Friday / June 14

#CorwinTalks: Strategies to Engage All Families

Develop an Asset-Based Approach to Partnering with Families

By Tyrone Howard

The work of equity-informed school-family partnerships must operate from an asset-based perspective where school personnel see families, parents, and caregivers as possessing essential knowledge about how to best support their children. Asset-based approaches also recognize the types of capital that parents and caregivers possess, which are vital to problem solving, addressing complex situations, and advocating for their students.

I am reminded of a school that I worked with in Ohio where the principal was determined to find ways for her staff to see the various types of assets that parents/caregivers possess that are often not seen by school. She asked her staff to ask parents/caregivers to participate in a “Day in the Life/Week” activity that called upon the parents/caregivers to provide an overview of their tasks on a given day. The activity sheet also asked for input on their duties and responsibilities at work. A number of educators were surprised to learn that many of the parents/managers in this low-income school were supervisors, case managers, and workers who were responsible for significant inventory counts of products at work. Many oversaw personnel, dealt with conflict resolution matters, and had levels of responsibility that educators were unaware of. Moreover, the staff members were surprised to learn how many parents/caregivers were caregivers for their parents, grandparents, and other family members; in this role, they frequently served as power of attorney and were responsible for medication, social services appointments, and financial matters they handled.

When we are able to recognize the complexity of the lives of most parents/caregivers, we also recognize the need to look beyond age-old stereotypes of the “typical parent volunteer” who chaperones field trips, attends every open house, and participates in back-to-school events. Once we envision a more robust level of engagement, we invite parents/caregivers to play a more participatory role in how schools operate, seek their input in crucial decision making, and truly see them as equal partners in the education of students. This form of parent engagement can include any (or all) of the following:

  •       Participating in budget decision making (Schoolwide spending allocations)
  •       Providing input on staff and teacher hiring.
  •       Offering input on schools and district wide discipline policies
  •       Playing a role in school wide assemblies and extracurricular events
  •       Participating in decisions related to curriculum and textbook adoption
  •       Being granted regular access to principals
  •       Being offered invitations for guest speaker/community expert engagements.

Moreover, just as we ask educators to rethink preconceived notions about students and who they are, the same considerations should be given to parents/caregivers. What we do not know about our student’s home lives, should not be subjected to stereotyping or biased perceptions that are not rooted in reality. Thus, to that end, we need to make a conscious effort to resist commonly held tropes about parents/caregivers as in the following examples:

  •       Not seeing parents/caregivers at school sanctioned events does not mean they are not involved with or do not care about their students’ education.
  •       Not all parents/caregivers in low-income communities are uneducated. Many have college degrees, and many have some college experience.
  •       Parents/caregivers in many low-income communities are often among the hardest working people.
  •       Not all low-income families are single parent households.
  •       Not all immigrant families are lacking in navigational and social capital.
  •       Parents/caregivers of students with disabilities are keenly aware of the needs of their students.
  •       Not all affluent household have engaged parents/caregivers.
  •       Most parents/caregivers of color are not colorblind.

Parents/caregivers’ anger with schools is often rooted in a deep-seated belief about how injustice has affected their student.

Three Strategies to Strengthen Partnerships with Families of Multilingual Learners

By Debbie Zacarian

We all know the importance of family engagement. Whether we work with two parents, a single parent, foster parent, grandparent, stepparent, custodial parent, extrafamilial member, and others, we understand that every family constellation is essential to children’s development.

While we might believe strongly in family engagement, we may overlook its special relevance with families whose language and culture are distinct from our own. Conversely, many families of multilingual learners may not be familiar with the practices used in our schools. As a result, misperceptions and misunderstandings can feel like impenetrable obstacles to the type of engagement that we know is needed. 

Here are three strategies to support family-school partnerships:

  1.     Take intentional steps to identify every child’s and family’s strengths so they are valued and acknowledged as having something important to contribute to our classroom, school, or district’s success. (e.g., ask parents/guardians, “What makes (name of child) special? What special talents or interests might you share?”). Draw from their responses to create positive classroom and school experiences. 
  2.     Bridge the linguistic and cultural divide by engaging multilingual, multicultural members (e.g., outreach workers, staff, volunteers, other parents/guardians) who have ‘insider knowledge’ about our school and local community and how it works to support students’ health and well-being and engage them in the same or additional after- and out-of-school activities as their peers.
  3.     Build a working group of students, families, staff, school leaders, community members and other stakeholders.  Ask questions to strengthen our efforts (e.g., What steps are we taking to ensure meaningful communication with families?  What does this look like? How do we know our efforts are working?).

All families can be more engaged in their child’s education and school community when we launch these strategies and use them as springboards to work together as partners.

Leading with Heart: Building Partnerships with Families of Students with Disabilities

By Margaret E. Constantino

Since parent participation is prescribed by law as an element in the special education framework, we often consider this to be a form of family engagement. The truth of the matter is that this participation is often perfunctory, such as a signature on an IEP. To get to the heart of engaging these parents, schools must consider the many facets of parenting a child with a disability. Sustainable and productive school and family partnerships require relationships to be authentic and meaningful. To do this schools must recognize the unique dynamic that disability presents related to emotions and relationships. It is helpful to acknowledge and understand that this intersectionality shapes life experiences and that disability plays a significant role in family and school dynamics.

Emotional Capital

Families of students with disabilities may experience feelings of despair, fear, and grief upon learning their child has a disability. These feelings can lead to cycles of overprotectiveness and low expectations that unwittingly impact the child’s progress. Schools who build trusting relationships in which these emotions may be expressed without judgment will increase parent efficacy and confidence in navigating the special education process but most importantly feel understood.

Relationship Capital

Relationships are an important resource in educational attainment for schools and families alike. We want all families to feel a sense of belonging in our school communities, yet families of children with disabilities often experience a sense of isolation. Friends and family may express attitudes toward disability that make it difficult to maintain support systems. These families may feel unwelcome in social circles outside the special education process. Parents may experience emotions of grief and despair as they come to terms with their child’s disability. We can be intentional in our support of these families by inviting them into safe and trusting spaces where they can engage with other members of the school community. In the same way we want students with disabilities to be welcomed and accepted by their peers, their families need this same network of support.

To fully engage families of students with disability, we must agree that students with disabilities are general education students first, and they and their families want to be and should be part of the school experience. School leaders who lead from the margins will embrace all families as part of the school community, recognizing that the experiences are different across and among groups. Following a family-centered approach, schools can work with families, both formally and informally, across service systems to enhance their capacity to care for and protect their children.

Written by

Dr. Tyrone Howard is a professor of education in the School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. His research addresses issues tied to race, culture, access and educational opportunity for minoritized student populations. Professor Howard is the author of several best-selling books, including “Why Race & Culture Matters in Schools” (Teachers College Press) and “All Students Must Thrive” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Dr. Debbie Zacarian, founder of Zacarian and Associates, brings three decades of combined experience as a university faculty member, educational service agency leader, and a district administrator. With scholarship in responsive leadership, instructional practices, and family-school partnerships to benefit student outcomes, she has written many professional books including the recent Transforming Schools for Multilingual Learners: A comprehensive Guide for Educators, 2nd edition.

Dr. Margaret Constantino is an Executive Associate Professor in Education Policy, Planning and Leadership and Director of the Executive Ed. D. Programs at the William & Mary School of Education. Her 30-year career in education includes classroom experience as a special educator in elementary, middle, and high school settings. She is co-author of Case Studies to Engage Every Family


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