Of all the factors that determine student outcomes, family engagement is at the top of the list. Partnerships between schools and families can improve students’ grades, attendance, persistence, and motivation. Research shows that this is true regardless of a family’s race or income.
Although some families proactively engage in their child’s education, research shows that teachers can initiate and encourage engagement from all families with positive results.
Involving families of students who learn and think differently is especially important. Schools are required by federal law to seek input from a parent or guardian in the development of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Schools must also provide families with updates on their child’s progress toward their IEP goals.
In addition to these mandates, it has been shown that meaningful interactions between teachers and families of students who learn and think differently can build trust, inform instruction, and improve student outcomes.
Who do your students call family?
Before we talk about families, let’s consider who makes up a child’s family. No two families are the same: Some have more than one primary caregiver. Some don't. In two-adult households, sometimes the adults are married and sometimes they’re not. Other factors also influence home life, like multigenerational households and those that provide foster care.
In our resources, we use the term caregiver to refer to the primary adult or adults who are responsible for raising a child, such as parents, grandparents, and foster parents. When we talk about families, we mean the larger support system around a child, including siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or anyone with a consistent presence in a child’s life.
The benefits of partnering with families
There are plenty of benefits to establishing relationships with a student’s family. Research and classroom experience support these five benefits, especially for students who learn and think differently:
Benefit 1: You can connect your lessons to a student’s background knowledge, interests, and culture.
You’ve seen it happen in your classroom before: When you tie a lesson to students’ experiences, their interest skyrockets and they connect more deeply with the material.
There’s plenty of brain research to explain why this happens. When students think about something they already know, neurons in their brain become active. These neurons make it easier for other neurons to fire and form new neural pathways. The pathways literally connect new information with old in the brain. In other words, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” By linking new learning with old learning, it’s easier for students to learn and retain the new information.
Families are valuable sources of information about what can make these neurons fire for children. Research indicates that some students who learn and think differently may have gaps in crucial background knowledge, which can make it harder for them to understand new content. In talking with families, you might learn about their child’s strengths and what piques that child’s interest — and you might also learn about gaps in that child’s background knowledge.
Benefit 2: You’ll be able to identify appropriate accommodations or supports.
Connecting with students’ families can help you identify the best ways to differentiate or personalize instruction for students who learn and think differently. Families can provide insight about supports that have worked well at home and in prior years at school — and those that have not. Conversations about these effective supports can help build consistency between home and school.
One easy way to get information about where a student needs support is to talk with families about how their child does during homework time. Based on their response, you can decide if you need to make changes to a student’s instruction or modify homework assignments.
Benefit 3: You can empower families to support academic goals at home.
Most families believe that school is important and want their child to do well. But they might not know how to effectively support their child’s education. Regular communication can help bridge that gap.
Some of the most effective communication you can share is advice about how families can reinforce skills at home. Whether by emails, phone calls, newsletters, or a class website, share with families the math skill you taught this week. Then provide just one or two ways they can practice that skill at home.
Students with IEPs have annual goals and may need to practice certain skills more than their peers do. Research also shows that students who learn and think differently typically have a much harder time completing homework.
Talk with those students’ families about how they can reinforce IEP goals over time, but keep in mind that many families find homework time very stressful. It’s unclear whether it is beneficial for families to help with homework, as the research is inconclusive. The benefits depend not only on the age and skill level of the student, but on the family dynamic.
For example, it’s been shown that if families are frustrated or unsure how to help, then their involvement during homework time can be ineffective or even counterproductive. Additionally, some family members might work in the evenings or might have learning and thinking differences themselves. Remember that every family, just like every student, has different strengths and needs.
So what can teachers do when it comes to homework?
- Establish open lines of communication so that families can talk with you about any homework concerns.
- Provide general homework tips in a class newsletter or website. For instance, you can provide information like this step-by-step guide for breaking down projects into manageable chunks.
- Communicate with families about homework to help their children keep track of assignments and due dates. This is key for students with ADHD or challenges with executive function, who typically take longer to develop skills such as organization and time management.
- Remind families that even if they are unable to help with homework, they are already doing the most important thing by loving and encouraging their child.
Benefit 4: You can develop effective and consistent methods for addressing behavior.
When it comes to behavior, a strong connection between school and home is crucial. Longitudinal data indicate that as schools offer more family partnership activities, fewer discipline problems arise. Open lines of communication will allow you to know if something is happening at home that might affect a student’s behavior in school. When you know the cause of a behavior, you’re more likely to find the best way to help.
Equally as important, families can share ideas for behavior strategies that work at home for you to try at school. Consensus and consistency between home and school can help the student know what to expect and to practice more positive behaviors.
Benefit 5: You can set the stage for high expectations.
This is perhaps the most important thing for you to emphasize in conversations with families. Helping families set high expectations for their child is hugely important. One large research study found that parental expectations had the greatest impact on students. In other words, of all the ways families can be involved in their child’s education, nothing matters more than how much they believe in their child’s ability to succeed.
Highlighting the importance of expectations can be especially powerful for families who aren’t sure how to help with academic goals. Reassure them that they can make a big impact by talking with their child about the importance of school and by providing encouragement.
The research is clear: Partnering with families can help you and your students find success. Use the resources below to help build an effective relationship with students' families.
Getting started in your classroom
About the author
About the author
Trynia Kaufman, MS was the senior manager of editorial research at Understood. She is a former educator and presents nationwide at education conferences.
Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.