Joyce Epstein, a regarded scholar on ways communities build effective relationships, suggests three overlapping spheres of influence that need tending for positive outreach: family, school, and community. Students, parents, and educators working in these spheres may do things to push them apart or draw them together.
Underlying Epstein’s theory of overlapping spheres are several principles supported both by common sense, as well as research.
First, all families care about their children, and they want them to succeed. Parents, whether biological or otherwise, are eager to support their students in learning in lots of ways, not the least of which is by obtaining better information from schools. Yes, a very small percentage of parents are neglectful, maybe even abusive, toward their children, but these infrequent cases prove the general rule: parents care deeply about their kids.
Likewise, just about all teachers and administrators strive to involve families, yet they may not know how to begin or sustain their efforts.
Students at all levels, whether primary or secondary, want their families to be involved in school. Examples of this appear early. Students take an active role in assisting with communications between home and school. Every public school parent is familiar with students bringing home handouts, attending conferences, or hearing reports of class activity.
Another principle is good partnerships look different between schools and even classrooms. There is plenty of evidence to show that caring communities can be created and sustained and that previously non-participating families become more involved as a result of focused effort.
These common sense and empirically proven principles are accompanied by another set of research-findings, suggesting some challenges. Partnerships tend to decline over time, affluent communities tend to have more positive family involvement, educators teaching in low-income communities tend to contact parents more often about negative aspects of student behavior and learning, and single parents and parents who live far from the school, along with fathers, tend to be less involved.
Knowing about these challenges does not mean giving in to them. They can be overcome by implementing effective programs for a school, or effective strategies for a classroom.
Effective outreach includes traditional communications, like sending informational handouts, report cards, and conducting parent-teacher conferences. But effective outreach goes beyond this. It includes creation of a family-like environment that treats students as individuals, takes an interest in students, and acknowledges student learning gains based on improvement over time. It also makes parents feel welcome, valued, and connected to the school and classroom.
Specific activities and additional strategies for improving partnerships include
1. Communicating often and in different ways. Sending emails, handouts, or updating a class website. Communications may include an array of information, such as weekly learning goals or points of inquiry, accomplishments and areas of growth.
2. Ensuring balance between positive and corrective communications. Calling home to provide a positive update or invite questions, or to celebrate some success.
3. Leading or ending with positive comments, even when the majority of a communication is corrective. Asking parents or students about the strengths or interests of a child as a way to conclude a difficult conversation.
4. Asking questions as part of the communication process, learning about parents and their life circumstances, before providing suggestions.
5. Learning about students, their interests, strengths, and weaknesses.
6. Listening carefully to parents and students
7. Providing resources for parents to help their kids learn subject matter
8. Avoiding homework assignments that are excessively difficult, or that exclude parents from helping
9. Focusing on problems, without listing some possible solutions.
Epstein, J. L. (2010). School/family/community partnerships. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(3), 81-96.
Henderson, A. T. & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence. Austin, TX: National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools.