George Lucas Educational Foundation
Parent Partnership

4 Ways to Support Partnerships With Families

An expert in special education shares strategies for building strong and enduring relationships with students’ families that every teacher can use.

April 10, 2024
frédéric Michel / iStock

The ways in which U.S. education agencies and personnel work and engage with families are constantly evolving, in both concept and practice. Increasingly, those relationships are shifting to a partnership model, in which families and professionals collaborate throughout the course of a child’s education.

There has always been an expectation that family engagement in education is primarily coordinated by the educational leadership in state agencies, districts, schools, and classrooms, causing teachers and administrators at every level to ask, “How do we do this?”

In 2011, I worked as the primary writer for WestEd, a research, development, and service agency, to assist the California Department of Education on the initial publication of the Family Engagement Framework: A Tool for California School Districts. The general education community was moving from “parental involvement,” which at the time seemed to describe and promote primarily one-way communication (from educators to families) and supportive volunteering (parents in classrooms and on school sites), to terms and practices intended to broaden interactions to include intentional information exchange, purposeful interaction, and meaningful participation—remember Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships

For those of us associated with special education, this approach was and is nothing new. So, the answer to “How do we do this?” is one we can help provide. After all, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires parental involvement at every level of implementation—from consent and participation in planning for an individual child through parent representation on local- and state-level advisory groups that provide input to lead agencies on fiscal and policy matters and system improvement. IDEA even requires and provides funding for parent centers, operated by parent organizations with a majority of board members who are parents of children with disabilities, to provide training and information to families and assist with dispute resolution. 

Navigating the complex landscape of family–professional partnerships in education is crucial. As the parent of an individual with disabilities and as a special education professional, I recommend four actions to support parents and professionals in working together effectively. 

What Educators and Parents Can Do

1. Intentionally prepare for partnership. First, know that no one has been intentionally and adequately prepared for these kinds of partnerships. Teacher, service provider, and administrator preparation programs may provide information about involvement requirements and resources under initiatives like the IDEA and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), but rarely will a pre-service program offer practice or experience in family–professional engagement. Likewise, most families don’t anticipate or have the knowledge and skills needed to engage in the active educational activities of their children, unless they are themselves educators.

New partners, both parents and educators, can access these useful resources for tools and inspiration:

  • “Leading by Convening” provides both a framework for state, district, and school leaders engaging stakeholders, broadly, and training modules and tools for implementing engagement activities. This resource is available on the resource library of the National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI) site. (Enter “leading” in the keyword search bar.)
  • Serving on Groups offers a guidebook and training modules for parents who want to engage.

2. Embrace mutual competence. Essentially, this means that the knowledge and experience of all partners are recognized and valued equally. While professionals hold subject matter expertise and mastery of educational systems and processes, families bring child- and community-specific expertise and have experienced the real-life impacts of educational systems and processes. 

The mutual competence ideal is illustrated nicely in the below two resources developed by the NCSI, both of which acknowledge the wisdom and values of both families and professionals when weighing research and other evidence related to important decisions.

  • Three Circles of Evidence-Based Decision Making in Early Childhood” presents information using terminology that is more familiar to pre-K and early elementary school parents and professionals. 
  • “Three Circles of Evidence-Based Decision Making to Support Students with Disabilities” presents information using terminology that is more familiar to parents of and professionals working with K–12 students. This is available in the NCSI resource library (linked in the “Leading by Convening” section above this section) by entering “3 circles” into the keyword search bar.

3. Assume good intention. Adapting this concept from a much-respected parent-professional mentor, Victor Bernstein, I urge potential partners to recognize the following:

  • Both families and professionals want what they believe is best for the children.
  • Both families and professionals can see what works and what doesn’t... usually on their own... but almost always with support.
  • Given the opportunity to really see (i.e., to realize–“real eyes”), both families and professionals will choose what is best.

4. Mindfully transition partnership and responsibility to the next generation. The family will continue to be a significant influence for years to come, because our children matter to us. Although family engagement in education tends to trend downward in middle school and high school years, the family–professional partnership at this stage may serve as a launching point for middle-school- and high school-aged youth to navigate the later years of their educational careers independently. 

When youth observe family members, teachers, and administrators engaged in respectful, supportive partnerships on their behalf, they begin to learn the communication and collaboration skills for building trust, promoting understanding, and working together to identify and address challenges. These groups can mindfully act in the following ways.

  • Education professionals can recognize and respect the family’s role and struggles and support them as they cede responsibility to their maturing child.
  • Families can support mutual understanding and shared decision-making between education professionals and youth, filling in information gaps that naturally exist for each. Professionals are getting to know evolving youth; youth are increasing their participation in unfamiliar systems and processes. 
  • Families and professionals together can support young adults to navigate their emerging independence by staying engaged, maintaining communication, and serving as neutral but supportive guides.

Raising and educating children and youth are challenging and rewarding undertakings. Families and professionals both experience hurdles and contribute significantly. Finding and collaborating with partners along the way is essential, as children thrive when the adults in their lives can genuinely work together.

What are the strategies you've found effective in building strong family-professional partnerships? Share your experiences in the comments.

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