3 principles for an asset-based approach to family engagement

I am one of three Family Engagement Specialists in my district, and we work in close collaboration with each other. Our program is led by the Family Engagement Coordinator, and we have fourteen Family Engagement Liaisons based at Title 1 campuses. Primarily, our role is to build the capacity of our campus staff, our Principals and our families. We partner with one another to create opportunities that facilitate success for all of our students.

I work with school leaders to support them alongside their journey of connecting with families and ensuring that all families can be strong and active members of the school community. We also collaborate with families by connecting them with staff in order to support students as they work toward their goals. Over the years, leaders have asked me many versions of these core questions: “What can partnering with families really look like? How can those partnerships support our campus and our community?” That journey looks a bit different for every leader, whether you’re looking to expand your efforts or refine your vision and goals. But whatever stage of your journey you are in right now, there are 3 principles I’ve learned that I’m sure will support your efforts.    

1. Connect families to other families

One of the most overlooked assets in family engagement work is the connection between families in our school communities. My colleague, Claudia Torres says it best: When we connect our families to one another, that’s building real community support. That has been one of the most crucial realizations for us as a Family Engagement team. So one of the things we’re bringing more focus to in our work is facilitating those family-to-family connections. Now, when we host workshops, for example, we like to begin with a brief connection activity that gives families the opportunity to mingle with one another, meet someone new and gently start to uncover areas of mutual support.

The activity can be as simple as setting aside 5 minutes and encouraging everyone to introduce themselves to someone they haven’t spoken to before. We also offer conversation prompts and provide specific questions everyone can ask one another. Then later, before we close the workshop, we ask a few people to share something small that they learned from those conversations. 

The core purpose is to really connect families to one another – and facilitate them tapping into the resources, generosity and shared sense of commitment to children’s success. Facilitating those moments of introduction, connection and trust-building opens up opportunities for families to explore their assets and the ways they can lift each other up. Whether that’s carpooling, alternating pickups or simply encouraging one another to show up for school community events, those relationships are immensely important to our families’ well-being and for supporting students. Reminding yourself and your team that these family-to-family relationships are incredible assets can really transform your approach to engagement opportunities and long-term community building.

2. Elevate ideas through a culture of listening

When my colleagues and I develop our programming, we base our offerings on the needs of each campus. To do that, we have to listen well – and to listen well, we need the help of the staff on each one of those campuses. They’re the ones working with students on a daily basis and having countless interactions with families in person, by phone or online. They’re a natural connection point, and together, we can hear more stories, needs and feedback than we would in our separate efforts. With all of us sharing a commitment to listening and communicating what families bring to us, we can be in a much stronger position to create relevant and responsive programming for our community.

Everything that we do in our campuses’ programming is individualized and dependent on what needs and interests we’ve tapped into through our shared, ongoing listening. That’s how we elevate great ideas and reality check our initial proposals. Both are crucial because we want to honor families’ voices at the beginning of any planning process, when there’s still time to refine the idea and prioritize making families feel welcome.

So, as you’re working to share your own personal, core vision and build your own relationship with families in your community, you can share the responsibility of listening among your staff and lean on the trust you’re collectively building. That sharing can be more or less formal and incorporated into check-in, meeting and feedback systems you already have in place right now. 

3. Build mutual confidence and collaboration

When we demonstrate that we’re actively interested in listening to our families and creating programming that clearly reflects their ideas, feedback and needs, we’re actually creating conditions for greater confidence and collaboration. In my experience, when families see those efforts, they’re more likely to feel genuinely welcome on our campuses. From that place of feeling welcome, they grow more confident that they will be heard when they express interest, raise questions or seek support. At the same time, staff become more comfortable and confident communicating with families and partnering with them to support students’ success. With communication flowing well in both directions, families and staff are better able to approach challenges proactively with a sense of clear, shared purpose.

Most of all, remember to trust the process. Creating these conditions and opportunities may take some time, but the assets you and your team will gain through family engagement will make a transformative difference in all your other goals. At the end of the day, the core of our engagement work is about talking to one another and turning our attention toward how we can support every student together. Take the time to really consider what it could look like to work with families as collaborators and partners, and keep having the conversation.