Engaged or Not? That is Often the Question

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communityRegardless of whether we are school or family, there are times when we need to step back and ask ourselves whether we are authentically engaged or not, how we are engaged, or how we might engage more fully. This might apply to homework, communication with children, communication with family or  school, involvement at school, engagement in community events, or invitations for engagement. What is clear is that we all require an understanding of the diverse forms of engagement, and we must be aware that what may appear as lack of engagement to one may be something completely different to another. It is in these times that we need to exercise deep listening to explore, understand, and appreciate from as many different perspectives as possible.

 A Note to School

I’d like you to know that we are an engaged family, even though it may not always be visible on the school landscape (particularly when we forget to return the guided reading books).

Here are some of the things we do as a family that although not academic, we feel are important to our children’s well-being and sense of place in the world. We share personal and family stories so that we an understand our roots, how  both success and failure shape who we are. We talk about caring, sharing, and helping those who are less fortunate than we are. We play board games, we visit with family, we do outdoor sports. We support the school in talking about hard and tricky work and how we all need to make mistakes in order to learn. You may not see all these things, but they are there.

Thanks for listening,

A ‘not so visibly’ engaged family


There is no doubt of the impact of family engagement on the long-term well-being and success of children. As we embark on this conversation, it is useful to review the two different types of involvement often cited by researchers.

  • Home-based activities and attitudes, such as having high expectations, talking together about school, building work habits and a positive approach to learning, or reading together.
  • School-based activities, such as communicating with teachers, attending meetings about your child, volunteering in the classroom or school council work. (as cited by People for Education in their Parent Involvement Toolkit).

While home-based activities and attitudes are less visible, research tells us that these are what make the greatest difference in student well-being and academic success.  But what does this mean? And how do we make these forms of engagement more visible to both families and schools? At the heart of this conversation, we need to explore the following questions:

  • How are our families engaged? How do they see themselves engaged?  How do other families perceive their engagement?
  • How does the school view the engagement of families?How do families perceive the school’s engagement initiatives?
  • How do we weave together the ideals, perceptions, and practices of families and schools?
  • How do we ensure that what is expected of both families and schools is meaningful, practical, and reasonable?
  • How do we make engagement relevant to children’s developmental stages, families’ needs (e.g., cultural, linguistic), the family-school landscape, and the mandate of the school as it extends from Ministry to teacher?

From the very beginning, we must remember that engagement is not simply presence in the school building or support of academic initiatives. Engagement is active and sustained interaction with children from birth all the way through life (even when they are adults with children of their own!). And what what looks and sounds like engagement to one may be something completely different to another.

listeningTalk less, listen more. Listen to the silences as well as the words. Families and schools tell us a lot even when they think they are saying nothing at all. Observe, listen, and experience: What do your families feel about the value of school? What do your schools feel about the value of family? How are these beliefs and/or assumptions evident on the landscape of school? No matter where you turn, you hear the message: When parents are engaged and involved, everyone benefits and our schools become increasingly rich and positive places to learn and growSchools, remember… For many families, this is overwhelming. They have memories of their own ‘less than successful’ school days, and they feel inadequate on the landscape of school. Weekends are a reprieve where they can just be a parent without the added stress of academics where they are not sure about how to help their children. These families are not saying they don’t want to support or engage or be involved, they are saying they don’t know how. Remind them that their role is not to teach but to support. Provide them with vocabulary to support their children: This looks tricky, but if we break it down, maybe… Encourage them to share (in a positive way) some of their struggles as students. And families, this is an opportunity to speak up; asking for a little extra support is not a sign of weakness, it is a strength to recognize when we need help, particularly if it is in the best interests of the child.

