learning” last Fall. Our conversation then was rich with ideas and my recent discussion with Amy allowed for us to dive deeper into some of the key areas that are top of mind for Committee for Children and Family Engagement Lab when it comes to teacher-parent partnership around SEL.
During our conversation, Amy shared how important it is to talk about SEL in ways that resonate with families. By focusing on key student skills that are important to families (e.g., learning how to form friendships, solving problems in a positive way), teachers and schools are best positioned to collaboratively support students’ well being. At Family Engagement Lab, we too believe in the power of forming strong partnerships between teachers and families to support wide-ranging positive outcomes for children around social, emotional, and academic learning.
In our blog, I’m excited to highlight the strategies Amy shared for how schools can meaningfully engage families around SEL to deepen trust and build collaborative relationships with the key adults in a child’s learning journey. We would love to hear more about your strategies and invite you to share them with us through LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.
Elisabeth: Tell us a little more about Committee for Children and your role there.
Amy: Committee for Children is a nonprofit organization that has been around for over 40 years, reaching over 20 million children in more than 30,000 schools around the U.S. Most of what we do is social-emotional learning but we also work in the field of child abuse prevention and bullying prevention.
I’m the Director of Strategic Partnerships and my role is to forge relationships and business partnerships with other organizations to help us reach more children and have more impact. I’ve been in this field for over 20 years.
Elisabeth: What do you enjoy most about working in the field of SEL?
Amy: I am so grateful that I get to earn a living doing work that is so good for kids. I really believe in social-emotional learning. In my own life, I work on these skills every day and I love the idea of teaching children skills so they can start managing their feelings and solving problems in positive ways. I wish I had learned these things when I was in school.
The skills you learn in SEL programs like Second Step are the skills that carry you through your life. They allow you to hold down jobs, have good relationships, be a good parent, and make good decisions. It’s hard work to learn social and emotional skills, but these skills are an essential part of our lives.
Through SEL, I think we can help kids to have better experiences in both school and their lives outside of school and in their futures. I have a real heart for teachers and I know that everything we do in SEL, also helps teachers and schools.
Elisabeth: What are 1-2 ways that the pandemic has affected your work with school districts?
Amy: Family engagement with social emotional learning is a big deal and it certainly has become much more critical since the pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, 90% of our clients were using the print version of our SEL program Second Step. We worked quickly to meet their digital needs by accelerating our existing efforts. In addition, our school partners immediately asked how they could connect with families about SEL. Including families has always been a part of our programs and we have been doing a lot of coaching to encourage our clients to use the resources we provide.
As the pandemic went on, we saw that children were struggling with isolation and feeling disconnected from peers and their teachers. It was apparent that children needed support to help them manage their feelings and the effects of the pandemic on their emotions. Our school partners were able to support children through Second Step because social-emotional learning builds skills that can help provide foundational support for the emotional well-being of kids.
Elisabeth: What strategies have you seen Second Step schools using that work well to engage families with SEL? Are there some common pitfalls or missed opportunities around family engagement that you see in your work?
Amy: In some ways, engaging families with SEL is not so different from engaging teachers with SEL. One of the important things to do is to educate families on what it is.
One really important thing is to talk about SEL in a way that they understand as it relates to their child. We encourage using terms like “managing strong feelings,” “setting goals,” “learning skills to make friends,” “dealing with stress,” “solving problems in a positive way.” This helps bridge to the things that families care about and what they are struggling with when talking about an SEL program.
When a school makes an effort to teach social skills, families can have more visibility into how this is helping their child. It communicates to families that, “we can grow together as a school to help kids have skills to thrive.”
Amy provided a number of recommendations for schools and educators who would like to engage families more deeply around SEL:
Amy Walker’s Recommendations for Involving Families in SEL
A big thank you to Amy Walker from Committee for Children! If you would like to learn more about Amy’s work, check out: http://www.cfchildren.org/
To learn more about how FASTalk can support your SEL efforts, visit: https://www.familyengagementlab.org/what_we_do.html.
