Engaging with Families: Continuing the Dialogue

The Coordinator’s Community of Practice is a professional network of individuals from around the U.S. serving in the role of Check & Connect coordinators. Four times a year this community is invited to participate on a call related to helping coordinators implement Check & Connect with fidelity.

Our December 2014 call was a dialogue around family engagement with one of the early founders of Check & Connect, Dr. Sandra L. Christenson. In this blog article, Dr. Christenson and I continue to address the importance of family engagement as it pertains to student engagement.

Engaging with parents/guardians (herein referred to as “parents”, however we recognize that mentors may also engage with a student’s guardian or other family member) is one of four key components of Check & Connect and is essential for fidelity of implementation. In the past 25 years of Check & Connect we have learned that signs of disengagement among students demand a systems approach in general and consistent messages about the value of education and the importance of working hard in school from educators, and the family in particular.

Parent Engagement in Check & Connect

In Check & Connect, mentors do not create a family-school partnership program for the entire school; rather they create – over time – a productive, trusting relationship with the parent(s) of a disengaged student. The emphasis of this connection is on strengthening the family-school relationship for that student. Hence, family engagement in Check & Connect recognizes the critical relationship between home and school in order to foster the student’s school success and experience. For example, both the school and the home—

  • can help the student be successful;
  • can encourage the student to put forth effort and work hard; and
  • can encourage the student to attend and participate in school, improve grades, and ask for assistance from teachers when needed.

How mentors communicate is very important in Check & Connect. We believe in solution-oriented communication wherein the mentor identifies and affirms strengths and focuses on what is positive. We use a variety of communication strategies – and these have expanded with the use of technology, such as email, text. etc.

The mentor strives for a common effort toward shared expectations and goals for the student’s schooling. We believe in two way communication about goals, expectations, and observations of the student’s performance. Check & Connect mentors begin by having a dialogue with the parents around the student, their goals for the student, and resources they can access to further support the student. In the process of this two-way conversation, the Check & Connect mentor may lead a discussion around questions, such as—

  • What do we (mentors, parents, students) want at school?
  • What do you want for your child’s learning?
  • What do we (mentors, parents, students) observe at school?
  • What do you observe at home around schooling issues?

Mentors dialogue, problem-solve, and make shared decisions with mentees’ parents. Mentors do not assume they know what it is like for parents. We want their input.

The Interaction Process

There is no exact prescription as to “what” to do to engage with families of Check & Connect students. There is, however, a clear-cut philosophy about “why” and “how” to engage. Consider the following:

The Why

The purpose of engaging is to enhance student success – never to “fix” the parent. We are not delivering services to the parent; instead we are engaging with the parent to reach a goal for their child – the student. The purpose is to work cooperatively and to partner with families to help the student reach his/her academic goals. This engaged partnership works to consider the academic, social, behavioral, and emotional capitol of a student and works collaboratively to help the student build capacity in all of these areas.

The How

Problem Solving

Problem solving with the parent – not for them – enables mentors to keep a focus on strengths and what is feasible for all to enhance student success and behavior change. This can be new and/or difficult for educators who may be used to telling parents what to do. Having said that, it is important to know that mentors make recommendations, but only in the context of problem solving. To illustrate this point, consider the following statements:

  • I have seen some parents try _______. Do you think that is something you might find helpful?
  • I am interested in your suggestions or reactions to this idea for Tarnika: _______.
  • For your consideration: what about trying __________?

Throughout the dialogue with a parent and particularly in problem solving, a non-blaming, non-judgmental attitude is used. Each family has a culture and as a part of that culture a parent might have a typical way to approach a problem. The work of the mentor is to listen and explore options. Also, note that “one size does not fit all.” Problem solving allows parents to choose what might work for them. As mentors monitor student progress, they follow up with parents on the selected idea.

Reinforce the message that parents play an essential role in communicating their expectations, goals, and value of education. We want parents to be encouraging; hopefully they can authentically state to the student: “I know you can do better if you work hard, try again, and work with your mentor.”

Attend to the process of interaction with parents. It is important to preserve the relationship with parents and to not only focus on the desired outcome for the student. Ongoing communication and problem solving is needed; one problem solving session will not likely magically alter student behavior. Check & Connect mentors share information and resources with parents, and also seek parent input. Mentors think carefully about their language, using language that enhances dialogue. For example, consider these statements:

  • I am concerned about __________ for Johnny. Are you?
  • I am thinking that ________ may help Johnny complete assigned work with a higher success rate. How will this affect you?
  • We seem to have three options to try to improve Johnny’s attendance. Which would work best for you?

Building Trust With Parents

Check & Connect is a relationship-based intervention and we view building trust with parents as a very intentional process. It grows over time – much like the story of Three Cups of Tea – at first we are a stranger, then an honored guest, and finally a part of the family. Parents, mentors, and educators need to get to know each other as they keep the shared goal of greater school success for the student and creating a common message about the importance of learning.

Trust builds with time and interactions, but the specific actions of the mentor also foster trust building. Think of the 3I’s:

  • Mentors invite parents to partner and affirm their role
  • Mentors inform parents (using monitoring form data) about the student’s progress, but also want to be informed by the parent, and
  • Mentors include parents in all decisions.

Other actions that mentors can take to build a trusting relationship with parents include:

  • Take time to talk about their concerns
  • Listen, listen, and listen more
  • Offer practical help
  • Understand the parent’s goals and desires for his/her child
  • Ask what questions parents have – we want to be sure parents know about school policies and practices
  • Follow through on any parental requests
  • Represent a stable, consistent contact – especially in secondary schools
  • Reinforce classroom expectations and problem solve around resources to support learning
  • Identify ways parents can track progress and provide home support for learning
  • Be persistent, keep reaching out to the parent – we can always leave a good news phone call or an invitation to have a cup of coffee together

In summary, mentors share information, dialogue with parents, ask them for their input and about their concerns, respond to their concerns, and support them – all relationship building strategies.

Is Parent Engagement Worth the Effort?

While it may be time consuming and feel like an extra step, parent engagement is useful to the mentor. We know from much research that certain student concerns, such as attendance, behavior, academic progress, and the valuing of an education, are only fully addressed with the support of parents. For many presenting behaviors, optimal student outcomes occur only when there is a consistent message and coordinated intervention from home and school. In Check & Connect, we have found that the usefulness of engaging with parents includes:

  • Mentors understand the circumstances for the student
  • Observations from the parent about the student’s learning, struggles, obstacles, and strengths can help the mentor design a realistic intervention.
  • Parents have clues to interventions that have worked in previous years – or what is feasible now.
  • Parents can deliver the intervention (get to school, expectations, home support for learning)

On one of our recent Check & Connect implementations, mentors have reported that the parent engagement component is the strongest when they took time to explain Check & Connect to the parent. In this meeting they not only share information about their role as a mentor and the program itself, they also share information about school, ask for input from the parent, and ask how any school policies and practices affect the family. Some mentors have a regular check-in time and quarterly meetings to review student progress with parents.

Have We Reached All Parents?

Mentors use persistent and personalized outreach to parents. Consistent with most of the literature on the effect of family involvement on educational outcomes, we have found personalization – or that personalized contact – to be beneficial. This is admittedly very time-consuming and does not happen quickly for all parents nor have we connected with all parents. Across research projects, we have had little access to and interaction with approximately 10% of parents. A couple of aspects are relevant when thinking about engaging with parents. First, Check & Connect was designed to have mentors available in out-of-school hours. It is not always implemented that way, but the idea was to move from attempts to connect, to authentic conversation – real access to each other. Home visits are important and have been used; however, they are not needed for everyone. Parents do come to school to meet mentors; other times we need to meet outside of school and school hours.

We have often been asked:

Our school has a policy that does not allow me to make home visits by myself and it’s difficult or uncomfortable to find another staff member to go with me. Do you have any suggestions to compensate for this?

This situation is quite common. To address this issue, you might meet at a neutral, community site, enhance the use of technology, and/or pair with another Check & Connect mentor. It is necessary to always follow school policy. However, it may be possible to discuss potential changes with the appropriate administrators (mentors often share information about school policies and practices that are alienating to students and families).

Second, if access to the parent is difficult or the parent is not following through – what might be termed “resistance” – mentors should not give up. In Check & Connect, we believe it is important to be persistent and to control what we can control, which is: leaving messages about student progress (especially good news), inviting parents to meet, and reinforcing our desire for parent input. We remind parents that how out-of-school time is used can be very helpful for enhancing student performance. We always leave the door open – and we always keep asking for parent input.

Summary

There is no one right answer to exactly how one should effectively engage with parents. What happens between the home and school for the benefit of a student is driven by the behavior and need of the student, mutually determined goals for the student, school resources, family desires and circumstances, and availability of time for involved participants. However, we can describe the interaction process for engaging with parents. In Check & Connect, we pay attention to the means to the end – the interaction process to attain better outcomes for the student.

  1. A successful interaction with parents is based in problem solving, sharing of information, and enhancing two-way communication.
  2. Strengthening the family-school relationship takes time and dialogue with parents.
  3. Mentors communicate in inviting ways. They use phrases that are beneficial for maintaining a constructive, productive family-school relationship, such as “I am concerned about…. What are your thoughts?”, “Some parents have found _____ to be helpful. You will need to decide what works best for you,” or “We see this at school – what do you see?”
  4. Mentors consider how they want to make contact with parents. Remember that the value is not in the amount of time they spend with parents or the frequency of contacts, but rather that the contact is regular, systematic, and uses an effective system for communication.
  5. Mentors often proceed through the following stages with parents with the goal of developing an effective, trusting relationship:
    • Predictability – When a mentor is predictable (offering regular, systematic contact), parents will note that the mentor is reliable and keeps commitments.
    • Dependability – When a mentor is dependable, parents will see the mentor as someone they can trust (this is a shift from seeing the mentor with a set of behaviors).
    • Faith – Parents view of a mentor is based on the past experience with the mentor. Parents see the mentor’s efforts as valuable and understand that when they don’t see immediate results they still “trust” the mentor process

Like life, parent engagement is a journey, not a destination. As mentors work with students and their families they partner with them on the journey. The goal is to stay connected with parents, stay positive with them, and continue to work together to help the student engage with learning and achieve academic success.

(If you’re a Check & Connect coordinator and would like to join the Coordinators Community of Practice, sign up on our website).


About the Authors: Sharon Mulé is a project coordinator and member of the Check & Connect training team at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. She also serves as the primary facilitator of the Check & Connect Coordinators’ Community of Practice. Dr. Sandra L. Christenson is the Birkmaier Professor of Educational Leadership, Professor of Educational Psychology, and faculty member in the School Psychology Program at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Christenson is one of the original founders of the Check & Connect student engagement intervention and is widely published (see Check & Connect References).

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

One thought on “Engaging with Families: Continuing the Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Reflections from a National Check & Connect Trainer | Attend, Engage, Invest

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