Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Family Engagement — Equitable and Everywhere

New ideas on how to create opportunities for all parents and all children
A blurry photograph of adults and children inside a museum

These days, education is happening all the time, in settings far beyond schools. Family engagement should be, too.

According to a new report in Phi Delta Kappan from the Harvard Family Research Project, a constellation of institutions and programs are providing more targeted learning opportunities than ever before. Libraries and museums have fully embraced their educational mission; after-school programs are moving beyond homework help to become veritable salons of robotics, coding, or the arts; and digital media are giving kids a boundless playing field for creative expression, activism, and collaboration.

As out-of-school spaces become more prominent in kids’ overall learning lives, current thinking about family engagement — so key to kids’ achievement — has to shift. “It’s no longer enough to focus family engagement solely on what happens in school,” says Heather Weiss, HFRP’s founder and director. “We have to reimagine this concept within the many opportunities available for anywhere, anytime learning — and we have to make sure those opportunities are available for all families.”

Variation Across the Spectrum

Unsurprisingly, access to high-quality out-of-school learning varies widely across family income levels, just as school-based opportunities do. High-income parents spend nearly seven times more money on out-of-school enrichment activities than low-income counterparts, the HFRP report says. And even when low-income children do take part in extracurricular enrichment, their parents are less likely to be able to take the time to share in the learning experience.

“From early on in their children’s lives, families that suffer from economic adversity spend less time with their children in places like zoos, museums, and libraries,” says M. Elena Lopez, HFRP’s associate director. As the report states, by the time they reach 6th grade, "middle-class students have spent 6,000 more hours in learning activities outside school than students born into poverty.”

“We need a more equitable approach to family engagement,” Weiss continues, “one that takes into account family strengths and a shared responsibility assumed by families, schools, and communities for children’s development across time and in different settings.”

A Boundless Model of Family Engagement

Family engagement in today’s “anywhere, anytime learning” settings rests on three principles:

Shared responsibility: Families support learners in pursuing interests and developing competencies, while schools and communities offer families the knowledge, skills, trust, and encouragement to do so.

  • Example of success: Makeshop, an exhibit space at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh that engages 8–12 year olds in hands-on learning with old and new technologies. The museum provides accessibility tools for children with developmental disabilities, discounts admission for low-income families, and encourages families and children to work side-by-side.

Connection: Families, schools, and communities connect children to learning opportunities across different community settings, such as libraries, after-school programs, and summer programs.

  • Example of success: Greenwood Shalom, an afterschool program in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, which enrolls students from various cultural backgrounds and offers a series of talks by community guest speakers from those different backgrounds on issues related to culture and immigration. It gets parents involved in their children’s development through empowerment seminars that, in turn, promote their engagement in schools.

Continuity: Families, schools, and communities co-create learning pathways that begin in the early years and continue through young adulthood, working to maintain pathways through transitions periods.

  • Example of success: Comienza en Casa (It Starts at Home), a Maine program for migrant preschool and kindergarten children run by Mano en Mano (Hand in Hand). Families come together to discuss learning goals and activities for different curricular units, participate in hands-on learning, and share questions and stories. They get an iPad at no cost, preloaded with curricular materials. Read more on Comienza and kindergarten transition.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles