Editor's Note: Often when we talk about positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), we focus on student behavior — what it looks like, how we can improve it, reward it, discipline it, and report it. What about our role? This is the fourth in our series taking a closer look at the roles adults play in implementation. Check out the first article exploring implementation fidelity, here, the second article about creating staff buy-in, here, and the third article about becoming a better team, here.

Last week, elementary schools in my district hosted parent-teacher conferences. That Thursday, I met with my kiddo’s 2nd grade teacher to talk about how she’s doing in class. It was my second time ever in the classroom, and the first time I’ve spoken to her teacher this year. It was nice, but full disclosure…this parent-teacher conference was likely the last time I’ll find myself inside that classroom. This is the way it goes. Every year. Since she started Kindergarten. 

My husband and I work during school hours. We can’t make it to volunteer in the classroom. Inevitably, there’s a meeting that keeps us from chaperoning field trips. We don’t wait outside with other moms and dads to pick up our kid when the last bell rings. If her teachers rated our level of involvement based on the number of times we physically showed our faces in the building, we’d fail every time.

When you hear the words ‘family involvement,’ what comes to mind? Maybe you think of all the ways families have shown up in the building, or how they read to their students every night, or help them finish their homework on time. These are all great ways to be involved. For families like ours, the traditional ways schools measure our involvement fail to give us alternative strategies for supporting our students. What’s the solution? In a word: Engagement. Stick with me.

Researchers in Indiana sat down with families and staff from six schools to find out: 
  1. What are the barriers or limitations to families attending school events?
  2. What can be done differently to increase family involvement?1
Here are the barriers these focus groups identified.

Barrier #1: Conflicts with Family Life Logistics

Lucy and Ethel busily gather chocolate from the assembly line in an episode of I Love Lucy

Every family comes with its own set of logistics – other kids, work schedules, dinner routines. Every logistic represents a possible conflict that makes getting to the school challenging. Not everyone can come to a school event happening between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm. Any after-school parent night that doesn’t include childcare or food also limits the number of families who can attend.

Barrier #2: Poor Timing and Methods of Communication

GIF of an owl walking into a room asking "Did I miss it? Am I late? What'd I miss?"

Families find out too late about things happening at school. Whether it’s a school-related event they can attend or concerns about their student’s progress, families wish they had known sooner. Staff have their own struggles communicating with families. They don’t always know how to communicate with parents. Will an email get to everyone? If I send a note home, what are the odds it gets wadded up at the bottom of a backpack? Notifying families of everything that happens at school, at the right time, in the right way, might just be its own art form. When the stars don’t align, families feel left out of the loop and staff feel disconnected from families. 

Barrier #3: Discomfort in the Building

GIF of Chrissy Teigen reacting uncomfortably in a room full of people

For some families, school has not always been a welcoming place. If a parent wants to come sit in on a class, what would they need to do? Could they show up that morning in the office and say they wanted to follow their student to class for the first hour or so? What response would they get? How many layers of security would the need to go through? Each of these layers – while important in the current climate – represents a barrier that contributes to families feeling a little less welcome, a little more intimidated, and a little less interested in showing up.

Barrier #4: Priority Given to Traditional Involvement

GIF of Tiffany Haddish saying "I made it!"

Throughout their discussions, parent groups continually described their school’s reliance on traditional methods of family involvement as a barrier. When physical presence is so highly valued, families like mine will continue to appear uninvolved in our student’s education. What changes when schools move beyond this one perspective and start seeing family engagement, not just involvement, as all the ways families help students succeed?  

So yes, people have a hard time getting involved in all the ways schools hope they would. In spite of these barriers, it’s still really important to get families involved at school. Numerous studies confirm that actively engaged families play a major role in improving academic and behavior outcomes for their students. In fact, one meta-analysis of 41 studies set in urban environments found “parent involvement enjoys an influence that largely transcends differences in socio-economic status, race, and other factors.”2 In other words, literally every student benefits when families get involved in their education. 

