The word engage is defined as “the act of engaging: the state of being engaged; emotional involvement or commitment.” The word engagement has been used everywhere lately. Coaches tell their kids to engage their teammates, bloggers help with tips on how to engage with social media, and parents tell their children to engage their friends more. But what is family engagement?

For starters, without families, we don’t have students, and without students, we don’t have schools. So why is family engagement important to principals and school districts?

Families are a key player in the initial entry into the learning process. Beginning in the preschool years, when parents send their toddlers off for three to six hours a day to learn how to read, be creative, and interact with others—to the elementary years, when children are taught for seven hours a day—families make that choice to release their child from the safety of home so they can learn and grow as individuals.

Family engagement is woven through all levels, from administrators to teachers to staff. Parents and caregivers need to know how to support their child interacting with everyone from the front office staff to the librarian, the teachers, and the principal.

Barriers to Engagement

One important thing to note is that engagement is becoming harder to do in person. Parents are on the go, traveling for business or personal reasons, and finding the time to make it all work is not an easy task. With both parents working in more than 61 percent of families across the United States, the available hours in the day to “engage” become fewer and fewer.

The ability to connect with a parent about a homework assignment or an emotional reaction during school can be critical for a student’s success and development. Using social media, where only a portion of parents log on, or only using a one-way push notification to get information to families is no longer enough—families want to be part of the process and be truly immersed in their child’s school day. Smart use of technology can be the answer.

The Smartphone Society

According to a 2018 Pew study, 98 percent of adults age 30–49 use their cellphones daily. This gives schools an opportunity to reach families digitally and conduct the two-way communication needed for family engagement and discussion. This method of communicating can involve real-time engagement and allow teachers and administrators to connect with families the moment the event happens rather than after the fact, representing true family engagement that takes advantage of technological advancements and cultural changes.

It’s important to remember that family engagement is a process, not an event or a series of events, just like learning. Having a sustainable tool with which to do this is critical for long-term success. Principals and parents should look carefully at web-based tools that provide a safe, private social network for all constituents at the school level to engage family members and help support and assist students during their learning journey.

Research vendors work with school districts across the country, at any size and level, and use student information systems to collect the necessary data. We build the private network for the schools, making for an easy transition.

At LivingTree, we discuss best practices during our intense training sessions to showcase the difference between communication and engagement. Topics such as, “how to properly post,” “how often to post,” and “what content to populate” help parents ask the kinds of questions that provoke real engagement and ultimately move the needle to see the academic success we all want for our children.

When used thoughtfully and respectfully, technology can be the vehicle through which families and teachers are connected, creating continuity among all stakeholders. Whether you are the head coach or cheerleader, there is a reason to be in the game, and parents want to be able to see and respond when that child needs or wants the input.

Denise Burke is director of sales and business development for LivingTree, an education management firm based in Austin, TX. Burke has a master’s degree in educational technology and specializes in family engagement in both the preschool and K–12 sectors.