Systemic Approach to Family Engagement

First we need to understand the difference between family involvement and family engagement.  Webster's Dictionary defines involve as "to enfold or envelop," and engage as "to come together and interlock." Thus, involvement implies doing to, while engagement implies doing with.  With family involvement, a school identifies projects, needs and goals, and then tells parents how they can contribute. Family Engagement sees a school that listens to what the parents think, worry about and need, and one that works together with families as partners to identify goals and strategies. (Ferlazzo)

A broader definition of family engagement rests on research showing that families play significant roles in supporting their children’s learning not only in the home, but also by guiding their children successfully through a complex school system, and by advocating for their children and for effective public schools. Reflecting a systemic and integrated approach to education from birth to young adulthood, this definition consists of the following principles:
  • Shared responsibility: Schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to reaching out to engage families in meaningful ways, and families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development.
  • Continuous across a child’s life: A shared understanding that parental roles change as the child matures into young adulthood, and educators and families work collaboratively to ensure strategies are developmentally appropriate and effective.
  • Carried out in the multiple settings where children learn: Parents connect and guide their children to community resources and other settings, such as preschool, afterschool activities and summer programs, which supports their child’s achievement. Information about these opportunities should be provided and supported by the schools, and community organizations and agencies.
There is now emerging evidence that when districts and school develop systemic structures that strategically encourage meaningful family and community engagement as an integral part of school improvement efforts, there is significant impact on student learning and how schools function (ISBE FE Framework).  Family engagement should be systemic, integrated, and sustained.  In order to achieve this, family engagement must be: a core component of educational goals; embedded into existing structures and processes to meet these goals; and operated with adequate resources to ensure that effective strategies can be

implemented with fidelity and sustained (2010).

Parental Decision to Become Involved

Families want to be involved in their children’s education, although degrees of involvement are determined by several factors. Research conducted by Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler (1995 and 2005), provides several major sources of motivation for families, but found that parents are most likely to engage with their child's school when they:
  • Understand they should – Cultural backgrounds, upbringings and surroundings influence what parents think they are supposed to do when it comes to helping their children.  Parents can, and should be involved in their child's education in four key ways: as teachers, as supporters, as advocates and as decision-makers.  They just need to be provided with clear information and guidelines on what they can do, and should do, to support their child's learning.
  • Feel capable of making a contribution – Regardless of income, education level, or cultural background, all families can and do, contribute to their children’s academic success.  But they don't always feel they have the right skills and knowledge to help make a positive difference in their children's learning.  If given the right tools and support, they could feel more confident about their ability to help their children.
  • Feel welcomed by the school and their children – The more the relationship between school and family approaches a partnership, the higher the student achievement.  Families need to be invited and feel genuinely supported by the teachers and other school staff, as well as by the messages they get from their children.

Benefits for Educators

  • When schools have a high percentage of involved parents in and out of schools, teachers and principals are more likely to experience higher morale.
  • Teachers and principals often earn greater respect for their profession from the parents.
  • Consistent parent involvement leads to improved communication and relations between parents, teachers, and administrators.
  • Teachers and principals acquire a better understanding of families' cultures and diversity, and they form deeper respect for parents' abilities and time.
  • Teachers find their students are more interested, work harder, and miss less school, creating more enriched learning environments.
  • Teachers and principals report an increase in job satisfaction.

Benefits for Schools

  • Schools that actively involve parents and the community tend to establish better reputations in the community.
  • Schools also experience better community support.
  • School programs that encourage and involve parents usually do better and have higher quality programs than programs that do not involve parents.
 Excerpt from Home-School Relations: Working Successfully with Parents and Families,
by G. Olsen, M.L. Fuller, 2008 edition, p. 129-130. © 2008,
Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc.


Roles for Educators and Schools for Family Engagement

Family involvement was once limited to inviting parents to parent-teacher conferences and IEP meetings, providing contact information, report cards and newsletters, and soliciting volunteers for school events and field trips. Research now tells us that to more effectively and successfully support our children's learning and development, we need to do more than inform and involve parents; we need to engage families and work together to develop collaborative school/family/community partnerships.  Below are steps educators and schools can take to reach out to families and engage them in meaningful ways:

Professional Development

Professional development on family engagement should focus on building personnel and parental capacity to collaborate, with a content focus on: 

  • Recognizing the value of family contributions and participation
  • Developing family engagement systems 
  • Building welcoming and supportive environments 
  • Enhancing communication with families 
  • Including parents in the decision making process

Resources & Tools for Educators