There’s a long-standing myth that engaging families in their children’s education is inherently challenging. As many educators know, however, the challenge isn’t parents’ willingness to be engaged, but schools’ ability to engage them.
We tackled this challenge head-on at my school this past year, employing design thinking to understand parents’ needs, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, and test—and retest—what worked to address them. We wanted to determine how we could provide highly engaging at-home activities for preschool families that support school-readiness. We followed a six-phase approach: scoping, recruitment, research, brainstorming, prototyping, and testing. Over eight weeks, our team worked with more than 20 parents who planned to enroll in our Hayward, California, preschool program to brainstorm test ideas.
What we learned has made a significant impact on our parent engagement efforts. Between our first and third rounds of tests, parents who responded to our survey reported that they had nearly doubled their engagement.
3 Ways to Transform Parent Engagement
1. Give parents just a few hands-on activities that they can incorporate into their daily routines. When we started, our first prototype was a monthly binder with 12 to 16 age-appropriate worksheets for the month. But engagement was low. Parents in our test group told us, “As a parent, you never feel like you are doing enough.” By sharing too many activities, we inadvertently contributed to parents’ feeling unsuccessful.
So, as the testing process evolved, we significantly reduced the number of activities we shared with families, from about three or four per week to just four per month. We also noticed that parents gravitated toward activities that were more hands-on and physical—using a bingo dauber to stamp-trace the first letter of their child’s name or creating patterns out of miniature blocks. These were both interactive and portable, making them easy for families to build into existing routines. When parents were allowed to focus on just a few items and were given activities that were fun to do with their child, they were able to engage more deeply and feel a sense of accomplishment that built up both their and their child’s confidence.
2. To remove any barriers, give parents everything they need. We learned the hard way that asking parents to collect items from their own home is a barrier for many busy families. For example, we initially asked parents to gather some string and a bowl of Cheerios and have their child string the cereal to build their fine motor skills. With this level of preparation, parents engaged at low rates. But, when we provided the string, the Cheerios, and a photo showing how to do the activity at home, parents participated at significantly higher rates.
Now, for every parent engagement activity, we ask ourselves, “What are we asking parents to do to make this activity happen?” From there, we examine what obstacles they might face (no Cheerios in the house, can’t find any string, can’t envision what the finished product should look like), and we work diligently to remove any barriers by providing what’s needed in advance. Helping parents get to the finish line the first time makes them more likely to repeat the activity.
3. Introduce one concept at a time. Early in the design process, we sent parents text-heavy documents with detailed instructions for completing a task like reading. We quickly realized that we were far more successful with engaging parents if we presented just one concept at a time in our handouts, kept any text under three lines, and used visual aids to demonstrate the concept or instructions.
For example, rather than a one-to-two-page handout explaining everything parents should consider doing while reading with their child (follow along with your finger, talk about the book’s cover, ask your child to predict what will happen on the next page), we chose one concept each month to ask them to practice. One month, we simply noted in very large text, “When you read with your child, be sure to use your finger to point to the words you’re reading,” with an image of a hand pointing to the words to illustrate the concept. The next month, after parents had had time to master one concept, we asked them to try a new one. We found that practicing one skill at a time reinforces parents’ confidence in their ability to support their child’s learning.
While we still have much room for growth in our parent engagement work, we are thrilled to have had the opportunity to learn from our parents about how they want to be engaged and what they need to feel supported by our school. As schools and educators continue to listen, learn, and lean on the lessons of others, we can collectively debunk the myths of parent engagement and form a partnership that will benefit our schools, students, and communities.