Engagement Matters

It is clear that as children progress through school, they benefit greatly when their parents interact with their teachers and are engaged in what they are learning. But what does good family engagement really look like?

 
A report released recently by Pre-K Now  addresses this essential question, discussing the importance of family involvement, explores what matters most when it comes to effective family engagement and identifies states that have established supportive policies. Especially noteworthy for the early childhood community: It suggests that early education programs can lay the foundation for long-lasting family participation in children’s learning.
 
Not all families know the best ways to get involved. Many do not feel comfortable in the school setting or may believe they have too little time to get involved in a meaningful way. This makes it even more important for the early education program (or school) to take the first step and actively engage families. The report, Engaged Families, Effective Pre-K: State Policies that Bolster Student Success, recognizes this challenge and points out that engagement may not necessarily look the same for all families. In some cases, it is simply reading together at home, while other families may choose participate in events or parents may serve on a school committee. 
 
Pre-K Now lists five ways early education programs can do a better job of encouraging families to stay engaged with what their children are learning: 
  1. Include families in decision-making about their child’s experience is expected, welcomed and supported.
  2. Engage families in consistent, two-way, linguistically and culturally appropriate communication.
  3. Embrace families’ knowledge, skills, and backgrounds and integrate them into their child’s learning experience.
  4. Help families develop a home environment that enhances learning.
  5. Make sure teachers and administrators have the appropriate training and support to develop meaningful relationships with culturally, linguistically and economically diverse families.
Family engagement can be powerful, but not all states with publicly funded pre-k programs require staff members to foster it. (Both Head Start and Early Head Start programs require, and in fact are well-known for, their emphasis on parent involvement.) According to the Pre-K Now report, 18 states require state-funded pre-k programs to implement family engagement activities and 18 states require that someone oversee family engagement policies for state pre-k. Ten states do both: California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, and Tennessee, Washington.
 
States play an important role and by implementing supportive family engagement policies, they can help early education programs and schools build meaningful and sustainable partnerships with families. Pre-K Now also makes several recommendations about the types of state policies that support family engagement in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs and identifies promising state initiatives already in place. The report also notes that while non state-funded early education programs are not required by law to implement such practices, it is beneficial for them to adopt promising family engagement strategies as well.
 
Pre-K Now’s recommendations:
  • Require state-funded pre-k programs to develop, implement and monitor plans for family engagement;
  • Appoint a state-level leader to oversee, support and expand family engagement opportunities;
  • Ensure family engagement is a core competency in teacher administrator preparation and certification;
  • Provide families with information and resources to participate fully in children’s learning and development;
  • Require at least one home visit and one in-person conference with each pre-k family;
  • Ensure representation of family perspectives on state early childhood advisory councils. (Thirteen states - Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina Washington, Wisconsin -require that a parent sit on the state early childhood advisory council); and
  • Require pre-k programs and local elementary schools to develop and implement a plan for transition to kindergarten.
Examples of promising state policies and initiatives included in the report: 
  • The Kentucky Preschool Program requires – per state statute and regulations – that programs receiving public funds develop and implement a plan for family engagement. The plan must include opportunities for families to participate in classrooms, work with their children in cooperation with staff, meet with staff regarding their child’s progress, and have at least two home visits per year.
  • The state of Washington established a Family Partnerships Division in its Department of Early Learning. The division’s charge is to embed family engagement practices in all state-funded early learning programs.
  • In North Carolina, birth-kindergarten teacher candidates (the state has a birth-kindergarten credential, which teachers in state-funded programs must obtain) are required to be able to “foster relationships with families that support children’s development and learning.”
  • In George, state pre-k programs, and school districts, are eligible for funds to hire resource coordinators who provide parent educational activities, link families to supports, and organize events that focus on literacy and kindergarten readiness.
Early Ed Watch has noticed that fairly recently, in both state and federal education policy, there has been a shift from talking about the importance of “parent involvement” to conversations about “family engagement.” In fact, a group of organizations (including the Early Education Initiative) recommended in a letter to Congress this year that parental involvement be replaced with a refined definition of “family engagement” in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This is an important distinction, as more and more frequently, children have multiple caregivers who play a role in their schooling.
 
There are many reasons to include family engagement policies in early education policy: Cited by the Pre-K Now report – and included in our letter to Congress – is that a growing body of research shows that “increased participation by families in pre-kindergarten programs has been linked to greater academic motivation and stronger social and emotional skills among all young children.” Additionally, the report points out that engaged families are better able to make important decisions about their children’s education because they are better informed and effective family engagement practices link learning in the home and learning at school, which increases children’s likelihood for short- and long-term success.
 
In Early Ed Watch’s opinion, the most important take-away: By engaging families in education early on, they become better equipped to support their children’s learning and success as they transition from pre-k to kindergarten, elementary to secondary and into postsecondary.

Author:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program and co-director of the Family Centered Social Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.