The Engagement Continuum

The focus this week has been on engaging parents and families.  Part of the conversation that has been sticking with me is the distinction between parent participation, parent involvement and parent engagement.  When you think about the words participation, involvement, and engagement as they relate to relationships, they have a very different connotation.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say they are “participating in a relationship.”  If I had, I think I’d question their commitment.  And there’s a clear difference between being “involved with someone” and “engaged to someone.”

As far as families are concerned, I picture involvement being somewhat informational and one-directional (not the band).  I can be involved in my children’s school by reading the information that is sent home, checking the website, and asking my kids questions about what they are doing.  I’m getting information but I’m not giving anything.  Engagement is more of a partnership.  To engage a family in the education of their children is to create a partnership in which parents are actively part of the decision making process.  Cavalyn Day, in her book Authentically Engaged Families, explains it like this, “Parent engagement is a comprehensive system of connection between families and educational institutions that creates an effective environment for learning.”

The obvious question then becomes, how do we foster that comprehensive system of connection between the families and the educational institutions?  It’s an important question since the benefits of increasing engagement are clear. Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer on education at Harvard, explains that years of educational research indicates that “when families are engaged, students learn faster; attendance rates go up; behaviors are better; students do better; schools do better.”  So what do we do?

If we look at it as a continuum with no signs on engagement on one side and full engagement on the other, could we focus our efforts on moving each family forward just a click or two?  Could help the family that has never attended a school event to attend just one?  Could we seek to have those who have attended intermittently become regular attenders.  Could we move the family that has been attending regularly to a place where they are planning the events? And could we have the families who have been planning the events push deeper into engagement by being part of the decision making process on what events are most pertinent to the community?

The details of how to move each family forward on this continuum will of course depend on the specifics of your families, your school, and your community.  Some ideas that were shared at a recent educator think tank include: connecting with families by visiting their homes, hosting low pressure events that center around a shared meal, training teachers on the importance of engaging families, and having parent advocates who are committed and able to connect with diverse families in their native language.I feel energized by these ideas.  It has to be all of these things and more.  It’s tied to school funding required by law in the Every Student Succeeds Act, but more than that, it’s one of the primary ways that we can support students and families, and increase student achievement.  We have to think creatively and deeply about how to engage families well.

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