Engaging Families


This last week I received a tee shirt from a friend. Across the front were the words ALLEGEDLY RETIRED. That’s very true for me. When I left my position as superintendent of a county school system, I lasted all of 20 minutes. Then it was time to get on with what I had come to believe was one of the most important things we can do — engaging families.

I realize that’s not what most of us signed up for. We all thought we were going to teach high school math, middle school science, or kindergarten. We like the age of the kids or the subject(s) or both and this is what we’d planned to do. Our university instruction gave us a couple of hours in one class on families so clearly it wasn’t a high priority. At least that’s what I thought.

As a parent, I had lots of questions and my own needs, as well as theirs, in order to try to understand and be mindful of what was happening and how to deal with what was happening.

That was before I got into the world of teaching and especially teaching of children with special needs. What I found there was a need not only to address the child’s learning, but the concerns and frustrations of the parents. When there’s a diagnosis of autism or when the child is born with Downs Syndrome, the parents may be at a total loss. Or in another case, when a very healthy child took a dive off a board and ended up breaking vertebrae that put her in a wheel chair and on a ventilator. There’s trauma to the child certainly, but there a huge trauma to the family as well. How they deal with it depends a good deal on how we deal with it.

As I spent more time in my career, I began to realize that most children had some sort of “special need” whether they were gifted and didn’t deal well with their peers or had a penchant for art or dance to the exclusion of math and science. Or perhaps it was the other way around where math and science were the first love above all else. Whatever the issue, it meant that the parents had some needs as well since what their child’s interests or issues are may not be what they’d anticipated. Two of my own children, who never needed special programs at school, clearly had needs. One had a liver disorder and the other had two heart valve replacements before she graduated from high school. As a parent, I had lots of questions and my own needs, as well as theirs, in order to try to understand and be mindful of what was happening and how to deal with what was happening.

Now let’s talk for a minute about the teachers and administrators with whom I worked. For the most part, they loved their work and were dedicated to it. Yet, if you look under the surface, here were the pains of life — marital struggles, payments, children, cancer and just running a classroom or a school. There were needs there too. They had families and clearly they had needs. Was anyone addressing those?

So yes, when retirement approached for me, it wasn’t about leaving education. It was about what else I could do and, again, in the most important area I had seen throughout my career — engaging families.

OK, if we agree that engaging families is important, how do we do that? I’ve written books on this topic so we won’t get to all the details here, but we’re going to start with some A, B, Cs.

A is Attitude. What is your attitude? What are your expectations of families, staff and most of all yourself? When I do workshops we always start here because what you’re thinking and what you believe is how you’re going to act and react. You will get the results you expect. We start there first. If you believe parents aren’t helpful, they aren’t. If you believe they can help you teach what you know you need to teach, then you will find ways to engage them in that teaching. Success starts with the attitude you hold. Ask yourself, what do I expect from parents? What do I expect from other staff members? What attitudes do I have about staff and parent interaction? If I could picture that relationship in the most ideal way, what would it look like? Once you have an answer for that question, you can move to the next step.

B is about Building Capacity. Often we think we are building the capacity of the parent to help with school work. Sometimes that’s the case. Often, though, it’s building the capacity of staff members to know how to interact with parents. And a step farther, it’s about building the capacity of staff and parents to work together toward achieving the goals they both want. Go back to your ideal. How do you build capacity to get there? Who would you work with first? Parents? Staff members? Don’t forget support staff. That front desk person can make or break a good relationship and relationships are definitely a capacity to build. 

That moves us to C. C is for Collaboration. One of the major things I suggest is a collaborative project where both parents and staff can work together on a common goal. I encourage the first two or three of these projects to about something both groups want and not particularly education related. Many schools have trouble with their drop-off and pick-up places. They’re not safe for kids, teachers or parents and all groups would like this one cleaned up. What a great place to collaborate and fix the issue. Create a group with both parents and staff to see if they can come up with some solutions.

This last one, C, is really important to test attitude and capacity building, but it’s key to building trust, interactions, and those all-important relationships. When you know who you can call on and that they will get the job done, it’s so much easier to trust that person with other things. You know them. You know they will come through for you.

Once the parking area is fixed you can move on to the landscaping or graffiti or some other area where again, you are building trust. Eventually, after there’s a level of comfortableness established, someone will ask if we can do something about reading or math. Sure. That will become the next project. And because you have a history of trust and problem solving together, you’ll, together — parents and staff — figure out a way to address this next hurdle as well.

A school I visited in the Republic of Georgia, yes the former Soviet country not the state of Georgia, had started their parent engagement program by asking the parents what they would like to engage with the staff on. The parents responded with something totally unexpected. They wanted to know more about breast cancer. Admittedly this threw the staff off. They were expecting some academic work that they knew about and could respond to easily. They weren’t sure if this is what they wanted to do at all. But they had asked, and they kept their word. They brought in several experts and set up workshops on breast cancer. Parents attended and interacted with the staff asking questions. Next the parents wanted safety issues and again, the staff responded. As their requests were heard and the parents and staff worked together, the school became a safe place. It was a place that listened to you. It was a place that had what you needed and you could even give suggestions and they heard you. The school became the hub for help, support and information. The school began to grow because people heard about it, and knew this was a place that would support not only children, but the parents as well. Today it’s several times the size of what it was originally and has an active parent-staff support network. It’s designated an International Baccalaureate school and attracts students from a wide variety of countries. Collaboration, according to both their director and their parent engagement person — starting with breast cancer awareness — was a big part of their success.

Does this take some time? Yes, it does. Is it possible to run into problems or give up altogether? Yes. However, I ask you not to. This is vitally important for you, the staff, the parents, and most especially the children. In the schools where we’ve implemented these kids of activities, the results have been clear, certainly in test results, but even more so in the attitudes toward school and learning for everyone involved. It makes a difference.

Is there more? Yes. We have a D, E, F and G as well as EdCoaching when you hit those snags and rough spots, but for now, if you implement the A, B, Cs you are doing a wonderful job of engaging parents.

Dr. Joni Samples is the author of The Parent Connection and the Parent Playbook series. She does workshops in Family Engagement through


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