New brief highlights do’s and don’ts of family engagement during pandemic

Open, regular communication and the development of routines will help families feel more prepared to handle extended COVID-19 school closures or the potential that districts must once again close their doors, according to a new brief from the EdResearch for Recovery Project.

The report, “Engaging Parents and Families to Support the Recovery of Districts and Schools,” explores the ways in which schools and districts can support the diverse needs of families and build practical trust to best support student learning and well-being.

Authors of the brief, Nancy Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Latoya Gayle, executive director of Boston School Finder, note that the task of supporting students has become more difficult as the pandemic persists. However, it is critical that school officials thoroughly engage families if local educational agencies are to successfully build trust in the community, they wrote.

Schools are demanding more than ever from families to accommodate and support distance or hybrid learning models, but parents in many parts of the country lack specific guidance and supports from their child’s schools to meet many of the demands, according to Hill and Gayle. Additionally, the disruption of usual school routines continues to have detrimental effects on families, while at the same time limiting access to mental health and wellness services available on many campuses.

There are a number of strategies that LEAs can consider when working to address these issues. For instance, regardless of the socio-economic or racial/ethnic makeup of a community, communications with families are most effective when they are regular, well-timed and include actionable support strategies.

According to researchers, schools:

  • must ensure genuine representation across parental communities to promote authentic engagement
  • will be more successful involving parents in academics when the asks focus on helping students establish good work habits and time management rather than supplementing instruction or academic content
  • can reduce family anxiety by providing a sense of routine for students and families, and older students can benefit from having a role in shaping these routines

That said, communications to families should not be sent just for the sake of doing so, researchers concluded. Rather, “quality of interactions has been shown to more positively affect outcomes than frequency of interactions,” they wrote. Fewer communications that provide more detail are likely to be more effective than frequent communications that simply raise additional questions and concerns for parents. LEAs should find a middle ground between adopting communication strategies that rely on frequent but little information, and on quarterly or semester updates that are unlikely to shift parent or student behavior in time to benefit children.