In the summer of 2020, Family Engagement Lab expressed a commitment to ongoing investigation of how racism inhibits equitable family engagement and to developing anti-racist family engagement strategies. Part of our commitment included regular team conversations about race, racism, and anti-racism. Team members led thought-provoking and transformative bi-weekly discussions.
In this month’s blog post, we share more about our sessions including staff reflections from the 24 sessions held over the past year. We invite you to read these, reflect on your own journey around race, racism and anti-racism and learn more from the resource links included below. Below I share a summary of my impactful moment from a team conversation last year.
Hailey Kuhn, Head of Partnerships
The session where we welcomed guest speaker Chris Dier about his book, “The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields,” was particularly moving for me. The ensuing conversation was what made the greatest impression on me. To hear directly from our team about historical trauma was very powerful. It made me realize how much I didn't know about the personal journeys of my colleagues and how historical trauma may impact them. Listening to their stories, I could start to feel how trauma transcends a moment in time and is layered through time, having a lasting and rippling effect.
Vidya Sundaram, co-founder and CEO
Board Director Icela Pelayo led a session for our staff and development partner called “What’s in a Name?” about the range of culturally responsive pedagogies and how they relate to our work at Family Engagement Lab. It’s powerful to see such a broad range of academic research that recognizes families, cultural and linguistics contexts, and home environments as assets to student learning. The evidence, strategies and tools exist to support kids through school-family partnership, we just need the collective will to implement them.
Ryana S. Barbosa, Sr. Project Manager
The session that sticks out for me is one that Megan facilitated on Nov 5th which was a review of a recorded interview with Clint Smith on his book "How the Word is Passed" and then followed by a team discussion. The session was extra memorable because of Megan's personal connection to Clint (they had done TFA together I think) but I found the topics of his interview + our team discussion really enlightening in terms of our necessity to rethink the way history has been taught in this country and the narratives that have been repeated until they seem to become truth (a focus specifically on the founding fathers and the anecdote on the present-day visit to Monticello sticks out).
With the evolving discussions on critical race theory and the ongoing controversy over what gets taught in classrooms and how, this conversation really uplifted for me the divisions and biases that are being seeded in children and families and educators and how confronting those biases starts with learning the fuller picture of history and creating spaces for conversations that are rooted in curiosity and empathy. It's important in our work at FEL to stay curious and empathetic as we craft content and help build the capacity of educators to more deeply and authentically engage with families, especially when there are cultural differences.
Megan Lorio, Managing Editor
In thinking back on our many discussions, something that emerges is that we have been able to use our time together for both an exploration of identity and an opportunity to use frameworks/tools that support making our work more equitable. For instance, we had a session that unpacked a tool from the Edtech Equity Project, in which we were able to think about our design process in the context of designing services/products that are centered on racial equity. The work we've done together has not only built my knowledge of history but also continues to shape how we think about our work going forward.
Hannah Jong Lee, Sr. Project Manager
I really appreciated the book club discussions when we read “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson as a team. The book itself was eye opening in terms of learning more about racial injustice in America and was timely for me personally, as Asian-targeted hate crimes were on the rise. The discussion questions also unveiled personal stories and narratives from our team members that brought us to a place of vulnerability and deeper appreciation for each other that we hadn’t quite tapped into before.
Elisabeth O'Bryon, co-founder and Chief Impact Officer
So many of our bi-weekly sessions on race, racism, and anti-racism have impacted me profoundly. I cannot identify a single session because what impacted me most greatly throughout has been the insights and perspectives shared so openly and thoughtfully by my colleagues. During each session, I felt my perspective shift and widen as I listened to my colleague's reactions, reflections, and insights. Not only have the sessions and discussions prompted important self-reflection, but they have also left me with a sense of deeper connection and gratitude for my colleagues.
