As a public school teacher and administrator for 17 years, I always had a particular interest in family engagement. I saw first-hand that, as Emilie Buchwald once said, “children are made readers on their parents’ laps,” meaning that children value what their family members value and will work harder to do the things they think their families find important.

Students need to know that their family wants them to learn and cares about what they are doing in school. Research has shown that children progress more when their families show concern or excitement about their education, and demonstrating that can be as simple as signing off on their folder. Here’s a bit more about family engagement, the challenges educators face in nurturing it, and a few suggestions for meeting those challenges.

Engagement vs. Involvement

Family engagement and family involvement are two similar but quite different things that are often conflated. Family engagement is when the family is invested in their child’s learning and shows interest in what they’re learning at school. Family involvement is a heavier investment. Involved families may be part of the parent teacher organization (PTO) or volunteer to decorate for school celebrations or be the room parent for their child’s class.

Engagement can also vary dramatically from school to school. I worked at two different schools with very similar demographics. At one, it seemed every single caretaker showed up when we had an event. At the other school, we were lucky to have 15 people show up. Knowing your community and analyzing the data you gather will tell you where opportunities for growth exist.

Strong family involvement tends to follow strong family engagement: once parents get their feet in the door, it’s much easier for them to take the next step to becoming more involved at school.

Challenges to Family Engagement

Having full-time employment, more than one child in school, or transportation issues, among other challenges, can make it difficult for family members to be truly involved with their students’ school. Some family members may also have negative memories come up when they think about visiting a school campus. Schools are different than they were 20 years ago—behavior challenges are largely seen as a deficit of social skills to be remedied with education rather than punishment—but it’s hard to get that idea across to someone who had behavior challenges dealt with in a negative manner.

Some families seem to worry they will somehow fail at being engaged in their child's education. Insecurity can be a big deal-breaker. A 13-year-old’s math homework can be intimidating if you haven’t done math in decades!

Another challenge to engagement that every school district talks about can be the language barrier. With a country as diverse and multicultural as ours, it’s not surprising. We have people immigrating from all over the world, and many districts have dozens of different preferred languages spoken among their families. Many families may want to be engaged in their children's education, but may not speak English or not have confidence in their English language skills which can prohibit their ability to participate.

Language aside, communication delivery preferences can pose their own engagement challenges. Everyone is on a different point on the technology spectrum: some people want all communications on paper, while others want them delivered digitally. Among those who prefer digital communication, there are those who want everything via email and others who never check their inboxes. We have seemingly endless options for communicating, but often that simply means that no one channel is going to reach all, or even most, of a district’s families. To reach the most families possible, use a variety of communication methods. Send important messages about engagement to every social network you think your families are on.

Always Be Meeting and Greeting

The first step to overcoming these challenges is getting to know your community. Get out and talk to people, get into the drop-off and pick-up lines, and talk to any stakeholders you run into at meetings. When I was a principal, I always had families in my office talking to me about their lives. Be the most approachable person in your school. If you’re available and casually talking to whoever’s around, more people from your students’ lives are going to gravitate toward you.

When you make an effort to get to know people, they begin to feel more comfortable interacting with educators at school. And getting to know people around the school or district will, over time, give you a great deal of insight into the barriers that are keeping the families in your community from being more engaged with schools. Once you know your community, develop your engagement program around their interests and challenges.

Overcoming Language and Cultural Barriers

Another key step early on is to make sure you know your resources, especially your human resources. I once worked with a male family engagement specialist who also spoke Spanish, as did many of our families. Schools need more positive male role models, but the fact that he spoke their native home language made students and families feel more comfortable. Oftentimes, bilingual staff members don’t just bridge the language gap but the cultural gap as well—which is something automatic translation tools are unable to accomplish.

Many schools these days are also addressing language and cultural barriers by offering resources directly to families. Federal funds are available for schools to offer many resources to family members, from language classes to parenting classes. In addition to that, the school can make a list of local resources available to families within the community to assist with financial aid, healthcare, legal and translation services, among others.

Overcoming family members’ insecurity about engagement or their negative feelings about school can be tricky. I found success in emphasizing to family members whenever I could that there is no “right way” to be engaged in their child’s learning.

Bringing Families to the School and the School to Families

Creating a space where family members can congregate encourages collaboration and conversation. One school I worked in had a family engagement center that became quite the gathering place. A bunch of parents would be there all the time, often simply chatting as they cut out the paper “bucks” we handed out to trade for prizes as part of a school-wide positive behavior initiative. It actually made a big impact for the teachers who didn’t have to cut the bucks out themselves, and it helped those families plug into the school community in a way that really drove home how important education was to their children.

Family kits with essential learning materials can also be a good way to inspire engagement in a non-threatening way. They are commonly distributed at the end of the school year to help prevent regression over the summer, but they’re actually great to provide any time of year. Kits typically focus primarily on basic, foundational materials, along with simple tools like flashcards. A literacy engagement bag, for example, might contain books, a parent guide, a fidget for social-emotional learning, some magnetic letters, and possibly a graphic organizer. It’s a valuable use of school and district funds, and it gives families some fun ways to explore literacy together.

School and district events are also a powerful way to build community. Family nights can be very popular, and they don’t necessarily have to be academic. If you can get families to come and enjoy, for example, a “movie under the stars” night on your school’s lawn, engagement is right around the corner.

Make sure you have a variety of event types, as well. The family members who want to come to literacy night may not be the same ones who jump at any chance to visit the classroom, and yet a third group might look forward to events like school carnivals.

Ultimately, families want to have a positive impact on their child’s education, and in order to do so, they have to be engaged. If you can empathize with students’ families and extend compassion and consideration for their circumstances, they’re going to be much more eager to be an active partner.

About the author

Laura Nicole Hill is a subject matter expert for School Specialty. Prior to that, she served as a teacher and administrator in public schools for 17 years. She can be reached at