A few weeks ago, I led a workshop on family engagement for prevention specialists. I asked them what makes engaging families challenging. Here are some typical responses:

  • Families are busy.
  • The cycles of dysfunction in so many families.
  • Every family is different.
  • It’s hard to access families.
  • Families don’t want help.
  • Finding transportation to participate in programs.
  • The families we hope to reach don’t show up. We’re just  singing to the choir.

These comments are consistent with what we hear in other workshops and also see in the research. Schools, community organizations, prevention coalitions, faith-based organizations, and many others all recognize the importance of family engagement. They also recognize how hard it is to engage families in their programs or as partners in children’s learning and development.

A top challenge in education

The 2013 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership found that “engaging parents and the community” is one of the top three challenges facing school leadership—right behind “addressing the individual needs of diverse learners” and “managing the budget and resources to meet school needs.”

Complicating matters, family engagement seems to get harder as children get older. In the same survey, 82% of secondary school principals said it was challenging or very challenging to engage families and the communities, compared to 68% of elementary school principals.

There is no single strategy to overcome the very real challenges to engaging families. But given the vital role that families play in young people’s learning, health, well-being, and development, it is crucial that we try new approaches to educate, engage, and empower families.

Asking different questions

This new approach starts by asking different questions. For example, our default is to assume that the blame lies with families who choose not to participate in our great programs. But what if Karen Mapp and Soo Hong are correct when they write: “it is our institutions and the programs, practices, and policies that school personnel design that are ‘hard to reach,’ not the families”?

Schools, community organizations, youth-serving organizations, and others can open up new possibilities by reflecting on their practices. This might include:

  • How might we re-imagine family engagement to focus on building trusting relationships with families, recognizing that nothing else we do will have much value if we don’t have meaningful connections and trust?
  • How might we develop a mindset of “inviting” parents to be part of a supportive learning community, rather than “recruiting” them to take in what we think they need to know and do?
  • How might we recognize and integrate into our strategies families’ strengths and resilience, even in the midst of their challenges?
  • How might we create spaces where families can focus on strengthening their relationships within and among families as the foundation for their impact in young people’s lives?

Answering these questions is not a quick fix. Connecting with families will continue to be challenging, particularly in communities that may be justifiably suspicious of our institutions and our motives. And too often, institutions have unwittingly made it harder by how we think about family engagement.

But when we take time to get to know families, listen to their stories and experiences (and share our own), and invite them to join us in doing what we can together to help their children grow up well, our chances of engaging them and tapping their power in young people’s lives will increase.

Learn more . . .

Explore these and other strategies by attending the next Keep Connected Institute, December 6 – 8, in Bloomington, Minnesota.

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