Moving From Involvement to Engagement

Parent involvement, the way we’ve traditionally thought about it, emphasizes participating in and attending school activities. These are important, but also limit strategies to specific families. Research now suggests we expand how we think about involvement and take on a broader concept of family engagement. What’s the difference? Family engagement is “an active, interactive, dynamic, and ongoing process in which family members…engage as equal partners in decision making, planning, and implementation to support children and adolescents across settings.”3 In short, family engagement is different from family involvement in that it includes all the ways families support students, not just the ways that require them to be physically present in the building. 

Schools already have good strategies for reaching out to families. Here are some ways to take the traditional involvement methods and turn them into family engagement strategies.

Parent-Teacher Conferences

These conferences are one of the only times families get undivided, one-on-one time with their student’s teachers. Maybe for the first (and only) time all year, families get to hear about how things are going in class, the progress their student is making, the places where challenges come up, scores on recent tests, and examples of their work. These conferences are important; they’re also typically a one-way method of communication. 

Engagement Strategy: Ask Families a Question

One way to engage families who are able to attend parent-teacher conferences is to ask them about the goals they have for their student. Families know a lot about their kids. Simply asking the question, “What are the things you hope your student learns by the end of the year?” lets families know you want to collaborate with them to achieve the same thing.

Engagement Strategy: Offer After-Work Time Slots and Childcare

Taking time off of work to come to a conference can be difficult for some families. Lunch-hour and after-5:00 pm conference times give families an opportunity to attend without worrying about taking extra time off. Set up a table or two in the library with books, paper, crayons, or even a movie to keep the younger kiddos entertained while the adults are talking. Most importantly, make all of these options known when families sign up for conference times. You don’t want to hear anyone say, “If I had known there was childcare, I would have come!” Give everyone all the information up front.

Engagement Strategy: Provide Conference Materials Early

In our office, we try to send around meeting agendas a day or two ahead of the scheduled meeting times. This way, everyone gets a chance to think about the questions they have or the decisions they need to make before they sit down at the meeting table. Why not try the same thing with parent-teacher conferences? Give families the agenda ahead of their conference time and let them get up to speed with some of the basics. They can come to the meeting with their questions and concerns ready to go. You’ll spend less time describing what their student has done in your classroom, and more time talking through what you both hope to accomplish together by the end of the year.

Newsletters

Whether you send them monthly or weekly, newsletters are a good way to communicate what’s happening in the school or in the classroom. There’s usually a section about upcoming events and policies. Classroom newsletters might have an overview of the new subjects students will start. Maybe you always include an idea or two for the ways families can engage with the material at home. For many schools, newsletters are the primary way to communicate directly with families; they’re also traditionally one-directional. (Are you sensing a pattern?)

Engagement Strategy: Provide Space for Comment

An easy way to turn a newsletter into a collaboration is to provide a question and comment space. A few blank lines and an open-ended question like, “What should I know from you?” gives families a consistent way to fill you in on their perspective. Whether they have a question or they just want to give you a heads-up that their kid is going through a tough time, the space on your newsletter might be their best strategy for communicating with you directly.

Engagement Strategy: Share School-Wide Behavior Data

Research tells us schools regularly sharing their data are more likely to sustain their PBIS implementation. Sharing data with staff at meetings is a typical way these data get passed around. What if schools shared relevant school-wide behavior data with families, too? Think of the ways you’ve seen positive progress in your building. Share those wins with families in the school-wide newsletter. Make families aware of the ways you’re promoting a positive school culture and let them know how they can model these practices at home. Check out one way this could look in your newsletter here.

Engagement Strategy: Translate the Newsletter

An English-only newsletter ultimately excludes families for whom English is not the primary language they speak at home. Take advantage of the district’s translation services, or recruit a volunteer from the community to translate the newsletter. If a newsletter is your primary way of communicating directly with families, make sure you include every family in that communication.

Curriculum Night

Curriculum night is a teacher’s chance to stand in front of a room full of strangers explaining to them what their student will learn while they’re in this class. If you’re a nervous public speaker like me, it’s also a night you’re real excited to see end. Beyond your chance to fill families in on what happens in your class, it’s their first impression of you. Curriculum night – like all of the other traditional family involvement strategies – becomes primarily a one-way communication strategy.

