Of all the barriers that exist in successfully engaging every family, the biggest is, and always has been, fear. Disengaged and disenfranchised families are fearful that they will not fare well in conversation with their child’s teacher nor do they believe they add any value to the equation of their child’s learning. Perhaps it’s perceived educational imbalance or that a cultural barrier exists that is driving the fear. Whatever the reason, there is fear and a hesitation for disengaged families to connect with their child’s education. At its worst, fear could lead to a complete disengagement or a display of anger or belligerence that is off-putting to school staff and that often causes defensive reactions that drive the disengagement to new depths.
On the other side of the equation are teachers, principals and school staff who fundamentally understand that family engagement is a good thing but fear repeats of confrontations that they have experienced with some families. In many cases, school personnel lack the skill to successfully navigate difficult or crucial conversations with families, opting instead to avoid these situations all together. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are concrete steps that schools can take to relieve the fears of both families and school staff and improve relationships between all parties.
School leadership must devote professional development time to help staff navigate relationships with disenfranchised families. Providing training to teachers with simple crucial conversation strategies, meeting strategies and home-visit strategies will build the capacity of staff to engage with families who are disenfranchised with the school. As you build the skills of staff, you are also building increased levels of confidence in working with all families.
It is important that the school’s culture rejects the idea of “hard-to-reach” families. Every family is reachable, if we truly want to reach them. The hard-to-reach label is one we as educators have created to make it a bit easier to justify not reaching out to these families. By believing in the hard-to-reach fallacy, we perpetuate the very nature of disengagement that we struggle to improve.
Promoting the efficacy of families is integral to reattaching them to their children’s learning and school. Instead of one-way communication (i.e. sending stuff home) we can easily shift communication to families in a way that would help them play a role in the learning lives of their children. Moving beyond the posting of homework assignments, reminders to sign an agenda book or assigning a conference time, engaged schools look to those processes that require a true dialogue which then supports the efficacy of families to assist with their child’s progress.
Every family wants their children to exceed them in their quality of life. We as educators are the pathway to making that happen.