The vast majority of federal and state programs that concern children -- from early childhood, elementary, secondary, and community education, to health, juvenile justice, and welfare -- have policies, guidelines and requirements about reaching out to and communicating with families.
Although the concept of “family engagement” is gaining recognition, parents, educators, public officials, and community leaders mean many different things when they use this term. In addition, there is uncertainty about how to most effectively collaborate with families to support children’s success.
Connecticut’s Definition and Framework
In 2017, Connecticut began the process of developing a definition and framework to guide family engagement from birth through college and career. Three partners, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE), the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC) and the Connecticut Early Childhood Funders Collaborative (ECFC), joined with parents, educators and communities to co-create a common definition, framework and guiding principles for advancing family engagement efforts across the state, which were recently published online.
During the process of co-creating the new definition and framework, hundreds of stakeholders provided input and guidance through a series of focus groups, surveys and a statewide symposium. Anne T. Henderson, a national expert on family engagement and a senior consultant at the National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement, guided these activities. The message from parents, families, educators, policy makers and community members was increasingly clear and consistent:
Family Engagement is a full, equal, and equitable partnership among families, educators and community partners to promote children’s learning and development from birth through college and career.
Participants in the process voiced their ideas about the meaning of key words in the definition:
- Full means that families, educators and community partners collaborate closely and consistently in promoting children’s learning and development. This includes making sure that ALL children not only have access to high quality learning opportunities, but also the supports they need to succeed.
- Equal means that families and educators recognize that both bring valuable knowledge to the table. Parents know their children, culture, and community. Educators are trained in curriculum and child development. Their deep knowledge and skills are complementary, overlapping, and essential to ensuring success for all children.
- Equitable means that families are empowered to work with educators, public officials, and community partners to remove systemic, structural, and organizational barriers that perpetuate inequities and injustice. This includes ready access to ample opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills to become full and equal partners in that deliberate and intentional work.
Feedback from participants in the process also informed the establishment of guiding principles that reflect a partnership mindset and are grounded in the research.
What Might High-Impact Family Engagement Look Like in Early Childhood Programs?
The framework illustrates how early childhood, elementary school, high school and after school programs can shift their family engagement practices from lower to higher impact. For example, in many early childhood programs, teachers send home written materials on developmental domains (e.g., social-emotional development, cognition, language and literacy). The impact on children’s learning and development would likely be higher if programs held evening meetings where staff share information about specific domains with families and show how classroom activities support development in those domains. The impact would likely be higher still if parents were able to participate in classroom observations during which teachers model strategies to support specific learning goals at home, followed by an opportunity for families to ask questions, practice strategies with each other, and go home with a “tip sheet.”
Connecticut’s definition and framework for family engagement is designed to encourage common understanding and collaboration, making it easy for all parties -- educators, providers, community partners, and families -- to understand what is expected of them and what effective practice looks like. The CSDE has also produced a collection of evidence-based practices in family engagement that supports implementation of the framework. The Evidence-Based Practice Guide for Student/Family/Community Engagementprovides descriptions, citations and links to well-designed research studies. The CSDE, OEC, and ECFC are promoting use of these resources to develop a robust culture of partnership between families and professionals throughout all education and human service programs.
Judy Carson, Ph.D. is an Education Consultant in the CSDE Office of Student Supports
 The terms family/ies and parent/s are used in this article to represent any adult caretakers who have responsibility for the well-being of a child or children.
 The term educators is used to mean any person who teaches or is involved in planning or directing experiences that promote learning and development.