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Suzanne Bouffard and Heather Weiss reframe family involvement as part of a broader complementary learning approach to promoting children’s success in education and in life.

Now is a moment of opportunity for family involvement. Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act is on the horizon, and family involvement is part of at least three recently proposed pieces of federal legislation (see page 17). Public figures like Bill Cosby are talking—and sometimes sparking controversy—about the importance of parents in learning.1 National media stories demonstrate that public attention to the issue is growing. In response to a recent New York Times story about required homework for parents, 348 readers posted comments online.2  The upcoming year represents what researcher John Kingdon calls “a policy window”—a moment in time when three factors converge: “A problem is recognized, a solution is available, and the political climate is right for change.”3 

Utilizing this policy window will require moving beyond business as usual. Historically, policymakers’ and schools’ investments in family involvement have been limited and inconsistent, due to shifting political ideologies, issues of control and accountability, and the challenging nature of building and sustaining meaningful family–school relationships.4  As several field leaders discuss in this issue, traditional definitions of family involvement (e.g., volunteering, chaperoning, parent–teacher conferences) persist, despite advances in research and practice that demonstrate that family involvement is broader and is most authentic and effective when it is intentionally “linked to learning.”5  Similarly, traditional challenges to implementing meaningful policies and practices persist, despite the concerted efforts of many individuals and organizations.

We at HFRP see that it is time to reframe the concept of family involvement. To build the field and capitalize on the current policy window, we need to think big—that is, we need to consider the “big picture” of family involvement and its potentially bright future. Doing so requires a deeper understanding of what effective family involvement is, how to foster it, and how to assess it. It also requires a commitment to including those individuals and institutions who have worked in other silos or who have historically been excluded from the conversation about family involvement.

Broadening the Concept of Family Involvement
Thanks to decades of high-quality research, there remains little doubt that families play a crucial role in their children’s school success. From the moment of their children’s birth—and even before—parents’ behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes affect children’s cognitive development and behavior and even the establishment of achievement gaps.6  In fact, research shows that, when it comes to children’s outcomes, parents’ behaviors are more important than other widely publicized factors, such as daycare arrangements.7

This research, along with field experience, has illuminated the benefits of family involvement and also how and why family involvement matters. Our own review of the evidence reveals three essential components for a framework of effective family involvement policies and practices:

  • Family involvement occurs in all the contexts where children and youth live and learn and should be part of a broader complementary learning approach.
  • Family involvement matters from birth through adolescence but changes as children mature.
  • Family involvement must be coconstructed and characterized by mutual responsibility among families, schools, and other institutions and stakeholders.

Family Involvement Makes a Difference

Harvard Family Research Project’s series, Family Involvement Makes a Difference, provides a thorough review of family involvement research and evaluation. This series of research briefs on family involvement and student outcomes makes the case that family involvement promotes school success for every child of every age. The briefs in the series focus on family involvement in early childhood, the elementary school years, and adolescence.  

Family Involvement Across Contexts
Research is beginning to document what years of field experience show: Families are involved not just in schools and homes, but in a variety of settings. From the everyday “teachable moment” to formal educational institutions, families can encourage learning everywhere—in museums, on playgrounds, and in grocery stores, to name just a few settings. Broadening the concept of family involvement to include all of these settings provides more opportunities for families to support learning, reduces or compensates for barriers to traditional forms of involvement, and promotes continuity of involvement.

Families can and should be a centerpiece of what we call complementary learning—a systemic approach that intentionally integrates school and nonschool supports to promote educational and life success. Complementary learning builds on a long history of theory and research about the many contextual influences on children’s development and on the understanding that neither schools, nor families, nor communities alone can ensure educational achievement.

To understand the role of families in complementary learning, it is instructive to look at the example of out-of-school time (OST). Families play many important roles in their children’s participation in OST experiences, including after school and summer programs.8 Children are more likely to participate in OST programs when parents are emotionally supportive and involved in learning. OST programs provide opportunities for parents to be involved with their children’s learning and can build bridges between families and schools—minimizing some of the common barriers to involvement at school, such as schedule conflicts, feelings of intimidation around school personnel, and language and cultural differences from teachers. In fact, family involvement in OST programs appears to promote involvement in school and at home. In addition, family involvement in OST can build social networks and help families share information about school policies and practices and other topics.

Focus on Families!

