Elena Lopez

Why We Need a Human Centered Approach to Family Engagement

by M. Elena Lopez

An approach called design thinking – sometimes called human-centered design—opens new possibilities for reinventing how we partner with and engage families. A “human-centered” approach begins with empathy – putting oneself in another’s place and imagining what that person feels and experiences. Developing empathy is one way to move from family engagement practices that educators think families need and want, to ones based on what families desire and value.

Many low-income, immigrant, and culturally diverse families feel left out by the education system. Cultivating empathy can inspire educators to respond with more inclusive and equitable practices to engage our families. Let’s think about what we could learn by answering a few questions about transitions from preschool to elementary school:

  • What do parents and family members see, hear, and feel when they enter an early childhood program, school, or afterschool program?
  • How do parents see teachers?
  • What do parents hear from and feel about teachers?

At the Harvard Family Research Project, we tried applying human-centered design to our own work. One of the tools we used was an empathy map. At a staff meeting we identified three groups that are essential to successful transitions: families, educators (early childhood programs, schools) and community members.

Empathy map

After we assumed the persona of each group, we answered a set of questions about what they are thinking and feeling; what they are hearing and seeing; and what they are saying and doing. Then we went for a deeper dive to find out the meaning of their needs and wants—what is their “pain” and “gain?” We scribbled our ideas on sticky notes (pink for families, yellow for educators, blue for community), one idea per note, then posted all the notes on a whiteboard. (See photo.)

From reviewing our responses, we found that transition is a period of uncertainty. Parents want assurance — that their children will adjust to their new school, that their children’s new teachers will be understanding, that bus pick up and drop off will go smoothly, and that they are prepared to be, and can be, partners with their children’s elementary school. We saw that family-school-community connections opened up opportunities— through information, relationships, and “having things in place”— for providing such assurance.

What else did we learn? Human-centered design is an approach that can reframe our perspective on family engagement. By learning to empathize with families, we educators can see a wider set of possibilities for how and where families can be engaged. We also gain more traction because we understand what families want!

Not only does empathizing help us reach those “aha” moments where we can dream of how to engage families, but a human centered approach also commits us to design with them in ways that are both meaningful and effective.

M. Elena Lopez – Associate Director,  Harvard Family Research Project; NAFSCE Board Member