Supporting Family Engagement

Guest blog post by Anne Lowry


As teachers, we know how important family engagement is for student success. How can we improve upon last year’s family engagement and how do we do so while maintaining respect for each family’s unique culture, configuration, workload, finances, and other out of school factors?

One part of the answer is offering multiple ways for families to be involved and being flexible within those ways, remembering that we don’t always see the engagement, but we do hear about it!

Starting with welcoming each family is a given, either in person or remotely, especially with materials in the home language if possible. Taking that extra time early in the year for those phone calls and emails often builds a strong relationship that grows through the year, leading to more family engagement. Creating a family board for your school and/or classroom, with information about local events or other useful information for your families.  If you have a linguistically diverse school, this is a great place to post which staff and/or families speak which language and are willing to help with translation if needed.

Documentation is another tool. While we often use it in the classroom for one purpose, the pictures and text give the parents a window into the school day. Daily notes, weekly reflections, and pictures and stories of classroom explorations can be posted in the hallway where families will see them, or you can send them electronically to your students’ families. This can be a particularly powerful tool if your students have family members working or deployed out of the area.

Asking family members to be in class or virtual “experts” with either their work or leisure activities or cultural practices is a powerful way to make families welcome. Posting information about one family usually gets the other families interested as well. A family member reading a story as “librarian for the day” in the classroom sends a powerful message to the student that his/her school is a valued place.

Homework can be a contentious element in family engagement, so change it up. Create interview questions for family members, send “thinking questions” home, and have the students discuss it with family members.  We did that last week in my class as we were creating a class definition of a beach. Have them gather data at home, such as measuring snow depth in several spots, to create class graphs.  A class favorite is taking a familiar story and coming up with a new version, from a different character’s perspective.  Activity packs, with a book and a do at home activity, are always a hit also

Don’t overlook help as part of family engagement. These behind the scenes activities can be a wonderful way for families to become involved.  I’ve had families translate materials and documentation into other languages, and create word lists for us to use in the classroom. One year, a parent who worked a tricky schedule became our procurement specialist. One example out of many:  We needed newspaper for paper mache; she found it for us. She took pictures of the projects and shared them with those who had helped her collect the materials.

Out of school activities are fun as well. Though these can be tricky to arrange, they create such a positive atmosphere. My class holds a reunion twice a year at a local park, with all previous classes invited. My school hosts several playdates a year at local parks as well.  Family Science Nights are extremely popular. NSTA Press released an excellent book on the subject earlier this year:  Staging Family Science Nights by Donna Governor and Denise Webb.

Other alternatives include partnering with local non-profit organizations, or the local PBS station. Changing the location can make an event more accessible: libraries, museums, hardware stores, or local restaurants would be good places to start, depending upon your specific demographic.

And don’t forget about using Citizen Science Projects! Many can be done both at home and at school, which provides built-in engagement opportunities. SciStarter.org is a great place to look for such projects No matter what you are doing in your class to improve family engagement, just beginning with the attitude that families want to be engaged and you want to have them engaged will have your school year off to a great start!

Anne Lowry
Committee on Preschool-Elementary Science Teaching
PreK Teacher
Aleph Academy
Reno, NV

Additional resources

NSTA Learning Center: 
Family Engagement Family Engagement Collection Created By: Anne Lowry

Family Science Night Collection Created By: Sandy Grady

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8 Responses to Supporting Family Engagement

  1. Lisa Chizek says:

    Wonderful ideas about family engagement! Thank you!

  2. Judy Boyle says:

    What wonderful ideas! I love the idea of family engagement homework. It allows for family members to be valued and productive actors in their child’s education. And, I love Staging Family Science Night!

  3. Anne Lowry says:

    And for those wanting to add more tech in, Cindy Hoisington just did a wonderful guest post on the NSTA Early Years Blog

    http://blog.nsta.org/2019/08/27/plan-an-interactive-family-science-event-with-support-from-an-app/

  4. Emily Cook says:

    Dear Ms. Lowry,

    Hello, my name is Emily Cook and I attend Wartburg College. I am in my fourth year and then next year I hopefully will be teaching in an elementary classroom! I enjoyed reading your blog post about how important it is for teachers to involve children’s parents or loved one into the classroom. Some of my best memories in school was when my mom came into the classroom to see what I was learning or came with me on a class field trip. As a future teacher, I want to make sure I involve my students’ families and loved ones into the classroom as much as I can to enhance the students’ learning experience in a positive way. I appreciated reading your comment, “…we don’t always see the engagement, but we hear about it” because it reminded me that some families are still very much involved in their student’s academics at home helping them become successful learners. Your idea of involving families in homework tasks would be a good way to let families know what their child is learning in school and how they can help them continue to learn at home through discussions, collecting data for science labs, and other hands-on activities.

