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How can we make a difference for families by shifting from parent involvement to family engagement?

By Jacqueline Muñiz

Every August and September, I get a little nostalgic, even sentimental, about the first day of school.  For me, those days of buying school supplies and taking “first day of school” pictures are over, because my two children are now responsible adults making their way in the world.  Whew!

As I reflect on my experience as a parent of two young children — the joys and challenges — I marvel at how we survived.  My husband and I were working parents. We did our best to be actively involved with our children’s teachers from the time they were in child care to the day they graduated from high school.  We fulfilled all school expectations from completing the necessary forms, attending parent-teacher conferences and school activities, to checking homework assignments, monitoring grades, and more

As my son would jokingly say, we did it as part of our “motherly and fatherly duties.”  Maybe it was my working mother guilt, but somehow, I always felt a disconnect.  My husband and I had the same goals as our children’s care givers and teachers, but it seemed as if we were working to achieve them in silos.

When my son began to struggle in elementary school, I have a vivid memory of meeting with his teacher. I had to sign a form that contained a list of all the things we had to do at home with our son to “fix” what was wrong.  Often, I felt solely responsible for his success or failure in school.  I hoped for more from my interactions with school staff so that I could feel like we were in this together, but nothing ever really changed. Luckily, I had a support system outside of the school.

Through my work at the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (NCPFCE), I have come to understand that the “duties” I fulfilled back then were what we refer to as Parent Involvement and the “more” I hoped for was what we refer to as Family Engagement.

According to the NCPFCE, Parent Involvement occurs when family members participate in the structures and activities of early care and education programs and schools.  This might mean that parents attend meetings or participate in special events the program or school offers. Does this sound familiar?

Family Engagement happens when providers, teachers and families participate in a mutual, culturally responsive, and supportive relationship. In this approach, providers, teachers, and families share responsibility for the care, learning, and positive development of children. Families and providers partner with each other to grow and learn from each other.

Family engagement means that families and staff work together on planning and decision-making to create positive impact. Through engagement, families and staff build a more powerful connection, leading to improved family and child outcomes — and more effective programs. Family engagement begins with parent involvement and develops into a mutually supportive relationship for everyone

When I think back to when our son was struggling in school, I wonder how our experience could have been different. What if we had experienced a mutually supportive relationship with his teacher with full parental involvement and family engagement? Perhaps it would not have been such a difficult time for our son or our family, or even for his teacher.

As you begin the new school year, I challenge you to reflect on your own practice. Ask yourself, “What do I hope to achieve from my interactions with families? Do I want involvement or engagement?”

Now that you have a better understanding of the difference between the two, what will you do to ensure parents and families are involved as well as engaged with you in their child’s education and development?

To learn more about our work at the NCPFCE, family engagement, or using relationship-based practices to improve relationships with families, please visit the NCPFCE website or contact us at PFCE@ecetta.info.

Jacqueline Muñiz – Director of Communications, National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement