Top 6 Barriers to Family Engagement with School

03/31/2017 12:41 pm ET

By Elizabeth Breese, PhD

Panorama Education

Ask anyone, and they’ll agree: parents have a lot on their plates. While parenting can feel like a juggling act, getting involved with school is a critical way parents and guardians support their children. In the context of their busy lives, what do parents think about engaging with their children’s schools and barriers to family-school engagement? And how can schools get busy families more engaged?

Recently, the research team at Panorama Education looked at responses from 18,000 parents and guardians from a diverse set of school districts across the country. Specifically, we looked at a set of questions related to “Barriers to Engagement,” the factors that can create challenges for families who want to be actively involved with their child’s school. “Barriers to Engagement” is one of the topics of the Family-School Relationships Survey, which was developed in a partnership with researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Some of the results were not that surprising (lack of time is a real barrier!), but others were unexpected. Before we get into the survey findings, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves just why family engagement with school is so critical for students.

The Importance of Strong Family-School Partnerships

In 1994, the United States Department of Education released the Strong Families, Strong Schools report. Since then, over two decades of research has supported the conclusion that family engagement is a key factor in students’ success. Students whose families are engaged with their schools tend to have higher grades, show faster rates of literacy acquisition, attend school more regularly, and are more likely to graduate.

Accordingly, schools and districts invest a great deal of effort and care in engaging families. From hosting family events at school to sending communications home and visiting parents at home, many educators see engaging families as a core part of their work. Yet, barriers to effectively engaging families remain.

How Can Schools Get Parents More Involved?

As part of the Family-School Relationships Survey, schools and districts asked 18,000 parents and guardians about their barriers to engagement. Over half of family members (54%) responded that their busy schedule is a medium to very large problem preventing them from getting more involved with school. One-quarter of parents (25%) cited childcare as a medium to very large issue for engaging with their child’s school.

At first blush, these top barriers to family engagement reside under the locus of control of families. However, schools can still make it easier for busy parents to get involved. Schools that successfully engage a broad range of parents use multiple channels to communicate with families. If you think your school newsletters, social media outreach, signs at school and other awareness techniques are overboard, they probably aren’t. On the survey, 18% of parents and guardians reported that their child’s school doesn’t provide enough information about opportunities to get involved.

Simple gestures from school staff can go a long way toward encouraging families to get more involved with school. Almost one-quarter of parents and guardians (23%) said that school staff appearing too busy poses a medium to very large problem for their engagement with school. School staff are definitely busy, but an easy fix is coaching everyone in the building to greet families when they visit school. It’s a simple and a low-effort way to make families feel welcome.

Lastly, showing families that you are listening can increase trust and family engagement. After your school or district runs a family survey, share the results in a public forum and explain the ways you plan to follow up on the feedback. Finally, when changes are made, explain that they were motivated by feedback from family surveys. By closing the loop on family feedback, you will continue to get parents engaged in your survey program and in school more generally.

By understanding your families’ barriers to engagement with school and taking some targeted steps to address them, you will set up your students and the whole school community for success.

Elizabeth Breese, PhD, is marketing director at Panorama Education. Follow her on Twitter: @EBBreese.

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