Focus on Families! How to Build and Support Family-Centered Practices in After School is a critical resource for after school providers looking to create or expand family engagement in out-of-school time programs—a key complementary learning setting. The comprehensive, easy-to-read guide, produced by Harvard Family Research Project and Build the Out-of-School Time Network (BOSTnet,) looks at the research base for why family engagement matters, concrete program strategies for engaging families, case studies of promising family engagement efforts, and an evaluation tool for improving family engagement practices. 

Family Involvement Across Ages
Although much attention has been paid to family involvement in early childhood, recent research demonstrates that families play a significant role in learning for children and youth of all ages, including adolescence.9  Effective family involvement changes over time as children mature, but it remains important.

In order to be effective, the practices and relationships in which families engage to support learning must be matched to the child’s stage of development. Young children need parents and other family members to provide structure and establish the foundations for learning. As they get older, children need to develop independence and take responsibility for their own learning. As a result, family involvement practices that provide direct instruction and support—such as shared reading, helping with homework, and volunteering at school—are more prevalent in elementary school and decline as children get older, with a marked drop-off in adolescence. However, less instrumental forms of involvement, such as discussing college plans, monitoring school performance and progress, and maintaining high expectations become more common in adolescence. These forms of involvement can help balance adolescents’ two equally important but sometimes competing needs—to develop independence and to remain connected and close to parents—and are associated with academic benefits.10  These changing family involvement patterns also reflect changes in children’s and adolescents’ educational environments. As children enter middle and high school, their work becomes more advanced, and many parents feel less able to provide direct instruction and support. At the same time, schools become larger, more bureaucratic, and less welcoming to families, which may discourage parents’ sense of school community and belonging—and, therefore, their involvement.11 

Family involvement is an ongoing process, rather than a single moment in time. In this process, developmental and educational transitions play an important role. These transitions are periods of heightened risk for children and youth and often of decreased family involvement, but they also can be moments of opportunity. Recent research demonstrates benefits of family involvement during transitions and of educators’ outreach to families during these times.12  These findings suggest that involvement during transitions may be key to ensuring a continuous and sustained process of family involvement from birth to adulthood.

Coming Soon: Family Involvement and Educational Equity

The themes discussed in this article are explored in greater detail in an upcoming paper reframing family involvement and reviewing research for the Campaign for Educational Equity’s Equity Matters series. A collaboration between Harvard Family Research Project’s Heather Weiss and Suzanne Bouffard and Columbia University’s Edmund Gordon and Beatrice Bridglall, the paper will be published and presented, along with other reviews in the series, at the Campaign’s November 2008 symposium on Comprehensive Educational Equity.

Based at Teachers College, Columbia University, the Campaign for Educational Equity works to promote equity and excellence in education and to overcome the achievement gap through research-based analyses of key education policy issues. The Campaign’s Research Initiative cultivates empirical research projects, such as the Equity Matters series, to address unanswered questions in the field of education related to equity.

To read more about the Campaign for Educational Equity or to learn about the upcoming symposium, visit

Family Involvement as a Shared Responsibility
Conversations about family involvement are often plagued by finger pointing. Stakeholders of all roles engage in the blame game, as evident in public forums ranging from the national media to local parent–teacher organization meetings. However, to gain traction in practice and policy, family involvement must be a shared and meaningful responsibility among families, schools, communities, and the wider society.

Parents and other family members clearly have roles in and responsibilities for supporting their children’s learning. But families are one part of a larger, dynamic system that supports or constrains their educational involvement. For instance, social policies and structures affect the basic conditions of economic well-being (such as shelter, nourishment, and health care), which need to be in place for families to be supportive and for children to learn.13  Schools, meanwhile, influence family involvement via outreach, opportunities, and expectations,14  while community-based institutions, such as early childhood and after school programs, provide additional entry points and opportunities. Businesses, too, impact family involvement. They determine parents’ schedule flexibility and time off and also can help families find creative strategies for involvement even in the face of difficult work schedules.

Educational and social structures are responsible for making the political, financial, and social investments that promote families’ capacities and opportunities for involvement. Families, in turn, are responsible for providing the time, energy, and other resources that are within their means. According to this framework of mutual responsibility, family involvement practices and policies must be coconstructed—that is, all stake-holders must be actively involved in and accountable for building meaningful partnerships. Coconstructed relationships are characterized by trust, shared values, ongoing bidirectional communication, mutual respect, and attention to all parties’ needs and expertise, and are associated with higher levels of involvement and greater benefits for children.15

Approaches to fostering involvement that are coconstructed and characterized by mutual responsibility are essential for progress, particularly in building involvement among populations who historically have had fewer opportunities for involvement or who have been less visibly involved. They acknowledge that many disadvantaged and some ethnic minority families experience barriers to involvement—such as financial and logistical constraints and, in many cases, negative histories with and mistrust of schools.16  They also recognize the impact of cultural factors—such as social and cultural capital that are not matched with those valued by educational and social institutions.17  Importantly, the mutual responsibility framework provides a starting place for acknowledging and addressing these barriers and for setting high expectations for all parties—including but not limited to families.