Engagement Strategy: Feed the People

My parents taught me, if I want someone to show up, feed them. Pizza is a perennial crowd pleaser with a coupon almost always available. For working families, a 6:00 pm curriculum night doesn’t give much time to have dinner ahead of time and it makes for a late meal after. Pizza at curriculum night is always a good solution.

Engagement Strategy: Record Administrator Presentations

Not everyone engages on social media, but some will. If the day and time of your curriculum night just won’t fit into someone’s schedule, why not record some of the presentations and post them online. This doesn't have to be a formal recording. Find someone with a smart phone and ask them to face their camera toward your presentation. Facebook, Twitter, or the school’s website are all great places to post the administrator’s opening remarks or the Title I coordinator’s overview. If you’re a teacher who loves the camera, put your presentation up there, too.

Engagement Strategy: Survey Parents

The ways families prefer to get their communication will vary. Some prefer email. Others don’t have consistent access to internet. Why not ask them about their preferences at curriculum night? In addition to all the other questions you might ask them to answer, include two questions about how they like to receive communication (email, paper, text) from you and the best time to get in touch with them (weeknights, weekends, mornings).

Volunteering

Batman and Robin. Superman and Jimmy Olsen. Harry Potter and Hermione. If teachers are superheroes, parent volunteers are trusty sidekicks. Reading groups, math groups, field trip chaperones, all of it is made possible with parent volunteers. However, a required background check immediately eliminates some parents, and others simply can’t get time off of work to volunteer during school hours.

Engagement Strategy: Recruit Volunteers for At-Home Tasks

Photocopies, stapling, packet-stuffing, cutting out templates, all of this can be done at home by…you guessed it…VOLUNTEERS! The thing is, families will only volunteer to help with the things they know about. So make it known. When you ask families to volunteer to help in the classroom, include the multitude of ways they can help from home. I bet you get more volunteers than you thought you would.

Engagement Strategy: Create a Lounge

This strategy has less to do with recruiting more volunteers, and more to do with creating a welcoming environment for families. Families who feel comfortable and welcome in the building might be more likely to step up to help in the classroom when you need it. Set aside a space in your building where families can come in, get a cup of coffee or a cookie, sit down and talk to anyone else in that space. You’re a creative group of educators; I bet you can find a way to make something like this happen in your school.

These are just a few of the ways you can take the things you’re already doing and make them way more engaging. How many of the things you do for families at your school:
  • Require a physical presence in the building?
  • Center around the school’s needs?
  • Engage in one-directional communication?
What are the alternative ways you can engage families as equal partners? How can you turn those one-directional conversations into two-way streets? Which families do you leave out simply because of the time your event starts or the lack of childcare offered? If you aren't sure how you can better serve your school’s families’ needs, start by asking them questions. We have a free survey coming your way soon to serve just that purpose.

The School Climate Survey for Families is coming to PBIS Assessment after winter break. The 21-question survey gives parents a way to share their perceptions of your school's climate. Scores get entered, aggregated, and presented in PBIS Assessment allowing teams to get a sense of what families see as general strengths as well as specific places in need of improvement. More information on when the survey will be available online will come soon. In the meantime, a paper version of the family survey is available here. If your school doesn’t already use PBIS Assessment, make sure you get your account set up so you’re ready to administer the School Climate Survey for Families when its ready to be released this winter.

1.  Baker, T.L., Wise, J., Kelley, G., & Skiba, R.J., (2016) Identifying Barrier: Creating Solutions to Improve Family Engagement. School Community Journal, 26(2), pp. 161-184.
2.  Jeynes, W. (2005). A Meta-Analysis of the Relation of Parental Involvement to Urban Elementary School Student Academic Achievement. Urban Education, 40(3), pp.237-269.
3.  Weist, M. D., Garbacz, S. A., Lane, K. L., & Kincaid, D. (2017). Aligning and integrating family engagement in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): Concepts and strategies for families and schools in key contexts. Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education). Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Press.