How to Reduce Barriers to Family Engagement

By Elizabeth Breese, PhD

Schools that engage families find that their students have higher grades, show faster rates of literacy acquisition, attend school more regularly and are more likely to graduate. Since 1994, when the United States Department of Education released the Strong Families, Strong Schools report, a growing body of research has continued to support the conclusion that family engagement is a key factor in students’ success.

Schools and districts invest significant time and effort in engaging families. Yet, there are still barriers that prevent families from effectively engaging with their children’s schools. Some common barriers, like families’ busy schedules, reside more under the locus of control of parents and guardians. But many barriers, such as families perceiving school staff as too busy to interact with them or that the school doesn’t communicate opportunities to be involved effectively, are areas that administrators and teachers can improve when they understand the underlying obstacle or challenge.

Understanding Family Engagement

The first step to increasing engagement with families is to understand the attitudes and obstacles that currently inhibit greater partnership and engagement with families. One way to reliably understand the experiences of families in your school or district is to conduct a family survey. By conducting a survey of your families, your school or district can hear from a representative group of parents and guardians, rather than relying only on the perspectives of parents who are already highly engaged.

Using survey data, rather than anecdotes, to understand the factors that most create challenges for your families to engage with school, family engagement coordinators and school teams can create goals and actionable plans to reduce barriers to engage more effectively with all families.

The Family-School Relationships Survey was developed in a partnership between researchers at Panorama Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It provides schools with a clear picture of family attitudes about an array of topics and is available for all educators to use for free. It includes measures of ten areas of family engagement, including Family Support, School Fit, School Climate and Barriers to Engagement.

The measure of Barriers to Engagement asks parents and guardians to respond to the question: “How big of a problem are the following issues for becoming involved with your child’s current school?” Then, parents rate the extent to which 13 factors present a challenge or obstacle for them in becoming more involved within the school.

Top Barriers to Family Engagement

We looked at data from the Family-School Relationships Survey, which includes responses from over 18,000 parents and guardians from diverse school communities across the country, to determine the most common barriers to engagement nationwide. Here are some key takeaways we found:

  • Lack of time presents the biggest barrier for parents becoming involved with their children’s schools. Over half (54%) of parents and guardians responded that their busy schedule is a medium to this very large problem.
  • One-quarter (25%) of parents and guardians cite childcare as a medium to a very large problem for them.
  • Other top barriers to engagement are more under the locus of control of schools. For example, 21% of parents worry that school staff will treat their child differently if the parent or guardian raises a concern. 18% of parents feel that their child’s school doesn’t provide enough information about opportunities to be involved.

The story doesn’t end with obstacles to building strong partnerships with families. With data in hand, family engagement coordinators and district leaders can take targeted steps to reduce barriers to engaging with families.

Next Steps for Building Family-School Partnerships

After gathering specific feedback from families about their perceptions of the factors that prevent them from involvement with school, districts can employ strategies to help reduce barriers and boost engagement. When schools identify, for example, that many parents and guardians feel “the school provides little information about involvement opportunities” they can rally administrators, family engagement coordinators and teachers around improved communication strategies.

Read the longer report on Reducing Barriers to Family Engagement to find more targeted strategies for reducing and overcoming common challenges and obstacles to engaging families.

For more, see:

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

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