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FINE Newsletter, Volume I, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Family Involvement and Out-of-School Time

Harvard Family Research Project Commentary

Families play important roles in supporting children’s learning not just in school but also in the many out-of-school contexts in which they learn. Harvard Family Research Project’s Helen Westmoreland talks about how families and nonschool learning settings, such as out-of-school time programs, museums, and libraries, can work together to promote student achievement.

In the May 2009 FINE Newsletter, Harvard Family Research Project's Elena Lopez and Heather Weiss proposed a new, three-part definition of family involvement. This definition, reproduced in the box below, reflects research on the diverse ways in which children learn and how family engagement can support children’s learning pathways and lead to student achievement. A core principle is that family involvement happens not only at home and at school, but across a variety of nonschool supports that help children to learn and grow—including early childhood programs, museums, libraries, after school and summer programs, and other community-based institutions. 

Schools, families, and other learning institutions need consistent and aligned support to help children achieve their academic potential. Providing that support by recognizing and investing in family engagement policies and practices in nonschool learning settings is key to closing the achievement gap and supporting success for all students. However, disparities in access to nonschool supports are well-documented in low-income communities, and emerging research suggests that, when opportunities are available, low-income families learn about and engage in these settings in different ways than middle and upper income families. In order to maximize the chances for a strong return on investment in nonschool learning settings, all families need to be engaged and supported in reinforcing children’s learning at home.

Defining Family Engagement

Reflecting a systemic approach to education from birth to young adulthood, effective family engagement:

  1. Is a shared responsibility in which schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to reaching out to engage families in meaningful ways and in which families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development.
  2. Is continuous across a child’s life and entails enduring commitment but changing parent roles as children mature into young adulthood.
  3. Cuts across and reinforces learning in the multiple settings where children learn— at home, in prekindergarten programs, in school, in after school programs, in faith-based institutions, and in the community.
This FINE Newsletter hones in on family engagement across learning settings, particularly after school and summer learning programs, and highlights promising practices for integrating family engagement into out-of-school time (OST) programs and initiatives. Research has long documented the benefits of family engagement in school, but a growing body of evidence also suggests that family involvement is a critical component in ensuring impact from initiatives in other learning settings as well.

For example, parents make important decisions about whether or not their children will take advantage of learning opportunities outside of school. In addition to being smart consumers, families also reinforce the skills and values that children acquire in these nonschool learning contexts by being involved with the programs and by parenting their children at home.

While parents undoubtedly play an important role, they share responsibility with the staff of agencies and organizations providing learning opportunities outside of school. Staff set the tone for communicating with families when recruiting and enrolling students and provide families with opportunities to be involved—whether by volunteering, participating in decision making, or visiting the program to understand what their children are learning there. Because staff in community-based learning settings are often members of the community and have preexisting relationships with the families who live there, staff are well-positioned to share ideas for supporting learning at home and for facilitating family connections to schools.

Promoting family engagement across learning settings is supported at multiple levels of government—from federal policy to city systems. At the federal level, several early childhood programs, including Head Start, Early Head Start, and Even Start, include mandates for family involvement. Additionally, 21st Century Community Learning Center after school programs can use funds to support parental involvement. Increasingly, cities are looking at how they can develop systems that leverage family engagement to increase participation in OST programs. This effort includes building program capacity to engage families through professional development and other structures and ensuring that families have equitable access to and information about OST opportunities.

As you read this issue, I encourage you to reflect on how your program, organization, or initiative promotes a seamless approach to family engagement across learning settings. If you are based in a school, how can you connect to families and OST programs to better support student learning? If you work in a library, museum, OST program, or other community-based setting, how can you reach out to and meaningfully engage families? In addition, I invite you to consider the role of research and policy in supporting these innovative models and what you can you do to elevate this conversation in your own communities.

This article is part of the August 2009
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 FINE Newsletter Archive, visit

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