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 ?
About the Author
Mask protests and violent demonstrations against teaching critical race theory have dominated our news feeds, giving a false sense that these are the issues that are top of mind for families as we enter another school year in the grips of a pandemic. The loudest voices are not necessarily the most representative voices, as we found in our synthesis of over 60 articles, surveys, and research reports on parents’ and caregivers’ thoughts, behavior, priorities, and concerns related to schooling during the pandemic. What we uncovered serves as an important reminder of why we do the work we do at Family Engagement Lab. Families are an amazing power in every child’s education and we must continue to offer accessible and equitable ways to foster meaningful school-home partnership in support of student learning.
This month, we will begin to share a series of articles on our blog about these important findings with examples of how Family Engagement Lab takes action to address them and with suggestions on how you can too.
These learnings deepen our understanding of the needs and experiences of families today, providing critical insights that support our ability to equitably advance learning outcomes for all students through family engagement solutions. We hope you will join us in these efforts to support all families as children return to another school year that is like none other.
Finding 1: Parents are concerned about the effects of interrupted learning, with lower-income families expressing more concern than higher-income families.1
Families are a powerful asset with the potential to accelerate learning at home, but they need critical information from schools to do so effectively. In addition to regularly measuring the development of key skills, it is essential that schools and teachers share information with families about how their children are doing, and how they can help at home in a way that is accessible and actionable.
Families are eager for specific information on their child’s strengths and weaknesses and what they can do to support their child’s success. Reflect on your district’s or school’s plans for sharing key information with families to help their children succeed this school year:
You can learn more about how Family Engagement Lab fosters equity in this blog post.
As K-12 students return, schools shouldn't obsess over pandemic 'learning loss' (Berkeley News, August 11, 2021)
COVID-19, the educational equity crisis, and the opportunity ahead (Brookings Center Chalkboard, April 29, 2021)
1. Horowitz, J. M., (2020, April 15). Lower-income parents most concerned about their children falling behind amid COVID-19 school closures. Pew Research Center.
This essay and the accompanying webinar are part of a series that supplement Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement by Karen L. Mapp and Eyal Bergman, a report commissioned by Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores the dynamics and barriers that stand in the way of effective family-school partnerships and outlines how to reach a more liberatory, solidarity-driven, and equity-focused family engagement practice that supports educational excellence for all children.
At Family Engagement Lab, inequality in family engagement drives our dual focus on empowering historically underserved families to support student learning and modeling inclusive and equitable family engagement for educators. Through our signature tool, FASTalk, we address both objectives. With FASTalk, teachers share engaging, at-home activities by text message in each family’s home language to reinforce classroom learning and curriculum. Features such as opt-out enrollment for families, professional translations, and automated messages aligned with the academic calendar ensure that all families are warmly invited to engage in their child’s learning.
It is widely recognized that families from historically underserved communities can sometimes experience linguistic or cultural challenges when sending their children to school. At Family Engagement Lab, we support families in bridging the learning between the classroom and home in a language they recognize. FASTalk is an SMS-based family engagement tool that gives families the foundation to implement actions at home that promote student achievement. The experiences that families have with FASTalk are valuable, and we’d like to share one of them with you.
Family Engagement Lab is proud to participate in the 2021 Education Writers Association National Seminar as part of the panel discussion, “Family Engagement in a Post-COVID Era.” We offer the following companion document for journalists covering family engagement, and focused on addressing this question:
How can reporters do a better job of understanding what drives engagement of parents, especially parents of color, in education and schools?
Families are passionate supporters of their children’s learning. In marginalized communities, including low-income communities and communities with a high percentage of families of color, it is sometimes assumed that families are less interested in their child’s education. Through our experiences at Family Engagement Lab, we have found that this can be a narrative that undermines the power and impact of families. To counter this narrative, it is critical to elevate the voices and perspectives of diverse families. Here are suggested questions for journalists covering stories related to family engagement.