Marcos Escalona, Sr. Product Manager
Ry's December 17th session on Brown vs Board of Education was impactful to me. I had studied the case a bit in High School, but had never considered how one effect of that ruling would be effectively greater segregation in the teaching force. One stat I noted from the session: 35-50% of teachers were black in 17 segregated school states prior to desegregation. I left that session thinking deeply about how/whether it is possible to anticipate and avoid downstream effects of this nature when shaping and implementing policy.
With the start of 2022, we recognize how deeply challenging it is for our partners as they face COVID-related illness and staff shortages. Not only our partners, but so many in the PK-12 education ecosystem are facing difficult times, especially educators, families, and children. It’s a time when we all need support.
As a way to help, we’ve put together simple FASTalk messages that anyone can share with families. They focus on what we all need right now: tips for navigating these times through connection, understanding, and empathy.
The messages can be accessed here and easily used and shared with families. You can copy and paste them into a text or email, or use them in conversation.
Thank you for the work you do to educate our students and take good care.
FAMILY ENGAGEMENT IN EARLY CHILDHOOD: building a Foundation for Long-Lasting Parent-Teacher Partnerships
While family engagement plays a critical role in supporting positive learning outcomes for children across their educational journeys, family engagement in early childhood offers unique potential and opportunity for children, families, and educators. By setting the expectation that parents are key partners in supporting learning from their first interactions with the educational system, early childhood educators can lay the foundation for long-lasting, meaningful parent-teacher partnerships. Further, engaging families in their children’s early learning and development helps initiate patterns of parental behaviors that can endure to promote long-term, positive student outcomes. Children are best positioned to develop the key early learning skills needed to be successful learners when their teachers and families work collaboratively to support their needs.
This month, we’re shining a spotlight on the exciting recent work that our Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) partners are doing to advance high-impact, equitable family engagement starting in early childhood. Our interview with LDOE’s Amanda Colon, Manager of Family Support and Coordinated Enrollment for Louisiana’s Office of Early Childhood, provides an up close look at the development of Louisiana's new Be Engaged Birth-12 Framework and the importance of a comprehensive family engagement framework for Louisiana families and children from birth through high school.
As Amanda notes, the field of early childhood education has always been “whole family” focused, recognizing that to effectively foster children’s learning and development, families must be engaged as the valuable partners they are. This asset-based lens acknowledges the many strengths of families — a critical perspective that drives our work at Family Engagement Lab and that is essential in early childhood and beyond. Read our interview below to learn more!
How was the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) Early Childhood Family Engagement Framework created?
When the LDOE undertook the development of a birth-grade 12 framework, Amanda immediately thought about an early childhood version. To supplement the work of the recently created LDOE parent council, Amanda organized a workgroup of community members to participate in the process of developing a framework targeted for early childhood. Members of this workgroup included those from Department of Health and its Behavioral, Family and Public Health units, Department of Children and Family Services as well as the City of New Orleans Parent Leadership Training Institute and families who had been served through LDOE’s Child Care Assistance Program. Amanda secured support from over 40 volunteers who formed an active working group for the state’s framework.
As work began, Amanda and her working group reviewed two existing frameworks that offered effective, strong models: the state of Kansas' family engagement framework based on the National PTA Standards and the Head Start Parent, Family and Community Engagement Framework. While the Kansas framework ultimately was adopted for Louisiana, grades K-12, the working group felt that its early childhood model didn't fully reflect the demographics and communities in Louisiana. The Head Start model did resonate and the working group collaboratively determined the 7 Early Childhood Goals that map to the LDOE's K-12 Be Engaged Standards.
Amanda shared, “We’re creating a framework that is more than just a welcome sign, it will prepare all families for their child’s learning journey.”
What are the anchors in the framework and how might these differ from those in K-12?
