3 Foundational Practices for Effective Linked to Learning Family Engagement
We know that when families are engaged in their children’s learning, they do better academically and socially. We also know that if families promote and encourage science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning, their children will be more interested in and more likely to pursue such areas of study. As STEM continues to expand as an academic area of study as well as a career field, it’s increasingly important to help cultivate children’s interests in STEM fields, such as science, during the earliest years. However, families report that when it comes to supporting their children’s science learning, they lack the confidence to do so. As increasing access to early science gains momentum, how can we intentionally and effectively link families to their children’s science learning?
For the past three school years (2015 to 2018), I have been part of an i3-funded project called LASErS (Literacy and Academic Success for English Learners through Science), in which we (a team from the Education Development Center) worked with three separate cohorts of teachers (preschool, kindergarten, and 1st grade) in a large urban school district in Connecticut. Using science as a vehicle for language learning and literacy development for all students, and especially those in the process of acquiring English as a new language, the LASErS team worked to assist teachers in refining their proficiencies with inquiry-based teaching and learning methods as well as with the practice of linked to learning family engagement. Identifying that families are often under-utilized resources in their children’s academic learning, we designed and delivered professional development and on-going assistance that sought to strengthen teachers’ practices with linked to learning family engagement, specifically as it related to children’s science learning.
Partners in Education: A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family Engagement identifies five process conditions needed for effective family engagement; one of those process conditions is “linked to learning”. Linked to learning family engagement allows families to not only know what’s going on at school, but also to actively take part in that learning, equipping them to support their children’s academic formation beyond the classroom. In order to effectively link student’s families to the science experiences and learning in the classroom, we assisted teachers in implementing two approaches: (1) family science activities, a series of (English/Spanish) bilingual, family-friendly documents that extended the science learning from to classroom to students’ homes, and (2) family science events, twice-a-year, hands-on, in-classroom science experiences that were teacher coordinated and student-led. In both of these approaches, the goals were to encourage curiosity and conversation between students and their families and to increase family confidence around supporting their children’s science learning.
Having had the honor and pleasure of working hand-in-hand with teachers for three years now, we’ve discovered that there are three fundamental practices that need to be in place in order for linked to learning family engagement to be effective. Without these three practices in place, linking families to learning never quite seemed to take off. Below are illustrations of those essential practices. While these examples are connected to the family science activities coordinated through the LASErS project, the practices can be applied to any linked to learning family engagement strategy.
1. Develop relationships.
Warm and welcoming, Ms. Erickson* greets every family with a smile and a story about their child every day at drop-off and pick-up. Ms. Erickson’s classroom is bathed in love for each student and the joy of teaching and learning. This palpable sense of belonging and love of learning don’t stop when a student leaves the classroom; by taking the time and making the effort to connect with her students’ families on a daily basis, Ms. Erickson has ensured that each student and family feels that they belong and are valued and necessary members of the learning community that is her classroom.
In a school where low family attendance at events was the norm, Ms. Erickson’s classroom was an anomaly when it overflowed during her family science events. Knowing that science can be intimidating to many, Ms. Erickson made sure that her students’ families knew that these events were designed to let them have fun while interacting with and learning about the science that students have been engaging with in class. Ms. Erickson also felt that it was important to stress that these events were student-led and not teacher-driven. When inviting families to these events, she made it explicitly clear to each family, that they were necessary members of their learning community and that the event wouldn’t be as meaningful if they weren’t there.
Relationships are foundational. Family engagement efforts that are based in and on relationships that have been founded primarily to support and sustain the child’s well-being (academic and social) are more likely to succeed. The time and effort that Ms. Erickson puts forth in cultivating and sustaining genuine relationships with all of her students’ families always pays off.
2. Believe that everyone is capable.
Ms. Kaplan* is a deep believer in and proponent of the idea that, no matter one’s age or status, we are all learners and all capable of doing anything, even the seemingly impossible. Persistent in her efforts to create and maintain an inclusive learning community, her classroom welcomes, engages with, and challenges all who enter. No matter how you regard yourself as a learner before you enter her classroom, she will quickly convince you that you are the most capable person on the planet and that you can learn and/or do anything.
As “the guide on the side” (not “the sage on the stage”), Ms. Kaplan has a keen ability to craft an environment in which all are learners and teachers. This ability worked wonders during her family science events. During these events, where little-to-no instruction was given to students and their families other than to enjoy exploring the different stations, Ms. Kaplan wandered around the classroom listening to conversations students and families were having. When someone discovered something new (to them), she would encourage that person (student and family members alike) to call the attention of the rest of the attendees and share their finding with the group and then to wonder together. Ms. Kaplan never gave answers, but simply provided the platform from which learners were able to make claims, share with others, and then gain a better understanding together. These actions produced a learning community where everyone’s voice (no matter its age) had a valued place. At the end of each of her family science events, Ms. Kaplan facilitated whole group reflections. These gave both students and family members alike to reflect on their experiences aloud with the group; again, making it such that, no matter one’s age, all experiences and voices mattered equally and that all are capable.
It is vital that every family engagement initiative begin with viewing all families from an asset-based mindset. When educators give themselves the gift of viewing all families as wholly capable of engaging with academic material in order to support and advance their children’s learning, the remarkable happens – families rise to the occasion.
3. Communicate expectations clearly and leave room for questions.
As a veteran teacher, Ms. Russo* knows that trying to connect families to their children’s academic learning can invoke a range of emotions, depending on a parent’s own schooling experience. She acknowledges that being invited to engage with academic material can be intimidating and uncomfortable for some, seen as unnecessary and burdensome for others, or as entirely foreign depending on the culture in which one was raised. In order to assuage these various emotions, Ms. Russo makes it clear to families that both she and their children want them to be part of the classroom learning community and that she expects all families to have questions about learning content and processes. By leaving the door open to questions, Ms. Russo allows students and families to take risks and dig into the learning process, as they know that there is a trustworthy safety net there to catch and help them along the way.
Taking full advantage of drop-off and pick-up, Ms. Russo and her students’ families use these times to check in with one another about the family science activities and other at-home learning opportunities. Ms. Russo never asks families if they had questions about the activities; instead, she asks about their experiences with the activities, which naturally allows for a conversation to take place and opens a space for families to ask questions (if they have them). Setting out clear expectations for engagement in the beginning of the year, and continuing to reinforce those expectations by intentionally drawing families into conversation, allows Ms. Russo’s classroom to be a vibrant learning community that reaches beyond the walls of the classroom.
With the responsibility of holding all students and their families to high expectations comes the duty of clearly communicating what those expectations entail. We cannot expect families to do that which is not communicated. However, when we combine clearly communicated high expectations with open, two-way dialogue, students and families will meet the set goals.
Through observations of these three teachers, their students, and families, it became fully evident that these three practices are indispensable in the creation and continuation of effective linked to learning family engagement efforts. When all three were put into practice, we saw all families engaging with the science, language, and literacy learning taking place in their children’s academic lives.
As the school year begins, give yourself the gift of establishing relationships, viewing everyone as capable, and defining and communicating expectations clearly. Inevitably, you’ll have great success with linking your students’ families to their children’s learning.
* All names have been changed in order to maintain anonymity and confidentiality.