Skip to content

Rethinking Family Engagement

As former Executive Director of EdNavigator, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that supports low-income parents navigating educational decision-making, Gary Briggs encourages schools and educators to approach family engagement with empathy and creativity to build authentic partnerships.

By Gary Briggs, director, Professional Learning Systems
Gary Briggs

As a teacher, I often struggled to balance the day-to-day demands of the job with the need to forge strong relationships with my students’ families and caregivers. Yet, families and caregivers are critical partners in our work. We must invest in and nurture relationships with families that are collaborative at their core and that offer two-way communication, reciprocal support, and mutual trust.

Honor a student’s home support system
When I was at EdNavigator, we realized at some point that we were always talking about parents and the “parent perspective.” Still, so often, we worked with a whole host of other people who weren’t technically the parents — grandmas, grandpas, aunties, and uncles.

Family is any adult who loves and cares for our students in many of the same ways we might expect parents to do. We must expand our perspectives about families to be inclusive and welcoming and to recognize and honor the commitment and responsibilities of these adults who the children we serve consider family, whoever they may be.

Lead with listening
Engage with families in ways that invite them to share. Ask questions and listen: What do you think about the school? What does your child need? What do you need? How do you want to engage with me/us?

A few things to keep top of mind:

  • Some caregivers have had negative educational experiences in the past, and they may be hesitant to engage based on their own history as students.
  • Cultural and language differences might come into play.
  • Find out who your families are, how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood, what their past interactions with the school have been like, work demands, other siblings and family members, health concerns, etc. — whatever would help you better understand the family’s and student’s needs while also respecting their privacy.

Collaborative goal-setting to build trust
Ask families and caregivers about their priorities, goals, and aspirations for their family and children. Then clarify roles and expectations for your partnership, by asking: What are you doing to help them achieve those goals? And what do you want our school ecosystem to do to support your child?

Agree on how you’ll check in on progress toward those goals and adjust when needed. Develop a sense that learning and communication are ongoing, things change, and that’s okay. What’s important is that the child has a strong team of adults around them ensuring a positive educational experience.

Co-create ways to engage
Some schools tend to rely too much on your typical parent events and meetings, limiting opportunities for many caregivers to participate and sometimes leaving them out of some of the most critical conversations about their child’s education. And too often, when families don’t show up, the assumption is that they aren’t interested or don’t care.

Everyone has multiple priorities that pull them in different directions that might not allow them to attend the school’s scheduled events. Find out what caregivers have time for and when they can engage. Do this at the beginning of the school year. Provide some options. Give them a calendar of existing school/community events and opportunities. Find out what’s possible for them within their comfort zone. Use that information to create a generalized action plan tailored to the family. Get students in on it. Ask: In an ideal world, how would you like to work together?

Don’t assume you know what families do and do not care about
Refrain from assuming families aren’t interested in instructional issues or won’t understand. Assume they are interested and give them the information they need to understand the issue and the role they can play. Most importantly, keep them in the know. For example, if your district is adopting a new curriculum, give them access, break it down, and provide a high-level overview and tips and strategies for supporting their children with schoolwork.

Expanding how our schools interact with the communities they serve is one of three design anchors for equity of NTC’s vision for reimagining public education. This means working in deep partnership with our families to expand the web of support for every student. It’s not extra work. It’s the work, and know that the quality of your relationship with a student’s caregiver matters. Meet them where they are and give yourself permission to make mistakes and iterate along the way to learn what works best.