The Youth Connection: At the Heart of Secondary Family Engagement

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The Spirit of Youth (St. Dominic’s High School,  Bracebridge, ON)

Engaging families of youth can often be challenging. Factors such as multiple teachers, increasingly complex homework assignments, out-of-school activities, prior experiences, even the growing independence and autonomy of youth may present a landscape in which families feel out of their comfort zone. School communities, in collaboration with youth and families, can promote family engagement both in and out of school, repositioning all as equally invested in student well-being, academic achievement, and lifelong success.

A Note to School

I followed the Street Art path toward the buzz of conversation at your school community BBQ last night. I wandered past evidence of students at work in writing, construction, culinary arts, community outreach, and so much more. Wherever I turned, I saw celebration of our youth and our families – past and present. And at the core of it all was respect for youth and for families – their perspectives, their ways of being, their developing spirits. What a wonderful place to be!

Thank you for the invitation and for opening conversations between my child, my self, and my school community.

A welcomed and valued parent

As youth and families begin to plan for, and transition into, their post-secondary lives, it becomes increasingly important to keep the lines of communication between family and school open.  Acknowledging the growing autonomy of youth, schools and families can initiate three-way conversations highlighting the partnership between youth, school, and families. Conversations may focus on such things as strengths, needs, interests, goals, hopes, aspirations, and supports for success and well-being, even the development of virtues such as empathy, compassion, persistence.

  • How does your school demonstrate value for families’ role as ongoing educators of their children?
  • Are you prepared to have three-way conversations, accepting and integrating youth and family voices into your school practice?
  • Have you responded to family and youth identified needs for school gatherings, special presentations, and guest speakers?
  • Are you incorporating multiple discussion formats in school community meetings, including smaller group conversations and sharing and larger group debriefing?

Effective family engagement, particularly at the secondary level, recognizes the uniqueness of family and school communities and the diverse experiences each one brings to the partnership. It also recognizes that families have an incredible amount of knowledge that will support both student wellbeing and success. Engagement is most effective when both families and schools recognize individual families’ strengths and funds of knowledge, and the importance of meeting families where they are in terms of comfort levels, prior experience, and such factors as language, culture, socioeconomics, spiritual.

Productive collaborations between family and school. . . demand that [families] and [schools] recognize the critical importance of each other’s participation in the life of the child. This mutuality of knowledge, understanding, and empathy comes not only with a recognition of the child as the central purpose for the collaboration but also with a recognition of the need to maintain roles and relationships with children that are comprehensive, dynamic, and differentiated. (Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, The Essential Conversation)

Recognize youth as active, legitimate, and equal partners in the conversation. Encourage youth to showcase the curriculum and the decisions they are making at school through the creation of street art or visual displays;  workshops for parents; tours around the school; introductions to teachers; preparation of refreshments. Invite and encourage youth to speak up and be seen in in communication, sharing their experiences and understandings of the curriculum. Send home discussion starters such as those provided in Making Meals Meaningfulchild version and youth version designed to open conversations around such virtues as compassion, persistence, respect.

Plan for meaningful and authentic school community gatherings that support families in understanding the importance of engagement out-of-school. Reconceptualize school events to help families understand their out-of-school engagement practices that might include: supporting their child in community outreach; taking their children to work;  spending time outdoors; playing games; reading and discussing books; conversing between home and the rink, the dojo, the dance studio, etc.; and having open conversations all support student achievement and well-being.

Invite families to share observations of their child’s strengths, needs and interests throughout the year, not just at report card time. Attach a note to course outlines, class newsletters, or just send a note home inviting families to talk about strengths, interests, learning, and things that go well during the day. Value family knowledge and set the student up for a lifetime of self-advocacy by opening discussions about course expectations and curriculum, encouraging families to identify supports that enhance success and well-being. Possible questions for discussion include: How do you learn best? What makes you feel welcome in your learning? What worries you about this curricular area? What are you doing well? What do you need to work harder at?

What strategies do you use?

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