Creating an Intentional Strategy for Building Strong Family Relationships

Most educators already know that parent or family engagement is an important part of high‑quality education. 

Today, as we continue to grapple with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we have a deeper understanding of the central role families play in education. 

As schools moved to remote learning to protect the health of students and teachers, families have become the center of attention for educators and youth program providers.

“I’ll never be the same,” some have told me. Educators have discovered new partnerships that have enriched their teaching with the cultural capital that families bring.

Yet we still have a lot of work to do to reframe the way we approach families.

How much have things really changed?

Families Are Essential Partners — Not Just in a Crisis

Ideally, the pandemic has taught us that families are essential partners for young people’s learning and development. Or maybe it just reinforced a widespread, but problematic mindset. A 2019 FrameWorks Institute study found that educators and members of the public tend to assume that the primary time to engage families is when there’s a crisis. If attendance or grades are slipping, turn to the parents. 

What could be a bigger crisis than a pandemic? Time to bring in the backups!

Many parents and caregivers may have struggled to help students with the technology, content, and structure of a remote‑learning school day. But education has been only part of the challenge. COVID‑19 put an extraordinary amount of stress on many families, including increased financial insecurity, caregiving burden, confinement, and illness or death of loved ones that disrupted family systems, as Heather Prime and her colleagues documented in American Psychologist. Another study of 1,000 parents shows increased depression, anxiety, and worry among parents during COVID‑19, particularly those with fewer resources, though some also said they have felt closer to their children through the pandemic.

Unfortunately, rather than primarily evoking empathy (except, perhaps, among upper‑income families), those struggles may have reinforced perceptions that families are disengaged, inadequate, or ineffective in supporting their children’s education.

We saw evidence of this perception in a recent survey in which one‑third of the school and program staff surveyed said their relationships with families have gotten weaker during the pandemic. 

Question: Are your relationships with the families of the youth stronger or weaker than before the COVID‑19 pandemic?
Are your relationships with the families of the youth stronger or weaker than before?

Source: Search Institute survey of 660 school and youth program leaders and staff in Minnesota.

Unless interrupted, this pattern of blaming families for young people’s problems will now be extended to include the learning loss from a year the students spent under the tutelage of their “inadequate” parents.

Measuring Family Engagement

What do we know about family engagement in the age of COVID‑19? 

Search Institute colleagues conducted a study of approximately 670 school and program leaders and staff in Minnesota that asks about a wide range of issues related to creating relationship‑rich cultures in their organizations. 

The survey, conducted during the pandemic, includes several questions about family engagement. Here are some highlights1:

  • When respondents were asked about the barriers to building relationships with young people, a lack of parent involvement rose to the top (56%), particularly in schools. They viewed lack of parent involvement as a larger barrier than anything else, including priorities, policies, cross‑cultural barriers, or lack of resources.

  • About 80 percent agreed that individuals did informal things to build relationships with families and that their organization was a “welcoming place” that reflects, respects, and values “the diversity of families in our community.” They also “see relationship‑building with families as critical” for achieving their mission.

  • Participants reported that concrete, institutionalized strategies that make family engagement a systematic part of how a school or organization operates were less common. 

What Schools and Programs Do

What schools and programs do

Setting aside whether the percentages reflect what families experience (we’ll get to that), the gap between the informal and the institutional commitments to family engagement reflect a key finding from the FrameWorks study on school‑family‑community partnerships, cited above. 

The survey shows that both practitioners and the public tend to see family engagement as an individual commitment based on a “caring” relationship. Yet the research provides some clear takeaways about deepening partnerships with families. 

Creating Systems to Support Relationships

The research is clear about three things that may at first seem contradictory.

  • A commitment to family engagement, or partnerships, must be intentional, systemic, and systematic.

  • Family engagement must be firmly grounded in mutual trust and relationships. But those relationships must be more than occasional “caring.” They are better characterized as consistent developmental relationships.

  • If they are truly relationships, then they must be bi‑ or multi‑directional partnerships in which the family, the student, and the school or organization are mutually respected, mutual partners where each party has vital contributions and a vital stake in both the process and the outcome. 

The nation’s leading voice in family engagement, Karen Mapp, calls for “a full, equal, and equitable partnership among families, educators, and community.” She contends that “relational trust” is “the condition that most directly challenges traditional approaches and existing mental models of family engagement. Building (and restoring) trust is often difficult because it requires educators to critically examine their beliefs—rooted in America’s caste system—about which families are deserving of trust.”

Shifting Toward a Relationship‑Centered Mindset

For several years, Search Institute has been applying the Developmental Relationships Framework to family engagement, particularly at the middle school level. This is a different mindset from “engagement = caring.” A relationship‑centered approach is intentional and inclusive in building relationships that are grounded in the five elements of developmental relationships.

Because families are most resilient when embedded in a web of relationships, family engagement needs to incorporate strategies that intentionally cultivate relationships with, within, and among families. 

The goal is not for a teacher or a youth worker to become a sole relational link for the family. Instead, practitioners can collaborate with families to rebuild or strengthen webs of relationships among families and other institutions that tap and share the social capital in each of them.

For many schools and organizations, moving toward that kind of vision requires a number of shifts. 

Search Institute created a reflection tool that helps organizations and practitioners understand where their organizations are in this process. 

What Would Parenting Adults Say?

Before we get too far, however, there’s an important place to start. At this point, the data guiding this conversation (and many we all have) comes primarily from school and organization perspectives. Leaders and staff believe they are good at building relationships with families. They believe their organizations are welcoming and inclusive. They believe...

I would propose (and often do) that those perceptions may not be accurate, particularly for those families who have been marginalized, who have experienced trauma, and who have been told—explicitly or implicitly—over and over that their opinions are not important.

It’s time to start asking parents and other family members the same kinds of questions we are asking of staff and leaders —particularly those who aren’t already showing up for everything and who already look, talk, and think like many of the staff and leaders in the school or organization. 

What do they have to say about:

  • The quality of their relationships with staff who work with their children and youth.

  • How welcoming the school or organization is when they show up.

  • How much they feel that the school or program policies reflect, respect, and value them.

  • Their experiences with leaders and staff and whether building relationships with families is critical to the school or organization’s mission.

The goal of seeking parents’ perspectives on these statements is not to question staff and leaders’ perspectives. Rather, it is to remind us all that our perspectives are just that: our perspectives. In order to build a relationship and a partnership, the best way to begin is often to listen. Have we done enough of that with families?

Maybe this is a good time to do some more.

Moving Toward Strong Partnerships with Families

Many schools, programs, and communities are being challenged to help young people learn and thrive in a world transformed by a global pandemic. Families have been—and will likely continue to be—vital links in the practical challenges that come with disrupted schedules, hybrid learning, and other impacts of COVID‑19.

To be sure, educators and youth workers face a plethora of hurdles in overcoming logistical and educational barriers brought on by the pandemic. A temptation may be to expend all our family engagement energy into getting parents to help climb over those logistical barriers.

However, we have another opportunity, which is among the most important opportunities for positive change that could come out of this global crisis: Making time to listen to families, particularly those whose stories and strengths are often overlooked. Doing so is the first step in cultivating the mutual trust and respect that is essential for authentic, meaningful, and effective relationship‑centered family engagement that will last long beyond the current crisis.

 1 "These data are from a forthcoming Search Institute study, titled Cultivating Connections, which will be released this fall. The study is supported by the Carlson Family Foundation.


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