Engaging with families was a challenge for leaders and practitioners, even before the COVID-19 pandemic tore through our schools and communities, taking away valuable opportunities to connect and grow together.

Family engagement is an important aspect of creating a welcoming and inclusive school climate.
Yet many barriers and challenges stand in the way of families becoming full partners in their children’s education.

It is important to recognize the attitudes, expectations, and institutional barriers that make family engagement difficult. Then we can shift emphasis to energize our relationships with families and young people.

Don’t Forget the Families

Search Institute has a history of taking a deep look at the relationships that help prepare young people to live productive and fulfilling lives. Don’t forget the families research, among other studies, has shown that developmental relationships help young people discover who they are in the world, helping them to succeed and thrive.

Many schools, programs, and communities are recognizing the importance of these types of relationships and are working together to weave a web of relationships that can better support young people.

But too many of those efforts struggle to engage families meaningfully. Professionals and institutions either ignore families or set up systems that are based on their perceived deficits. In some cases, they encourage fundraising, working on committees, or helping with homework engagement.

Most family engagement approaches overlook the one thing that parents can do to benefit their children’s development: relationships in the home.

It’s important to re-examine assumptions about family engagement, the family’s roles in young people’s lives, and the fundamental ways schools, organizations, and systems should relate to parenting adults.

What can we do differently to work together with families to achieve our shared goals for young people’s success? Move towards a relationship-centered approach.

6 Shifts to Improve Family Engagement

Moving toward relationship-centered family engagement strategies is one way you can honor the unique strengths families offer. Here are six shifts to help you move toward a relationship-centered approach.

Shift 1: Engage Across Transitions and Settings

  • Maintain continuity and adjust as needs change
  • Guide families to new options that fit their needs
  • Assist families in navigating challenging transitions
  • Engage families across multiple settings (school, youth programs, etc.)

Shift 2: Tap Families’ Strengths and Resilience

  • View families as resourceful and resilient amid diversity
  • Recognize the strengths all families offer
  • Build on families’ qualities that are already present such as culture and community
  • Respect every family’s dignity, autonomy, and goals
  • Recognize systemic injustice and barriers families face
  • Invest in helping families be their best

Shift 3: Deepen Relationships with Families

  • Take time to build mutual trust
  • Show interest in a family’s situation
  • Include families based on their goals and priorities
  • Build your own intercultural humility and competence

Shift 4: Nurture Relationships with Families

  • Advocate for families to have meaningful and fun moments together
  • Give time to practice relational skills and strategies
  • Reinforce routines, habits, and rituals that sustain relationships
  • Support families as relationships change

Shift 5: Cultivate Relationships Among Families

  • View families’ culture and community as strengths
  • Recognize the community and home as a hub
  • Support formal and informal networks regarding general and specific challenges

Shift 6: Empower Families as Leaders

  • Families are resources
  • Encourage engagement in community service and civic action
  • Identify informal and formal roles that fit families’ gifts
  • Support families in advancing equity and justice in society

Empowered Families Are Engaged Families

Supporting parents in building developmental relationships within and beyond their families is a strategy that has untapped potential to help children succeed in school, and in life.

Engaging families will require a different approach from asking them to support schools in teaching reading and math, or helping to raise money for after-school programs. Family engagement is one of the goals of the Keep Connected program, which strengthens family relationships. 

Practitioners and leaders are using this Six Shifts Self-reflection tool to examine their school’s or organization’s default mindsets and practices and identify opportunities to explore and strengthen them. 

When we shift our emphasis from recruiting and serving families to empowering them, we help build the partnerships that will create better schools and communities.


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