The working group realized that in early childhood, the focus needed to be on the “whole family,” and not just the “whole child.” Amanda explained that in thinking about the whole child, what really can help the youngest learners is to think about what a parent can do and how our educational system can work with families and not just for them. By working alongside and with families, Louisiana aims to build stronger, more trusted relationships that can support child learning. Amanda noted, “It doesn’t have to be a “big event,” we can do regular, easy things, like sharing a small daily victory to build that crucial trust we need.”
What are some of the ways this framework can help reach those families most in need of support?
The Louisiana’s Be Engaged B-12 Framework is organized under the umbrella of six themes for parent, family, and community engagement that are universal to early childhood and K-12. These themes serve as an alignment illustrating how Louisiana’s educational communities provide consistent family engagement opportunities throughout a child’s progression from early childhood to formalized school settings. Because the framework focuses on action, educators can identify barriers earlier in a child’s education journey and put a plan in place to address them. Amanda shares that, “...family engagement can be tricky because it’s a personal space. We don’t want to ever infringe on parenting rights or skills. It’s our goal with this framework to support our educators in working with families.” She noted that their communications approach to parents and the community is a key strategy and that resources from the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement have been very helpful.
What are you excited/hopeful about most coming out of this process?
Amanda concluded, “I am super excited that the Louisiana Department of Education and the Division of Early Childhood is putting a strong focus on supporting families. I am most excited to help elevate the message that families and children have unique strengths and including family contributions will impact meaningful change for children. Engaging families is a long game; it's about the journey and not the destination.”
The pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities and inequities, with families from historically underserved communities experiencing unemployment, food insecurity, physical, and mental health problems at disproportionate rates. Exposure to these multiple hardships can have wide-ranging impacts for children, including the potential for adverse effects on emotion regulation, learning, behavior, and health.
For student learning to continue in the context of the current environment, compassion and emotional awareness are essential, as are trusting relationships and a belief in children’s extensive capabilities. Students are set up for success when learning is a top priority and social and emotional needs are supported - both at home and at school. As noted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “when students have supportive relationships and opportunities to develop and practice social, emotional, and cognitive skills across many different contexts, academic learning accelerates.”
As schools deepen investment in social and emotional support, it is important to acknowledge the critical role that families have always played in nurturing their children across the social, emotional, and academic domains. Furthermore, families experiencing economic hardships, barriers to healthcare access and use, and oppression and discrimination as a result of their skin color stepped up in myriad ways to support their children’s learning during the pandemic. As such, it is critically important that schools and teachers recognize families for their implicit partnership, while also sharing accessible and inclusive information with families suffering in the pandemic that support building social, emotional and academic skills together. In addition to empowering families and children, a regular exchange of learning-focused information between parents and teachers helps strengthen connections among the key adults in a child's life in ways that further support children during these difficult times.
I’m proud that a social and emotional lens is (and has always been) foundational to our work at Family Engagement Lab, especially as we work to advance equitable educational outcomes for students. When teachers and families use FASTalk they are helping students build the social and emotional skills that underlie their learning success. FASTalk weekly messages help families support their children’s development of key academic, social and emotional skills through text messages with easy, actionable strategies. In addition to these skill-building tips and activities, FASTalk messages are designed to prompt moments of meaningful connection between parents and their children, helping to build strong relationships and reinforce responsive parenting practices. Feedback from families has communicated the value of FASTalk on multiple levels. For example, parents have noted that FASTalk messages taught them “a lot about myself and my child” in addition to “different ways to support my child’s emotional and educational needs.” Additionally, FASTalk supports relationship building and partnership between families and teachers by facilitating a regular exchange of learning-focused information via two-way messaging, with automatic translation.
Understanding your school’s or district’s approach to supporting students’ social,
emotional, and academic needs will be critical this school year and beyond. How are you learning more about your school communities’ unique needs related to SEL? What initiatives (e.g., see CASEL’s 2021 SEL Program Guide) do you have in place to support those needs and build critical skills ?
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