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Concrete tips for making family engagement happen
Photo of Professor Karen Mapp

Educational leaders know a lot about family engagement, says Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, speaking at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Bold Ideas & Critical Conversations event on September 19, and they know a lot about its impact on student outcomes.

Students with engaged families:

  • earn higher grades and test scores;
  • enroll in higher-level academic programs;
  • are promoted on time and earn more credits;
  • adapt better to school and attend more regularly;
  • have better social skills and behaviors; and
  • graduate and go on to postsecondary opportunities.

So if we know all of this, Mapp asks, why are schools still struggling to increase family engagement? What really works when it comes to cultivating partnerships between home and school?

Mapp has assembled a list of best practices, based on her work with districts, schools, and parents. Effective family engagement, she says, must be:

Relational. “Relationships matter,” she says. “A lot of times we jump straight to the program — do this — but we haven’t gotten to know each other as people, and that’s really important in districts where there’s been a lot of distrust between home and school.”

Interactive. “We learn more when we get some dirt under our fingernails and do it together,” Mapp says.

Collaborative. “Families and communities have funds of knowledge that we need [in order] to be better educators.”

Developmental. “If we’re only going to provide services to families, and not build their capacities, then nobody learns, nobody grows.”

Linked to learning. “This is one of the pieces that’s easy to fix, but we don’t get it right,” Mapp says, asking the audience to think about a typical school open house, where parents are shunted from the auditorium or cafeteria — where they hear from the principal about rules and requirements — to the classroom, where they hear from the teacher about more rules and requirements. “Do I get to learn, as a parent, a new tip or tool, or [do I get to] practice something that helps support my kids’ learning? Not usually,” says Mapp. “Do the teachers get to hear from me about what I know about my kid that might help them be a better teacher to my child? No.” By not linking school events like open houses to real learning opportunities, Mapp says, we’re missing a key opportunity to build lasting family engagement. 


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