A good relationship between families and schools is a top factor in positive student outcomes. But when families are hard to reach or seem reluctant to participate, building those relationships can be tough.
Keep in mind that what may seem like reluctance doesn’t always mean families don’t want to be engaged in their child’s education. Many families would like to be more involved. But some families may face significant barriers like unpredictable work schedules or immigration concerns. For other families, their past experiences may make them feel that the school itself is creating barriers.
Reaching all families begins with meeting them where they are emotionally. They may have varied feelings about family-school partnerships or have other priorities (like health issues) in their lives. Emotionally meeting families where they are requires empathy, asking questions, and sharing that you have a common interest in their child’s education.
Here are some common barriers you can break down to better engage with families—and how to start doing it.
Barrier 1: Unspoken Expectations About Family Engagement
Some families may not see it as their place to be highly involved in their child’s education. They may think it’s their responsibility to get their child to school, and it’s the teacher’s job to teach skills and knowledge. In many cases, that doesn’t mean a family is trying to avoid responsibility. It could be a cultural difference. Or it could be a sign of respect and trust in you as the teacher.
Research shows that parents who are explicitly invited and encouraged to take part in their child’s education are more willing to do so, and they feel more confident that their participation can have an impact. That involvement could take the form of supporting their child at home or being a part of school activities.
Possible solutions: Communicate with your students’ families that their involvement is not only welcomed but encouraged.
- Let families know you want to work with them toward your shared goal of helping their child thrive. Be explicit in letting them know that they play a critical role in meeting that goal.
- Begin your relationship by introducing yourself and asking to learn more about their family and their student. During that time, ask them how they prefer to keep in contact.
- Ask families how they’d like to be involved and what information they need to support their child’s learning.
Barrier 2: Inflexible Work Schedules
According to one literature review, parents and caregivers who have more flexibility, stability, and predictable work hours at their jobs tend to be more engaged. That’s because they can be.
But many families may have trouble getting time off from work to come to IEP meetings and other school events or conferences. They may have inflexible or unpredictable work schedules. Many parents and caregivers who work hourly-rate jobs may not be able to financially afford to take time off. Others may work night shifts and rely on getting sleep while students are at school. And many parents and caregivers may not have access to email or the ability to take a phone call at their job.
Possible solutions: Be flexible about how and when you communicate with families.
- Offer the option of having meetings over the phone or via video conferencing instead of in person.
- When it’s time for parent-teacher conferences, offer early morning or evening meeting times if your schedule permits.
- Consider keeping in touch with families using messaging on a communication platform like Remind or Participate. You can use these tools to send quick updates about student progress.
- Let families know that the U.S. Department of Labor has said that parents and guardians can use the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) intermittently to attend IEP meetings.
- Consider meeting in a mutually convenient public location, like a library or a community center. (Check your school’s policies on this before moving forward with this type of plan.)
Barrier 3: Limited Resources
Even if family members are able to take time off from work to visit the school, getting to the school can put a strain on their resources. For instance, parents and caregivers might have trouble arranging childcare for their other children. Or they might have difficulties with transportation, including limited access to a car or mass transportation. All of these factors can make it hard for families to participate in school events or meetings.
Possible solutions: Find creative ways to overcome resource barriers.
- Talk with your administration about the possibility of providing bus, train, or subway passes for families.
- Suggest organizing a carpool for families to attend school events.
- Video record your back-to-school-night presentation and email it to all families after the event. That way, families who couldn’t make it in person can still access the same information.
- Ask your school’s administrator about collaborating with agencies like a local recreation center to provide childcare during parent-teacher conferences. Or check with your district to see if some high school students can watch your students’ young siblings at your school in exchange for community service hours.
- Offer opportunities to engage that don’t involve coming to the school. For example, ask families if they’d like to help with the classroom newsletter or cut out materials for you if you send them home with their child.
Barrier 4: Shared or Complicated Custodial Situations
Some students split their time between their parents' homes. Other students are being raised by grandparents or other family members, or they’re navigating the foster care system. A family member who seems hard to engage may not be on your class email list because the child moved into their home after the start of the school year. In other cases, a parent or caregiver may not get notices that are sent home because it’s not their day with their child.
When it comes to meetings, it’s not always clear who should be involved. This is especially true if your student lives in more than one household or is in foster care, as foster parents may not always have educational decision-making rights.
Possible solutions: Work with families and school administrators to better understand who to communicate with about what.
- If you’re unsure about the educational rights of a parent or foster parent, work with your school’s social worker or counselor to get a clear answer.
- Ask the family who needs to be kept in the loop about school events, meetings, and other announcements. You may need to add more than one family member to your email list or to send an extra copy of a notice or a report card to separate households.
Barrier 5: Cultural Differences or Immigration Concerns
It can be challenging for families of English language learners (ELLs) or immigrant students to interact with their child’s teacher and school. A language barrier may deter some parents and caregivers from engaging with the school. There may also be cultural differences, like the view in some cultures that asking questions of the teacher is disrespectful. And some families may hold beliefs that having a struggling learner or a child with a disability is not something that should be talked about.
In other cases, families may have concerns about their immigration status. Those families may be afraid to engage because they don’t feel safe or are unsure whether they can trust the school.
Possible solutions: Get information about meeting the needs of the families of English language learners and immigrant families.
- Read these six strategies for partnering with families of English language learners.
- Use an interpreter to communicate with families, if possible. Ask your school administration how to request one. Try to avoid using students as interpreters between you and their families.
- Know your students’ rights. They not only have civil rights, but also rights to privacy and an education, regardless of their immigration status.
- Know that schools and bus stops are currently “sensitive locations.” This means that the Department of Homeland Security recognizes them as places where immigration enforcement shouldn’t take place unexpectedly and without proper approvals.
Barrier 6: Prior Negative Experiences With Schools
Families of students who learn and think differently may come to you with years of negative experiences with the education system. They may feel intimidated by, angry at, or mistrustful of teachers and schools.
Keep in mind that some learning and thinking differences are genetic and run in families. There may be generations of family members who have their own negative associations and emotions about their experiences in school. They may feel as though they don’t have the skills to support their child academically.
Possible solutions: Approach learning differences with sensitivity and empathy.
- Acknowledge past negative experiences if families bring them up. Let them know that your goal is to work together collaboratively and respectfully.
- Offer information in multiple formats, such as short videos, visual instructions, and printed information. Keep in mind that for some families, a lot of text may be overwhelming. Be as concise as possible and avoid using jargon.
- Use neutral language when talking about a student’s struggle with learning. Using the Universal Design for Learning framework can help you talk about learner variability and explain that you know all students have strengths and challenges. Let families know you work to support all learners and address their challenges to help them thrive.
Developing relationships with your students’ families isn't always easy. But it's an investment that can lead to improved student achievement and trust, as well as improvements in communication with families. Want more information?
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Timothy King, EdD is the statewide program director for the Multiagency Network for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities, University of South Florida St. Petersburg.