The start of a new year (regardless of whether it is a calendar year or an academic year) is a fresh opportunity, a clean palette, and a time to go exploring. It is a perfect time to establish new routines and try new strategies that will bring family and school closer together. It is a time to take a close look at what we do well, what we need to work on, and perhaps what we need to start or even stop doing. Families and schools need to engage in collaborative goal-setting in order to move forward in mutually respectful ways.
A Note to School
As each new year comes and goes, I take time to look both backward and forward. I look at what we have accomplished and I look at what is yet to come. I look forward to new opportunities to work together and to support my children as they progress. As my goal for the next year, I intend to do my best to support all that you do, and ask only in return that you do the same.
A reflective parent
As each new academic and calendar year arises, families and schools begin with the very best of intentions and the greatest of goals, sometimes resolutions. We resolve to send healthier lunches, to communicate more effectively, to try one new thing. But all of these require time, energy, opportunity, and often resources. We often set our sights so high that we just can’t help but fail.
- What family-school engagement goals would you love to see yourself reaching if you knew you could be successful, if you knew you could not fail?
Left as it is, this is a daunting question, one that is likely to overwhelm and intimidate many families and many schools. Goals such as these require unpacking and careful consideration in order to be attainable and measurable. This question can be broken down into multiple goals (some of which are listed below), each of which will need to be further discussed and explored within the unique context of each school community.
- Goal 1: To enhance communication between families and schools
- Goal 2: To enhance family-school engagement as in-school, out-of-school, in educational tasks, or in a child’s life
- Goal 3: To better understand families and schools and what brings them to or keeps them out of school?
Goals that make our questions actionable are fluid and can be tackled in small baby steps that increase in difficulty as we become accustomed to the change. Goals require us to review, revise, and re-assess periodically; they allow us to celebrate small successes, which will keep us moving in a positive direction. Goals challenge us to be reasonable, realistic, and resourceful. Setting unrealistic goals or can force us to quickly abandon our resolve and settle back into familiar patterns. Tips for meeting our family-school engagement goals, informed by both research on educational change and the vast quantities of advice for New Year’s resolutions, include:
Keep the ideal in mind – What would you do if you knew you could be successful, if you knew you couldn’t fail? Where would you like family engagement to be two, five, even ten years from now. Look at how your goals (big and small) can bring you closer to that ideal. If they support your ideal, great… keep them. If they don’t, review, revise, and reassess. Perhaps the problem isn’t the way you are communicating, perhaps it is the sheer quantities of information that get sent home. Can you pare it back, reduce, and send only what is necessary.
Think in terms of what you’d like to add to your family-school practices, rather than what you’d like to take away. Remember that adding to your repertoire does not have to be big; it can be small gestures designed to just let a child or family know that you are there, that you respect their child, or that you recognize the work they do at home with their child, academic and otherwise. It could be a positive note or phone call home. It could be a fun activity or even stimulus just to get home and school communicating.
Keep your goals in the forefront of your interactions with families, schools, and children. Share them with the school community. Post them in prominent places like the front hall of a school or on the school website. Celebrate the small successes and remember that change never occurs overnight; it is a process not a destination. As you work toward achieving your goals and developing what is important to your family-school community, change will come, and it will be sustainable.
Start small with one measurable and reasonable goal. Can you add one more communication strategy to your repertoire? Can you touch base with families/schools for the positive as well as the negative? Can you send home a reader response activity that gets families talking? Can you send in a craft or story to school to share a little bit about your family?
Work on what you feel is essential. Choose the engagement strategies that you feel are likely to be most productive given what you know about your community, your school, and your families. Hold a family focus group or speak to a few parents/caregivers/grandparents and ask them what they feel is essential. Don’t expect it to be easy. Nothing worth doing is every easy!
Set one new goal every month as a family-school community. Poll children, families, and schools to determine what they would like to work on. Break these down into manageable steps that can be attained on a month-to-month basis. Recognize that habits/routines generally take 21 days to form. Setting one new goal every month enables you to devote energy to establishing new practices as habits and routines more easily before moving on to the next.
Don’t give up when the going gets tough or when you feel you are not making a big enough difference. If you have engaged just one more family, then you have done something great. Don’t expect that you will engage them all from the very beginning. Celebrate each small success and step back some times and recognize the role that you might play in engaging or overwhelming families.
Don’t let small setbacks hold you back. Our journeys toward goals will always have successes and struggles. View setbacks and/or mistakes as learning opportunities. When something doesn’t work, spend time assessing and evaluating your results. Why didn’t it work? The survey that received only ten responses might have been due to timing, its length, the way the questions were phrased, lack of internet access, a lost note. Perhaps if you change your approach, you will see better results next time.
Engage family-school communities in collaborative inquiry. We cannot do this on our own. We need the support of a collaborative and supportive group who knows our goals, can encourage us, can challenge our thinking even if we are working on separate goals and in different contexts. Involve parents, grandparents, administrators (district and school), teachers, educational assistants, trustees. Just because our contexts and some of our strategies might be different doesn’t mean we can’t apply similar processes and doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other.
Be yourself. As a family or as a school, there is no one else quite like you. You must do what is best for your community and move forward in a positive direction. One school I’ve had the pleasure to work with took a stand and re-envisioned their School Community Council as a Parent Engagement Council. Their goal was to engage families and parents, and they felt that putting that message up front and centre sends a solid message and demonstrate their value of engagement. Their challenge was for each member to invite a friend to each meeting.
Believe that just one family, one school, one teacher, one educational assistant, or one administrator can make a difference. When we put our heads and hearts together, we can do great things. Focus on inviting and welcoming just one more. Seek to understand just one more. Work at engaging just one more – each month, each day. One at a time, we can make a difference.
Your turn, what are some tried and true tips you can offer that contribute to successful goal-setting and attainment?