Birds, Bees, Butterflies, and Children!

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Birds, bees, and butterflies fly busily from one flower to another, unintentionally pollinating, making  plants healthier, stronger, and a little more resilient to environmental factors. In the same way, children flit busily through the many contexts of their lives – family, school, and community – unknowingly sharing energy, enthusiasm, and excitement wherever they go. As adults who plant and nurture their gardens, we play both a lead and supporting role in what they share and how they share. Active listening and intentional action make all the difference in the world and will, ultimately, produce stronger family-school engagements that can weather the storms of life.

A Note to School

Before I was even in the door of the house, I was talking about our classroom menagerie: I am so excited about Lovey and the other hatchlings, the cocooned caterpillars, and the tadpoles that are growing legs. When I play outside, I look for evidence of other life cycles. I’ve even created a habitat for ants, ladybugs, spiders, and worms. I’m supposed to keep it outside, but sometimes it makes its way in – at home and at school.

Thank you for the inspiration,

An energized child

P.S., I enjoyed last week’s ‘surprise’ teacher when you were absent.


The energy, excitement, and enthusiasm of a child that are carried spontaneously and naturally between family, school, and community just might be one of the most authentic solutions to the disconnect experienced by some as a result of previous negative experiences. This, however, will not occur without both intention and attention on everyone’s part.

  • Do we recognize children as a critical component of family-school engagement?
  • How do we ensure that children do not bear the weight of perceived lack of family-school engagement?
  • How do we ensure that children, families, schools, and communities share the good along with the bad, recognizing that it is all engagement?

Children are more than capable informants, reporters, even directors of their own lives, if they have the comfort and support of a “more knowledgeable other” (Vygotsky, 1978). Without even realizing it, they contribute, in a very powerful way, to family-school engagement. It’s hard to not share in a child’s excitement, or a child’s sadness, about something that happened at home, school, or in the community. While so much of this is child-centred and spontaneous, there are some practices that increase the likelihood of these connections.

Give them something concrete to talk about. Grow a plant. Plant a community garden. Hatch a chick. Catch pollywogs at the creek. Listen to bees as they buzz from one plant to the next. Climb a tree. Watch a butterfly emerge from its cocoon. Plant a tree. Pitch in. Do a food drive. Engage in a community service project. Create a minor crisis that needs to be solved. Take them on a trip. Show them pictures of their ancestors. Tell them a story that is so outrageous they just have to repeat it.

Make time to listen. In a very busy world, we are often trying to accomplish multiple tasks at the same time, and often our time to listen, and therefore learn, is compromised. Set aside dedicated storytelling and story listening time at home and at school. Be ready with prompts when spontaneity is elusive. Recognize that children, like adults, simply want to be heard and seen without outside interference. Not surprisingly, my 28 year old daughter still tells me to shut down my computer when she calls home!

Listen with sensitivity as children share. As teacher or family, recognize that spontaneous sharing and excitement of a child, even sadness, come from a place of security, contentment, and/or excitement about family, school, and learning. Listen to all they are communicating in words, thoughts, and actions. It might not always be positive, but the more they carry back and forth, the stronger they perceive the connection and the support they will receive from you as their more knowledgeable other.

Invite talk about learning and goal setting. Engage in joint projects such as family-school journals, scrapbooks, photo albums or memory boxes that focus on what is happening in their lives at home and school (including strengths, needs, hopes dreams and struggles). This Week At School (TWAS) or Friday letters are a good stimulus to open these critical conversations about learning. Host three-way conferences to discuss goal-setting and learning.

Accentuate the positive. Always look for the best of what is being transferred between family, school, and community – this is how children learn about the interrelatedness of life and how to get along in this world. This is not to say that there is never negative, because there will be – that’s life. But, we can catch a whole lot more flies, that is to say engaged families and schools, with a spoonful of honey than with a spoonful of vinegar.

Thanks for listening, and thanks to the families and schools that create these memories!

What’s in a Mindset?

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There is absolutely no doubt that family-school engagement enhances family-school well-being, collective confidence, and school climate. But it does not come without its struggles. While both families and schools can identify numerous things to do each and every day and the mindsets needed to enhance the connection, it is often difficult to find our way there. We can solve the surface level barriers such as childcare, transportation, resources, and refreshments, anticipating that families will feel welcome, valued, and respected, but there are many hurdles that are buried deep below the surface, often grounded in societal, familial, and political norms, expectations, pressures, and narratives. Continue reading

Courageous Conversations

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At some point in a child’s educational career, families and teachers will face a difficult conversation that needs to be handled with respect and integrity. These are not easy. It could be something simple like the inevitable phone call home about a minor altercation or something more difficult such as discussing a child’s ongoing struggle to keep up with the prescribed curriculum. Such conversations require both families and schools to step back, tread carefully, and engage in respectful and courageous conversations that always keep the best interests of the child in mind. Continue reading

What Matters Most in Family-School Engagement?

