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Family engagement tools

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Building shared responsibility for educational outcomes

Colleen Gengler, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency

Reviewed October 2014 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success.

There are many ways that a partnership can be built between families and schools to enhance student success. Here are some ideas for both parents and schools to share that responsibility.

Orientation/back to school night

Traditional: Parents are welcomed by the principal and follow their child’s school schedule. The degree to which parents hear about school/teacher expectations and policies such as homework or discipline varies by school and teacher.

Partnership: Parents receive an invitation to the orientation nights, which are offered at multiple times to accommodate parents’ schedules. School policies are explained and a handbook and school calendar are distributed to parents. Attendance is taken and there is follow-up including phone calls or home visit for non-attendees. Several meetings are scheduled to receive parent input on the policies and to discuss parents’ and educators’ roles and responsibilities.

Another approach is for teachers to welcome parents and students to the classroom. Teachers articulate their goals for this to be the students’ best year; they request parents and students to share their goals. Teachers summarize by noting the goals for which there is consensus, and reinforcing the idea if home and school work together students will do better. Arrangements are made for how to contact each other (Weiss & Edwards, 1992).


Traditional: Schools offer workshops for parents to learn about school-determined or parent-determined topics.

Partnership: Topics for workshops that require an “institutional” and parent perspective are offered. Both parents and educators, as co-learners and co-teachers, attend. An educator and a parent organize and facilitate the workshops. Sample topics include: homework, improving IEP conferences, improving parent-teacher conferences, improving communication such as maintaining a non-adversarial approach, test standards, and others.

Good news phone calls

Traditional: Teachers make positive phone calls to parents at work or at home. If secondary teachers make two phone calls per day (40 per month), they would have made 360 phone calls in one academic year.

Partnership: Phone calls are alternated between school and family. Teachers make the first couple positive phone calls. They request parents to call next with their good news observations.


Traditional: The school sends the newsletter to parents. School personnel, whether the principal or teachers, have taken the responsibility for the writing of the newsletter, which contains important information about child/adolescent development and school programs and policies.

Partnership: On the first of the month the teacher writes the letter, and on the fifteenth of the month, the parent is given a blank newsletter to complete. Or, the newsletter is written by volunteer parents working with teachers or students. Or, the newsletter reinforces a partnership orientation, such as “Our Turn” and “Your Turn” columns.

Communication system

Traditional: Most communication flows from the school to the home and is in print. Home-school assignment sheets are used for individual students.

Partnership: Written communication says: we want to be partners, parent input and involvement is critical to children’s educational achievement, and if there is a concern, we will work together to find a solution. Also, communication builds in opportunities for dialogue. For example, the principal schedules “office” hours for discussion. The descriptor for this commonly used structure is changed to Principal-Parent Hour to reflect the partnership.

Home-school assignment books, diaries, or journal notebooks are used on a daily basis to set clear expectations for work to be completed. Teachers allow time before the end of the school day to allow students to organize their responsibilities. Students write in assignments. They may copy from the overhead and may use a buddy for checking accuracy. Parents, teachers, and students rate student behavior and academics weekly. The system is described at Back to school nights; non-attendees receive a personal contact.

Contract/partnership agreements

Traditional: Home-school contracts used for individual students.

Partnership: Home-school-student contracts used school-wide. These can be linked to individual learning plans (ILPs) and individual education plans (IEPs), where specific responsibilities for the school, family, and student to achieve the goals are documented.

Monitoring student progress

Traditional: Schools, particularly teachers, assume the total responsibility for informing parents about student progress including report cards, personal contact by phone, and home notes.

Partnership: Monitoring student progress is shared with parents. Parents are asked to keep educational records for their children; these can be shared with the child’s teacher(s) the following year. Also, a system can be established whereby parents request specific information about the student’s progress. For example, parent calls the 9th grade teacher to ask about performance in algebra class. Conferences with parents are held early, perhaps within the within the first half of the quarter, for the purpose of developing two way-communication about student progress. Suggestions for improving class grades and learning the material are available.


Traditional: Schools distribute a list of volunteer activities to parents. The list specifies the needs of schools and indicates that parent involvement in this capacity is desirable.

Partnership: A list is distributed to parents. However, the wording emphasizes that parents are essential, and the list introduced in a way that underscores involvement and participation are expected, but responsive to the parents’ choices. For example:

At ________School, we believe that teachers and parents are both needed to help students achieve their very best performance in school. This is an invitation to share your abilities and time with your child and/or other children at school. Your suggestions and expertise are needed.

These volunteer positions include one-time commitments including:

These volunteer positions include on-going, longer-term opportunities to be involved in helping students succeed/improve their school progress including:

In what way do you plan to be involved? Feel free to suggest another way.

We know when parents are involved in their children’s learning, they _________(list benefits for student learning).

Involvement can include activities at school and at home.

Slips are obtained from all parents by making personal contact with those who do not return the slips by the designated time. A parent often coordinates this activity.


Traditional: One-way communication, usually focusing on teacher evaluation of child performance, resulting in sole responsibility being placed on teachers.

Partnership: The use of early (within first month of school) goal setting and information sharing conferences provides an opportunity to build the parent-teacher relationship. Parents are given sample questions to ask of and answer for the teacher. Students are encouraged to attend the conferences so everyone is “singing from the same sheet of music.” A system for on-going communication is established. Student-led conferences pair well with this format.


Christenson, S. L., &  Sheridan, S. M.  (2001). Schools and families: Creating essential connections for learning. New York: Guilford Press. [Adapted by permission.]

Weiss, H. M., & Edwards, M. E. (1992). The family-school collaboration project: Systemic interventions for school improvement. In S. L. Christenson & J. C. Conoley (Eds.), Home-school collaboration: Enhancing children’s academic and social competence (pp. 215-243). Silver Spring, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Related resources

Parenting for school success: A guide for parents — Access this handbook which gives parents practical ideas on supporting school success.

Practices that promote schools as welcoming activities — Try these family outreach efforts to create a welcoming environment for parents.

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