Sunday, July 7, 2013

Family Involvement or Engagement?

            This past spring, I attended the Alabama pre-K conference in Montgomery. The closing session featured Luis Hernandez (Early Childhood Education Specialist at Western Kentucky University) who focused on the links between school readiness and family engagement. However, I have found that most schools and programs focus on family involvement versus engagement. There are some key differences, and I have spent quite some time since the conference thinking about these differences and how to promote engagement over involvement in programs for children.

            Most schools or childcare programs promote family involvement. Parents at a minimum are asked to complete questionnaires so teachers/caregivers can learn more about the unique needs of the child upon enrollment. For too many programs/educational settings this is the limit of information exchange from the family. Parents are often asked to come in once a year for a meeting to discuss the child’s progress. Sometimes parents come to these meetings, and when they do, the information about the child is given from teacher to parent with little request for information from the parent.

            Many schools/programs create opportunities for parents to be “involved” with their child’s education. Often these opportunities come in the form of “please send a box of tissues and gallon of hand sanitizer on Monday,” or “be sure to check your child’s folder weekly for important assignments/newsletters/etc.” Sometimes these opportunities come in the form of PTA meetings, school-wide assemblies, and an end of the year awards program.

            In all cases listed above, we are asking parents to know what is going on at school and contribute something back to the school. All too often parents are told that involvement is expected, but when a parent truly wishes to be fully involved or “engaged” in their child’s learning process and school activities, there are not true ways to do this or school personnel do not really know how to help a parent be engaged.
            There are two categories of family “engagement” in their child’s education setting. One is being an active consumer of the education program. The other is being an active partner with the child in his/her education process.

            This bears the question, “How are you helping families become engaged in their child’s education?” both at the macro and micro levels? To break this down, we can ask more questions of ourselves and the programs/schools we’re working in:
  • How are you guiding families to be their child’s teacher?
  • How do you encourage families to expand their own education?
  • How do you help families nurture their child’s learning and development? How do you assist families in their child’s transition to school?
  • How do you connect families to other families?
  • How do you support families in advocating for their children?
  • What barriers might there be for families that get in the way of their being active participants in the process?

            Here are some things to consider when designing/evaluating your family engagement policies and practices:
     √     Think about ways families can be an active part of the process (versus passive). There is a difference between asking parents to be sure their child is reading every night and asking parents to read to their children or come to the learning environment to share a reading experience.

     √     Be creative. Some families have work requirements or other family dynamics that make it difficult to be engaged in their child’s learning. A grandmother might be able to make smocks for the art center but never come inside the building due to a transportation or mobility issue. School programs may need to be held in the evening and during the school day (yes, that’s two separate times for the same program) due to differences in work schedules.

     √     Individualize engagement opportunities. Not everyone can contribute in the same way. If there is a language barrier, perhaps a non-English speaking parent could make flash cards of words and pictures in his/her home language to share with the class. The teacher could then add the English word and exchange cards with the family throughout the year.

     √     Be dynamic, sensitive, positive, and respectful. Not every family has had a positive education experience. Some parents may truly be afraid of schools or places where others have authority of their child. If a family is not involved much less engaged in their child’s education, think about outlying factors that could be at play and brainstorm ways to manage those factors.

            Engagement begins with trust and respect. There must be awareness of cultural differences (and this isn’t just about country of origin or ethnicity). Communication must be open for two-way interactions (be careful about being technology or non-tech dependent). We must be intentional and authentic with our practices and non-judgmental when working toward true family engagement. Think about families as learners themselves. We have awesome opportunities and responsibilities with all the children and their families in our programs!!

Dr. Ellaine B. Miller, PhD, is the Managing Director for the Family Child Care Partnerships program at Auburn University.


  1. Such a great post! Thank you for pointing out the differences between family involvement and family engagement. It has me thinking differently about how I can get my student's families engaged this year. I loved the idea of thinking about the families as learners too! As early childhood educators we have a great opportunity to help families learn how to get involved AND engaged in their child's education from early on!

    Learn + Play = PreK

  2. I will share this post with the schools in which I teach - what an incredibly clear way to make the distinction between involvement and engagement! Thank you!
    Miss Carole/ Macaroni Soup!


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