Recently, conversations at the school and system leadership level have moved from a focus on parental involvement to one of parental engagement. This shift from desiring active parental volunteerism that supports programs and services to active family-school connections that positively impacts student achievement has seemingly corresponded with the shift toward a focus on student-centered learning, whereby the development and well-being of the whole child is considered and supported by the entire school community in an effort to improve the overall climate of the school. In Ontario, the belief that “we can only make progress if we acknowledge that the development of children and youth happens through the collective interactions with adults and peers that take place at home, in school and in the community” (Zegarac, 2014) has provided a reference for implementing family-school engagement. An understanding of the distinction between “involvement” and “engagement” is one of vital importance if leaders wish create and “nurture productive working relationships” (OLF, 2014) that lead to the kind of active family and community engagement culture that positively impacts student achievement. Ferlazzo (2011) contrasts these terms, whereby “involve” means “to enfold or envelope” while “engage” is “to come together and interlock”. “Thus, involvement implies doing to; in contrast, engagement implies doing with” (Ferlazzo, 2011).
What types of family engagement truly impact student achievement? While there seems to be an understanding that family engagement positively impacts student success at school, the actual practices that comprise effective family engagement are not clear. From my perspective, what is most important is the context in which the family is engaged. I am thinking that the “one size fits all” model needs to be avoided; instead, it is about knowing our families, their needs and values, and building a relationship with families in such a way that honours who they are. For too long we have (with all good intentions) approached engagement through our school lens – thinking that we need to educate parents in how to engage in math with their children, what questions to ask the children when they are reading bed time stories, etc. Again, this was done with positive intentions (and I use the collective “we” as this was my approach), however the unintentional result was parents and caregivers coming into the school to be taught by us, which questioned their parenting skills. If we truly believe that parents are “capable and competent” (2014) as How Does Learning Happen? reminds us, then I suggest that we need to rethink this approach to parental engagement.
I have come to understand that true family engagement is when parents have high expectations for their children – they speak with their children about school and their accomplishments and struggles, they supervise homework (which they child should be able to complete independently if the homework is true practice), they speak with their child about the future and the choices that education provides for them, and they work collaboratively with the educator to support their child in achieving these expectations. I don’t believe that true parental engagement requires that parents are actively volunteering in the school; too often we hear that we don’t ever see some parents in the school, or we hear parents apologizing for not being able to volunteer. This is an area that we need to rethink. Absolutely, we value having parents in the schools; they are our partners and their presence contributes to the sense of family that we truly want to see in every one of our small schools. Their presence and engagement in things such as Student Led Conferences and special events also serve to help families to feel increasingly comfortable with the school environment, the language of schooling, and with the expectations for learning; all of which help parents to engage and support their child’s growth. Our rethink comes from the fact that these traditional parental engagement activities have required the parents to “come to us” (reminds me of “doing to” rather than “doing with”) on our terms, in our environment and on our schedules. This doesn’t honour the reality of our families. Today, it is possible for us to bring the learning home to families and to make that learning available to them on their terms, terms that respects their schedules, lives and needs. This is done by making our pedagogical documentation visible to them on line. The following is an excellent example of how we can do this.
This link resulted from exploring Twitter yesterday on the topic of transitions to school for new Kindergarten students as through my Early Years lens. I have been thinking about the importance of a positive, seamless transition into Kindergarten, whereby the school is working with its partners in Child Care and Family Support Programs – with any service provider who supports children – to ensure that every child, family and caregiver feels a strong sense of belonging in their community schools. Donna Fry posed a question to me:
…Which resulted in me connecting (and now following) Aviva Dunsiger, a grade one teacher from Hamilton, who believe in the power of connecting the home to the school through pedagogical documentation. Her site, aptly called, A Window into Learning, chronicles the journey of thinking that is occurring in her classroom, and included Twitter posts, reflections, photos, etc. It made me feel as though I was engaged in the learning that was occurring. Thinking was made visible!
Let’s do some rethinking about parental engagement. Let’s remember that parents are capable and competent, and let’s think about giving them an ongoing lens into the classroom learning environment. As a mom I have appreciated the newsletters that come home capturing the learning that has occurred during the month, and think that I am fortunate that my daughter does give me some insights into her thinking as well as the daily goings on in the classroom. However I believe that if I knew more, our conversations at the dinner table would sound differently. I also wonder if we would be able to increasingly take that learning into the real world in a timely, responsive and reinforcing manner…at the grocery story, while driving, baking. I would love to engage in her learning more deeply and more regularly. For me, this is true parental engagement.
Until next week…thanks for posting, tweeting, risk taking, and making your thinking visible!
Ferlazzo, L., (2011). Involvement or Engagement? ASCD Journal 68(8), 10-14.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). In conversation: healthy relationships: the foundation of a positive school climate . 4(3).