1. Instead of messaging to families, start with listening to families

In too many cases, efforts to engage families begin with policy makers, researchers, and professionals determining what families need to do, and then developing messages that will generate “buy-in,” support, and participation.

But whenever we authentically take time to listen to and build an understanding of parenting adults and children through interviews, focus groups, surveys, and other methods, we are much more likely to abandon simplistic stereotypes or untested assumptions and partner with them in ways that are more meaningful and more effective.

2. Instead of providing programs for families, emphasize building relationships with families

Educators, social workers, and other professionals who successfully engage families point to the need to build trust and relationships as a foundation for engaging them. In other words, “Parents don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Many people in the community can form these relationships with families, including other families. So the call is not to hire more professionals to form relationships with parenting adults and families, but rather to work with families to embed them in webs of relationships that both support them and fully engage them in the life of the school, organization, or community. This applies particularly to families who struggle or have been disconnected, since these families often have weaker social connections and supports.

An opportunity, then, lies in strengthening the formal and informal social bonds—particularly to engage families and parenting adults who share common priorities, challenges, and interests—so that families have trustworthy people they can turn to when they need more support or encouragement. This focus on cultivating relationships can be transformative both to the organizations and networks that cultivate them, and to the participating families.

3. Instead of buying into negative stereotypes, challenge stereotypes and highlight strengths in families

As a society, we hold onto a number of myths or preconceptions about families:

  • We equate family composition (who is in the family) with family strengths or deficits—even though studies have shown both strengths and challenges across all types of families.
  • We assume that families who don’t show up don’t care, when the evidence consistently shows that the vast majority of parenting adults do care, even if some don’t express it effectively.
  • Because some families don’t have much materially, we conclude they don’t have much to contribute. So we set up systems in which they are viewed as passive recipients of our expertise or generosity, which can leave low-income parents feel inadequate or like “bad parents” when seeking and receiving support from professionals.

We now have an opportunity to begin counteracting the negative stereotypes and create a different cultural narrative about the strengths of all types of families and their contributions to our communities and society.

4.  Instead of giving families expert advice about what to do, encourage parents to try new approaches to relationships

Developmental relationships form and grow through everyday interactions that occur over time. But families across the spectrum fall into patterns or habits that can be counterproductive—whether it’s the ways they do or don’t show affection, how they praise or encourage each other, or the ways they keep or share power in family life.One way schools and youth-serving organizations can begin helping families build developmental relationships is to invite them to try out some new practices or activities that introduce or align with the core actions in the developmental relationships framework.

Bringing families together to talk about what works for them and where they get stuck can serve as a starting point for creating a shared commitment to building developmental relationships within families and across the community. One way to do this is through our new family engagement program, Keep Connected. Keep Connected brings families and youth together to learn from each other through a two-generational approach that engages both parenting adults and their pre-teens and teens.

5. Instead of focusing on parenting as a set of techniques, emphasize parenting as primarily a relationship

Judging from social media, TV talk shows, and bookstore shelves, the secret of parenting is to master a set of techniques or strategies that shape or control a child’s behaviors. But we join with other researchers who have argued that, at its core, parenting is a relationship rootedin mutual affection, attachment, and influence that occur between parenting adult and child. Using the Developmental Relationship Framework can help build these relationships.

6. Instead of building coalitions of formal systems to support children’s success, broaden coalitions to include families

Under the banner of “collective impact,” many worthwhile efforts are underway in communities across the nation to bring greater coherence and effectiveness to efforts to help all children succeed. Most of those partnerships are focused on achieving goals such as school readiness,third-grade reading proficiency, high school graduation, and post-secondary completion.

Those are good goals and contain many of the right participants. But in many communities, families are the missing piece of the strategy. Truly engaging many families will require an approach that is very different from asking them to support schools in teaching reading and math or to helping to raise money for after-school programs. Supporting parents in building developmental relationships within and beyond their families that benefit their children is a strategy that has untapped potential to help children succeed in school and in life.

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Source: Don’t Forget the Families, Search Institute, 2015

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