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Today’s families, schools, and communities often feel pulled in many different directions for many different purposes. Societal norms, curricular expectations, self-imposed and peer pressures, even media portrayals of what is right and wrong leave many of us wondering, What matters most? If we look both inward and outward, backward and forward, we know that that the answer to this question can often be summarized in a single statement: What matters most is that I was important in the life of another…  Continue reading

Too Much, Too Little, or Just the Right Amount of Struggle: What Do Butterflies Have to Do With Engagement?

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As a family, a school, and a community, we want what is best for our children; we want them to be successful, to have a world of opportunities, to be comfortable, and to be confident. For some, this means finding the right balance between guiding and supporting without an overemphasis on doing, problem-solving, decision-making, and shielding from negative experiences or natural consequences. Perhaps I’m pushing the season a bit, hoping for Spring to finally arrive, but… when I think about the consequences of over-engagement, I think about the butterfly, who needs to struggle, to fail, and to try again and again to work its way out of the safety of its cocoon; if we free it too soon, it doesn’t develop the necessary strength, independence, and resilience to fly into the world. Continue reading

Family-School Engagement: How Do We Measure Up?

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How do we know how engaged we are as families, as schools, and as family-school communities or whether this engagement is working? We often don’t, unless we ask. Families and school communities have their own concepts of engagement, and these often vary from family to family and school to school. While measurement of engagement, like family-school engagement itself, is not a science, and there is no one size fits all, what we do know is that traditional measures of engagement underestimate what family-school communities do on a day-to-day basis. Continue reading

Welcome to Kindergarten! Engagement from the Very Beginning

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Over the years, research has demonstrated that parents and families are the first and most powerful educators of children. As a child enters kindergarten, this learning continues, ideally in partnership between children, families, and schools. Early years teachers, early childhood educators, administration, and community agencies have the first opportunity to welcome families in, celebrate family diversity, and help them identify their strengths. They set the foundation for a child’s journey in formal education. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are some universals that set families and schools up for success throughout a child’s educational career. Continue reading

Inspiring Collective Confidence: We Know We Can!

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One of the four goals of Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario is enhancing public confidence. Cultivating pride and inspiring collective confidence in the work of our children, families, and schools is a journey of multiple steps and multiple pathways. The more we engage as family and school communities, the more confidence we gain in who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going. What’s more, the greater confidence we display on a day-to-day basis, the more likely it is that collective confidence will grow. School communities cannot do this work on their own; families must also work to inspire confidence through the things they say, the practices they share, and the ways they interact with schools. Continue reading

Family-School Engagement with Simplicity in Mind

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Our current culture sets us up to approach life with a want more, need more stance that keeps families and schools filling children’s spaces and times with many activities. But does it really need to be that way? And do all those activities really make a difference in the grand scheme of academic success and well-being? Or can we aim for a more simplistic view that places understanding, relationship-building, and communication as our core goals? Shouldn’t engagement aim to recognize, celebrate, and enhance what we already have as families and as school communities? And how do we set our school communities on a path toward simplicity amidst the chaos and complexity of life? Continue reading

Homework or Inspired Family-School Practice?

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Homework is a topic worthy of discussion for families, schools, even researchers. Families often struggle to complete the work assigned by school amidst their family practices and commitments, and may as a result feel guilty about not supporting the school.  Some families feel unable to support their children with schoolwork (particularly as it increases in complexity with each academic year), leaving them feeling less than adequate on the landscape of school. Children often feel less than successful, particularly as family members get frustrated, questioning, “Didn’t you learn this at school?” Schools and Ministries do their absolute best to support families with regard to traditional homework completion: they host curriculum evenings designed to demystify the curriculum, they post lists of to-dos (e.g., how to set up a routine, how to support, how to change your language), and they try to be as explicit as possible about the homework. And all of this occurs within a culture of research that suggests that while homework is an educational staple, it’s unclear as to what types of homework make a long-term difference (see Homework: New Research Suggests or Finding the Right Balance). Continue reading