You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

FINE Newsletter, Volume IV, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Facilitating Continuous Family Engagement


In this Commentary, Harvard Family Research Project’s Senior Research Analyst, Heidi Rosenberg, looks at the ways in which schools, programs, and other community institutions can help facilitate continuous family engagement to help children succeed.

In our April 2010 FINE Newsletter Commentary, “Family Engagement from Cradle to Career,” we unpacked how family engagement affects children at different stages of the developmental continuum (early childhood, the elementary years, and middle/high school) and what effective family engagement looks like at different stages along that trajectory. In the current issue of the FINE Newsletter, we discuss how schools, programs, and other community institutions can facilitate continuous family engagement so that once engaged, families understand not only why their continued involvement is important, but also how they can remain effectively engaged as their children grow and develop. Doing so entails recognizing some of the pivotal entry points—and entry mechanisms—that can help build parents’ capacity to effectively support their children’s growth and development.

Educators, community leaders, and other stakeholders can all help create the conditions for effective and ongoing family engagement through a number of targeted approaches. These include relationship-building outreach strategies, transition programs that help families adjust to their young children’s school entry, and college readiness activities that reflect the developmental needs of adolescents and allow families of all educational backgrounds to take concrete steps to support their children’s ability to enter and succeed in college.


Long before children enter formal schooling, parents and other caregivers help shape the foundations for early learning, influencing children’s language and literacy development as well as their general curiosity for exploring and learning new concepts. Many young children in the U.S. already have access to high-quality early learning programs, which help create healthy foundations for future learning and growth. For those who don’t have easy access to such learning environments—whose families are stressed by poverty and other socio-environmental factors —programs such as Head Start and state-funded preschool programs have stepped in to provide a host of child and family services with the aim of empowering families to support their children’s growth and thrive as a family system.

Since its inception, the Head Start program has involved families in the programming provided to young children, recognizing that parents and other caregivers need to learn the skills and gain the confidence to be active partners in promoting their children’s learning. Yet programs like Head Start do not always have an easy time reaching out to the families they seek to serve, as these families have often had negative experiences with other assistance programs that leave them wary and reluctant to engage with such agencies. The way that programs go about reaching out to and engaging families suffering from crises of poverty and other socio-environmental stressors is crucially important, for it is often those initial contacts with home visitors and other family-facing staff that make the difference between a family engaging or retreating. This issue’s Voices from the Field selection features the reflections of Nikia Parker, a nurse and mother of 6 children, who started out as a “hard-to-reach” parent but experienced the transformative power of a strong and steadfast relationship with her family’s Early Head Start home visitor. That relationship provided the foundation not only for Nikia’s continued engagement with Head Start services for her children, but also for her growth as an advocate and leader within and beyond the Head Start community.

Even for those parents who are actively engaged in early learning programs, the transition to kindergarten marks a milestone often fraught with anxiety and uncertainty as to their proper role in continuing to serve as their child’s “first teacher.” Early learning environments are often set up to encourage and incorporate active family engagement; public school settings are often not so well equipped. Parents frequently report that they don’t receive adequate information about what kindergarten will be like for their children; what actually constitutes “kindergarten readiness” and how they can help promote it; and, generally, how to prepare their children for what may be the very first foray into an outside-the-home learning environment. Just as importantly, parents often express dismay that their children’s kindergarten teachers don’t seem to welcome, much less actively encourage, their involvement once the school year begins.

To address these concerns, a number of states and local districts are developing robust kindergarten transition programs that prepare both young children and their families for the entry into kindergarten. Such programs not only inform families about the kindergarten experience, but also act as a bridge to facilitate parents’ ongoing commitment to and involvement in their children’s growth and development. This issue of the FINE Newsletter features a new research/policy brief on the transition to kindergarten, Ready for Success: Creating Collaborative and Thoughtful Transitions into Kindergarten, authored by Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Christine Patton and Justina Wang, which profiles promising collaborative transition programs in 6 states that rely on both local- and state-level leadership. The brief includes recommendations for how other states and local programs can help facilitate family engagement during this pivotal time.


Another crucial time for family engagement is during adolescence, when children are honing the academic and other skills that will help them succeed in college. Families often feel at a loss for how to effectively engage with their children’s education during adolescence, when children’s burgeoning independence and the increasing complexity of their academic work often leave parents wondering what roles they can, and should, play during this stage.

Indeed, family engagement in support of college readiness encompasses a broad range of actions that go beyond volunteering in the classroom or monitoring homework, such as setting clear expectations about school attendance, helping adolescents with time management, and offering guidance about afterschool programs that can enrich adolescents’ learning. In their new book, Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success, authors Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne Bouffard discuss the developmental competencies that aid college readiness, such as identity development, motivation and goal setting, and self-regulatory skills, which differ from standard notions of “academic” college preparation. These developmental processes lay the groundwork for students to take ownership over their learning and sustain their progress toward educational goals. Importantly, these developmental competencies are accessible enough that any family—no matter what their educational background or English language proficiency may be—can actively support them. In this issue of the FINE Newsletter's Tips and Tools section, we feature an article by Mandy and Suzanne that provides 5 important ways that educators can help families support the developmental competencies that foster college readiness.


While family engagement benefits all students and there are some universal components to any effective family engagement strategy, some special populations of children and families need an enhanced and more targeted form of family engagement to help them succeed. The families of students with disabilities, for instance, have a unique role to play in supporting their children’s education, aided by provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) that require parents to be involved in the process of creating Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Yet just because family involvement is built into the law does not mean it proceeds effortlessly, or productively, in all cases. Special education teachers and parents of students with disabilities often face a competing set of tensions that can make it harder for positive home–school partnerships to form. This FINE issue features a new HFRP resource to help provide guidance in this area: Family Engagement and Children with Disabilities: A Resource Guide for Educators and Parents —a compilation of resources that both special educators and families can use to help promote positive and productive family engagement that benefits students with disabilities.

As you read the articles in this issue, we encourage you to:

  • Think about the families you’ve had a difficult time reaching out to and engaging in your students’ learning. What might be driving their resistance? How can you connect with them in new and different ways to build a positive and trusting relationship?
  • Reflect on what your district or community does to help support young children’s and families’ transition into kindergarten. Are these efforts multipronged and collaborative, or based on one-time events such as a late summer open house? Are there ways you can build on your existing transition approaches to help facilitate active and ongoing family engagement?
  • Consider the special student/family populations your district or community serves. What are some of their unique needs that affect your family engagement work with them? How can you tailor your family engagement strategies to address these needs?


This resource is part of the September 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit


© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project