Reimagining Family Engagement

By Heer Shaikh, Program Success Manager for Distance Learning

Over the last 12 months, I’ve had the opportunity to bear witness to the journey of thousands of educators and hundreds of thousands of families. As Partner Success Manager for Distance Learning at Ready4K, I’ve talked to educators who have completely reinvented the learning experience during COVID-19 and others who have maintained a consistent, in-person experience for their students. While the school districts, ECE providers, Head Starts, and state agencies that we partner with have all had their own path, I’ve also seen how they are all reimagining family engagement.

As schools are actively planning their re-opening, mitigating learning loss has become top priority. The coming summer and school year will especially be critical in providing support to students and families to bridge gaps in learning and move towards the new normal. It is also clear that family engagement practices from the pandemic will continue to be an integral part of curbing the learning loss.

Now, as educators and families once again shift gears, I’m honored to share these insights with you, the education leader, to inform your family engagement plans.

Innovating in Real Time

Ever since school closures last year, schools have been innovating and searching for ways to ensure that children continue to receive quality education at home. And that families have access to essential resources and tools to support their child’s learning. Schools have held virtual parent meetings and trainings, leveraged family liaisons to provide virtual support to high needs families, and also offered a plethora of online resources to parents and caregivers.

Since this is the first time many parents are seeing up close what and how their children are learning, a new space has been created which has brought schools and families closer than ever before. Parents and caregivers are now at the forefront of providing their children with consistent learning and engagement. And schools are constantly finding ways to equip families with tools to do so, keeping in mind the broader equity issues of access to the internet, time, and other resources that enable remote learning.

The Impact of COVID: What Families Say

In our most recent family engagement survey, we dug into how families think COVID has affected their child’s learning and growth. Families reported feeling overwhelmed with managing jobs and their child’s virtual learning schedules, as well as balancing the teacher-parent dynamic with their child. Parents and caregivers have also experienced feeling isolated and frustrated.

“Having me as mom & teacher is tough. It has put a damper on our relationships because I have to be a strict bad guy all the time with homework and learning. Also household chores.”

“Frustration, too much screen time, lack of interaction with peers”.

“It has delayed academic milestones in Math and ELA for both children. They are both back in person, but a lot of time has been lost between March 2020- January 2021. The rest of the school year and summer will be spent bridging the gaps.”

Dual language speakers also reported unique struggles, including understanding homework assignments.

“Children in general are not prepared for virtual teaching, which is more complicated for them if parents do not understand the language.”

“Le ha afectado ya que nosotros no sabemos inglés entonces es más difícil aprender en casa.”

And as my colleague, Rebecca Honig, wrote in last week’s post, many families expressed concern with their children missing out on social engagement and learning loss. 

“Covid has caused my children to have anxiety and it has made it hard for them to learn and impacted social skills”

However, families also reflected on the experience of observing their children’s learning this close. And the opportunity to remain more involved with their child’s learning and schooling in the future.

“He has become a more independent, responsible and caring person. We have become closer as a family.”

“I learned my son’s learning style and he has thrived.”

Learning from COVID: The Future of Family Engagement

As lockdowns began last year, we saw many districts and ECE providers creatively boost their family engagement efforts in order to reach the hardest hit families. They leveraged Ready4K to gain information from their families to understand their challenges. They crafted messages to provide at-home literacy and math support – all through text messaging. Some of our partners also used the Ready4K surveys to learn what resources and basic necessities families needed the most and linked their families to those resources.

Providing families tools that build on their strengths has proved to be pivotal during the pandemic. Education providers have enrolled over 400,000 families in Ready4K across the country just last year. To understand how their thinking has evolved over this year, we asked the educators we serve about how Ready4K has played a role in their family engagement efforts.

Here are the guiding principles Ready4K partners have shared with us about how they’re reimagining family engagement.

1. Support parents in their journey and put parental self-care at the forefront

Parental self-care is critical to the wellbeing of children. The pandemic has caused heightened stress levels among adults, especially among underserved adults and people of color. School leaders have told us that it’s important to them to provide support for parents on managing stress and practicing self-care. 

“We still cannot let families into the building, so much of the engagement is happening over zoom, Ready4K and phone calls. We encourage our families to stay calm and breathe. This is such a difficult and scary time for families; we want to help them establish an active learning area in the home for their little learner, rather than add to the anxiety of the unknown and ever-changing situation.”

— Butler County Early Head Start, Kentucky

2. Provide parents with constant and consistent support

Routines are essential to building new habits. That includes learning habits. The educators we partner with tell us that they are looking for support building those learning muscles. Caregivers and parents tell us that they feel supported by knowing every week they’ll get a new set of Fact/Tip/Growth messages because it helps them develop a routine of engaging their child in different learning activities throughout the week.

“I look forward to seeing… every message you put out. I share it with my grandchildren. Last week I had a camp out in my back yard with my grandchildren ages 13, 8,7, 4. We played building a story they enjoyed it so much! Thank you for keeping families involved ❤️

— Grandparent in Corpus Christi, TX

3. Offer strengths-based family engagement that builds the home-school relationship

School leaders have been reporting that they cannot ask families to take on additional responsibilities or build new skills. Any family engagement programming needs to leverage existing skills and routines. Understanding what families feel they need and can do is essential.

“Ready4K gives us a platform to be more engaged with families. It provides valuable information for parents and helps provide a platform to ask more open-ended questions to the families that we serve.”

— Jasper Area Family Services, Alabama

4. Minimize screen-time, focus on in-person support

As we shared last week, screen time is a significant concern to parents. Partners are also concerned about the lack of direct adult-to-child engagement, which is the hallmark of early childhood education. Parents are also looking for learning ideas that they can use at any time, and activities that integrate into their daily routines. 

We have had wonderful feedback from families. Most recently a mom shared how her toddler had so much fun on an outdoor walk because she used the recommended strategies of walking fast, slow, big steps, small steps, etc. The mom shared that they had struggled with keeping the child engaged during walks…THANK YOU.”

— First 5 Siskiyou County, California

5. Link families to critical resources 

Partners have told us again and again that they rely on in-person moments to share resources with families. The casual pick-up/drop-off conversations play a major role in understanding family needs and providing access to resources. With the loss of these organic conversations, we have seen a significant increase in partners’ use of the Ready4K custom messaging and surveying system.

Ready4K has been a fantastic resource during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our agency has been able to send out information to families about important pandemics programs. When special Covid-19 EBT benefits became available, we were able to send out the application via a link using Ready4K.

Because the messages going out are text messages, parents can receive them without needing internet access on their phone. Many families have very small data plans and cannot download large amounts of content without using up all their precious data. (Sequatchie Valley Head Start, Tennessee)

Leaning into a new family engagement future

We know that family engagement has evolved this year. No one expects families and schools to revert to the pre-COVID relationship model. As I work with education leaders to support their families, I look forward to sharing how this evolution informs whatever the future holds.

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