    I enjoyed reading all your suggestions on how to involve families into your classroom. I never thought to have a family board put up with useful information and local events in the hallway. The board is a good way to draw parents into the classroom if they want to talk to you about anything or ask how they can be involved in your classroom. I also liked your idea of having a child’s family member come in and share with the class about their job, hobby, or cultural practice because it lets children become socially aware of the different cultures around them in their own community. My favorite suggestion you gave was having a family member come in and read to the students because that is what I experienced in my elementary days and I loved every second of it.

    My question is how would you address a student if they do not have a family member who is actively involved in their lives and they feel bad that they don’t have a family member who wants to come into their classroom or simply can’t because of work? When they see their peers’ family members come in on a regular basis, they might feel bad and lonely because they don’t have a family member to share the learning experience with. What would you say to that student to help them feel better? My other question is, are there drawbacks to involving parents into the classroom? Is there such a thing as involving them too much in the classroom? What happens when a parent comes in and does not like an activity or does not agree with what you are teaching their child?

    Thank you for sharing your great advice on how to actively engage families in a variety of settings in and outside of school.

    With much appreciation,

    Emily Cook
    Wartburg College ‘20
    Elementary Education Major

  5. Victoria Miceli says:

    Hello,
    My name is Victoria Miceli and I am a pre-service teacher at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. I appreciated your point on giving families a window into the work our students are doing. I went to a conference this summer and one of the sessions was about the use of social media to communicate with parents. Social media and other forms of communication are powerful tools for educators. These tools can be utilized to open connections between the classroom and students’ families.

    Sincerely,
    Victoria Miceli

    Wartburg College
    Class of 2021
    Elementary Education and Religion Majors
    Reading Endorsement
    National Science Teaching Association Chapter Vice President
    Wartburg College Ambassador

  6. Jackee Meyer says:

    Hello there Ms. Lowry,

    My name is Jackee Meyer and I am a pre-service teacher at Wartburg College, studying Elementary Education. I am now on my 3rd year here at college, and have found through may classes, that getting families involved in their students’ learning is a very effective tool for the student. It first starts will the parent and teacher relationship. As you said, teachers should reach out and try to get to know families on a more personal level to create those bonds and relationship. According to psychology, the most effective way to get families to open up would be face-to-face communication. I like the idea of having a little conference before the upcoming school year, say in early August, to get to know families and their children before school actually starts.

    I am currently taking Educational Psychology, and I have learned that students retain more information if they have a feeling attached to the memory. I believe having parents involved with their child’s work can go one of two ways: either frustrate the child because their parents aren’t as involved as the child would like them to be. Or the child will be excited and ecstatic because their parents are showing their child that they are paying active attention and care about what the child is saying and/or learning about.

    Thank you for the ideas that I can use in my future classroom. The advice that you have given doesn’t necessarily pertain to science exclusively, and I like that a lot! Hope this school year is another great one for you!

    Jackee Meyer
    Wartburg College
    Class of 2021
    Elementary Education
    Middle School & Reading Endorsements
    Leadership Minor

  7. Emma Hanson says:

    Hello,
    My name is Emma Hanson and I am a pre-service teacher at Wartburg College. I found your post very interesting and enjoyable to read! As a future educator, I am knowledgeable on the importance of good parent-teacher relationships in order to benefit student outcome. Although I have some knowledge on this idea, you provided a lot of helpful insights into how to apply teacher-parent relationship building concepts in the classroom as well. As you mentioned, there are many resources available for providing continuous communication with parents; what resources do you find most beneficial for the classroom, or what resources would you recommend to use in the classroom? Would you recommend using multiple resources for connecting with parents?
    A lot of the points you made are topics being discussed in many of current courses on campus, which I found to be very exciting! Multiple education courses have discussed the importance of involving parents in the child’s academic process and development. My sophomore year I wrote a research paper on parental involvement in early literacy, and a lot of the concepts I found support constructing a beneficial relationship with parents to foster positive student outcomes.
    I found your post to be very applicable to the educational setting and I agree with the idea of fostering quality relationships with the parents, because it truly does have a great impact on student’s academic achievement.

    Thank you for this helpful resource!

    Emma Hanson
    Wartburg College
    Class of 2021
    Elementary Education
    Reading Endorsement

  8. Alecia Kimball says:

    Hello,
    My name is Alecia Kimball and I am in my fourth year at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. I really enjoyed reading your post about involving families in the classroom. I think it is very important to include families in the classroom because I think it allows students to make new connections to things that they have learned in the past and are learning now. I really liked the idea of creating a family board to have in the classroom. I think this is a great idea for families to get to know each other and be able to connect. Thank you for sharing your ideas and thoughts on involving families in the classroom.

    With much appreciation,
    Alecia Kimball

    Alecia Kimball
    Wartburg College Class of 2020
    Elementary Education Major
    Reading Endorsement
    Wartburg Women’s Basketball

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