elephantperspetiveLook at the same situation from as many perspectives as possible. For example, let’s look at the family-school reading initiative (in place in almost every school). Schools may view the family who didn’t return the guided reading book as not engaged or they may assume that they book didn’t get read. The truth may be that the family was engaged with other things, that they took the time to slow down and just be as a family, that they were at the rink and Tuesdays just aren’t good days for reading; for this family, returning that book was the last thing on their mind – they did get their children on the bus without hassle though, sending them to you happy, calm, and ready to learn. And families, sometimes you wonder about homework. Remember that schools are implementing best practice. They are not trying to make you more busy, they are not telling you how or who to be as a family, they are not trying to infringe on your family time. They are applying the research that clearly indicates that children learn to read by reading (check out this YouTube video for an explanation of the Nightly Reading Homework Challenge; the more practice they get, the stronger their skills, the better their confidence. Great starting points for the exploration of perspectives include: (Mis)Understanding Families: Learning from Real Families in Our Schools, edited by Monica Miller March and Tammy Turner-Vorbeck (2010) and Portals of Promise: Transforming Beliefs and Practices Through a Curriculum of Parents, by Debbie Pushor and the Parent Engagement Collaborative (2013).

space-for-conversationCreate a space where families and school can talk about the purpose of education and the value of different initiatives for helping children flourish. Have courageous conversations that allow families to discuss how they are engaged, how they would  like to be engaged, and the barriers that prevent this type of engagement. Ensure that these conversations are planned, purposeful, and inspired – they are a natural extension of listening more and doing less. Have members of your community school council or school staff host an informal coffee club where families and schools can chat about hopes, dreams, and long-term goals for their children. Send out a quick survey (you might choose to select key questions from the survey provided in the Council of Directors’ Parent Engagement Guidebook) that will get families thinking about the ways that they are engaged instead of the ways they are not; make sure to factor in the diversity of your families.

tell themPlan a family-school engagement evening that moves beyond the traditional Meet and Greet. Make a solid effort for families to get to know their school and schools to get to know their families. Such evenings do not need to take place just at the beginning of a new academic year, they can happen often, ideally catching greater numbers of families each time. Make them fun, and plan activities that not only get families and schools talking and getting to know each other, but enhance the bond between family and school. Stations can engage families and schools (at any developmental level) in a variety of getting to know each other and ourselves that are easily replicable at home or at school.

For example,

  • Station 1: A String of Memories. Read The Memory String by Eve Bunting, that tells the tale of a young girl who  carries around a string of buttons until one day it breaks. Give each family a string and a container of buttons. Ask them to write, draw, or talk about button memories as they create their own memory strings (Pushor in Miller Marsh & Turner-Vorbeck, Eds., 2010).
  • Station 2: Let’s Get Talking! Use pictures or questions as conversation starters (See Making Meals Meaningful – Child and Youth (co-sponsored by Unicef and Maple Leaf Foods). Ask families to talk about instances where they can relate or had a similar experience.
  • Station 3: Family-School Community Scrapbook. Ask families to create a collage or a scrapbook page that captures the essence of their family. These can then be stored in a Family-School Community scrapbook that can be added to as each family enters the school. Make sure that school staff make their pages visible as models.
  • Station 4: Sharing Family Stories. Share a story, any story – see Special Forks, Broken Lamps, and Lullabies: Engaging Families Through Story. Ask families (including children) to jump in when they are reminded of one of their own family stories.

These types of activities and conversations remind families and schools of the different forms of engagement – visible and not visible on the school landscape.

So engaged or not? I prefer to see it as how we are engaged not whether we are engaged. But now, it’s your turn. How does your family-school community view different forms of engagement? What do you want families and schools to know?


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2 Responses to Engaged or Not? That is Often the Question

  1. Natalie Wilson says:

    This presents some excellent ideas, and has me thinking (as I often do) about engaging families in education. One of the thing I have come to realize is that families are BUSY: parents work (especially single parent families), children have activities, and costs such as daycare and transportation can be a huge stress (and may impact parents’ decisions to attend events). Families generally want to be more engaged in the school–but the timing often doesn’t work for them, or they don’t see how they “fit.”

    For example, my daughter’s school often offers family events, but many times they are in the evening (beginning at 6:00 or 7:00pm). As I work until five, it takes some serious planning to get dinner over and done with in time to get there, and then staying out until 8:00pm completely throws off the bedtime routine. This is ok once in a while, but it takes planning, and if the invitations don’t come home early enough, we just can’t do it.

    Even now, I find our after school programs for children rarely fill in terms of registration: there are just too many things competing for attention for families, and it is hard to manage weekday time, especially if a parent is raising more than one child.

    • Michelann says:

      Thank you for your insights Natalie. As you’ve noted, time is a precious commodity for families.