By Suzanne McCabe, Scholastic Kids Press Editor and Host of the Scholastic Reads podcast
In this Q&A blog post, Jenni Brasington describes effective strategies for districts and schools to engage with families and help children succeed. Jenni is the Director of Consultative Services for Scholastic FACE. “Family engagement,” she says, “is a critical component to improving student academic achievement.” Jenni’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is your role at Scholastic?
Jenni Brasington: I work primarily with teachers in districts around the country, helping them to understand how critical family engagement is and the link between family engagement and student achievement.
Many educators haven't received a lot of training in engaging with families. I’m a former teacher and administrator. The expectation is: “It’s common sense.” Yet for many of us, especially when we’re younger or new to teaching, it can be scary to talk to a parent. No one told us how to do that well, and no one coached us.
At Scholastic, we have a great partner in Dr. Karen Mapp, and we align our work with her Dual Capacity-Building Framework. It’s not just about offering workshops for families. Educators need to ask themselves: “What do I believe about families? Do I believe that they want the best for their child? Do I believe that they can support learning?”
Q: What are you hearing from families about the challenges they’ve faced during the pandemic?
Jenni Brasington: What I hear most from families is about the constant change. They understand the reasons why. But the constant pivoting is hard for everyone, especially for younger kids. We all respond better when we can stick to a consistent schedule. Yet, there is no consistent schedule. That’s the hardest part. And then the uncertainty, for all of us. As adults, we’re trying to take care of ourselves, physically and mentally, and our kids.
When the pandemic first started, families were making sure that they had the virtual components they needed to be able to communicate. Now what we hear is: “Are my kids on track? What will you do to make sure they’ll be ready for next year? What additional pieces are you putting in place, and how can I support that?”
Q: What supports are in place?
Jenni Brasington: Each district is handling that very differently, whether it’s after-school programs, tutoring programs, or weekend programs. But recently, the programs have been tough to implement because of staffing shortages due to the surge of COVID-19. All of this combined is super stressful, not just for the staff, but for the families. And it’s stressful on our kids.
Q: During the pandemic, the percentage of students suffering from anxiety and depression has risen significantly, according to several studies. How do we help families cope?
The more we acknowledge that, the better. And the more we can engage with families in conversation, just to get it out there, the more helpful we can be. We need to put families in contact with each other as a support, so that they aren’t socially isolated. When we rely on each other and build upon each other’s strengths, we can learn from each other.
This won’t be the last pandemic or the last tragedy, so building and strengthening resilience in our families and students is critical. And we have all these superpowers within us. We have to empower each other to utilize them and see these as opportunities to grow stronger. If we come together and use the strengths of each other—the school, the families, and our community—we’ll be stronger.
Q: What are some of the most effective ways for schools and families to keep the lines of communication open?
Jenni Brasington: The first thing is not to rely on just one way to communicate. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we relied too much on sending a flyer or hosting an in-person event. While we want to see families, that’s not realistic. We can do virtual events. Even when we go back to whatever will be our new normal, we should always do things in-person and virtually.
We should always run texting campaigns and use other communication channels, because there’s not one right way. What’s going to work for you may not work for me and may not work for my neighbor. And what’s going to work one year may not work the next year. We have to be innovating constantly. We know that one of the best approaches is to build strong and trusting relationships. That means starting the year off with a phone call and checking on each other: “Hi, how are you? I'm so-and-so's teacher. Tell me a little bit about yourself?” That could happen with a phone call. A text is less personal, but if that’s the way you can reach out to somebody, then that’s a great first step. Or a conversation like we’re having. Keep the lines open. Don’t just expect families to come to you. Get out in the community, take community walks, co-create and co-plan with your families.
Families are more vocal these days. We want them to be vocal. Utilize those parents to help you plan, to help you co-create something. They can offer fresh ideas. They can support and help you. What’s most important to families is when we give them information about their child. As much as we can, we should tell them how their child is doing, being honest and clear, and then provide them with tangible, concrete strategies: “Here’s how you can support your child at home.”
Keep the communication simple. When I get an email and it’s super long, I tend not to read it. Bullet information. Use pictures. Make sure it’s in the languages that represent your community. Review your communications with your families. You want to make sure that what you intend to get across is getting across.
Q: How have educators and families shifted their view of each other during the pandemic? What do you hope we carry forward?
Jenni Brasington: More and more of our teachers see families as a true learning partner, an equal partner in the process. Each of us brings something vital to ensuring the child’s success. We should honor and value and recognize that we all carry an invisible tool belt. But I have to learn what’s in your tool belt, and you have to know what’s in mine, so that we can work together. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that parents want to support their children. They want to work as partners. Sometimes they just need to be honored for that, valued for that, and we need to show them. Just as we do with kids in the classroom, we have to model for the adults and give them time to practice what we want them to support at home.
Q: Is there an example you could share of a school or community coming together to help support children?
Jenni Brasington: We talk about how family engagement is often seen as an afterthought: “Once we get done with all that academic stuff, we’re going to do the family engagement piece.” Family engagement should be a strategy that helps to support the instructional piece. Whether it’s a back-to-school nights or literacy events, we work with our district partners to focus not just on children, but on families and teachers. If we want to change a practice in adults, they need to be doing the learning. We may review read-aloud strategies, with adults practicing strategies and reading with each other. This gives the adults a chance to learn from each other. Then we invite the children to come back, and the adults practice what they’ve learned. We want families to leave with a new tip, tool, or strategy that they can implement at home. We take something that we’ve already been doing and tweak it so that adults get hands-on practice and modelling. This helps them feel more confident in engaging in the practice at home.
Q: What is the next step for effective family engagement?
Jenni Brasington: Family engagement is a critical component to improving student academic achievement. Schools and teachers that had developed strong, trusting relationships before the pandemic had a much easier time engaging with families.
Building relationships takes time. It needs to happen at the start of any school year and be ongoing. It’s important to listen to families and honor their voices. We need to try to reach all families, not just the ones that always show up. We may need to look at additional innovative ways to make sure that we reach those families who haven’t participated as much as we’d like them to.
Participation and engagement look different for every family. If you get your child to school every day, that’s engagement. We always want to build upon a family’s strengths. Our motto is: All families are engaged, and we can always move from good to great.