New Resources From HFRP

After School Programs in the 21st Century: Their Potential and What It Takes to Achieve It. This research brief draws on a decade of seminal research and evaluation studies to address two questions: Does participation in after school programs make a difference, and what conditions are necessary to achieve positive results?

Changing the Conversation About Home Visiting: Scaling Up With Quality. This paper looks at what the evidence and conventional wisdom say about scaling up home visiting as one of the best ways to support parents and promote early childhood development.

Tomasito’s Mother Comes to School/La mamá de Tomasito visita la escuela. This online bilingual storybook about family involvement includes a children’s story, along with a guide for teachers and adult family members.

Out-of-School Time Research Updates. This new series culls key insights from each update to the HFRP’s out-of-school time (OST) database, thus enabling you to quickly get up to speed on the latest in the growing field of OST research and evaluation.

Implications for This Issue and for the Field
The articles in this issue of The Evaluation Exchange illustrate the three components of our family involvement framework as they play out in policy, practice, and research across federal, national, state, and local levels. They showcase the latest research findings, promising areas for investment, and provocative ideas to spark discussion about where and how the field should move forward.

As these articles demonstrate, our framework of family involvement is only as useful as the commitment we make to applying it. Our research, experience, and conversations with other field experts suggest that the following actions are necessary to build family involvement in a meaningful and effective way:

  • Family involvement initiatives must be part of a larger complementary learning strategy. Because no one individual or institution alone can ensure families’ involvement or students’ success, family involvement should be embedded in systemic efforts to promote learning across all of the settings where children live and learn. At all levels—federal, state, and local—our financial and human investments must move beyond isolated programs to systemic efforts.
  • Family involvement must be seen as a continuous and evolving process throughout childhood and adolescence. Moving forward, the field should invest in initiatives that work across ages and that facilitate family involvement during transition periods. Initiatives targeting a specific age group should consider how their work relates to the larger trajectory of family involvement.
  • New and existing initiatives should consider the roles of all of the individuals and institutions who influence families’ capacity for involvement—and set high expectations for each of them. Together, all of these stakeholders can think more broadly and creatively and make a more systemic and sustained commitment to family involvement and complementary learning.
  • All investments in family involvement and complementary learning should include a commitment to and resources for evaluation, in order to facilitate continuous learning about what works, for whom, and why.
  • Stakeholders from all backgrounds need to share emerging knowledge from these efforts. Investments in family involvement must include opportunities for open and ongoing communication, sharing, and learning, including both formal networking opportunities and informal communities of practice.

One of the primary goals of this Evaluation Exchange issue is to begin a conversation about these and other next steps for the field. We believe that it will take collective and creative thinking from many perspectives and backgrounds to make progress. In representing many diverse voices, including both longtime and emerging leaders, our hope is to embody one of the most important priorities for the field in this current policy window: to build a collective vision that spurs collective action on behalf of all families and their children. 

1 Suarez, R. [Correspondent]. (2004, July 15). The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. [Television broadcast.] New York and Washington, DC: Public Broadcasting Service. Transcript available at

2 Spreading homework out so even parents have some. (2008, October 4). New York Times, p. B1. Available at

3 Kingdon, J. (1984). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, p. 93.

4 To read in greater detail about these factors, see the Ask the Expert articles on pages 6 and 18 of this issue. 

5 Henderson, A. T., Mapp, K. L., Johnson, V. R., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family–school partnerships. New York: The New Press.

6 For a review of the literature on family involvement, see Harvard Family Research Project’s Family Involvement Makes a Difference series, featured in the sidebar on page 3.

7 Belsky, J., Vandell, D. L., Burchinal, M., Clarke-Stewart, K. A., McCartney, K., & Owen, M. T., the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2007). Are there long-term effects of early child care? Child Development, 78(2), 681–701.

8 For more details and individual citations on the role of families in OST, see both the Focus on Families! guide featured in this article and Bouffard, S., Little, P. M. D., & Weiss, H. (2006). Building and evaluating out-of-school time connections, The Evaluation Exchange, 12(1&2), 2–6. Available at

9 Kreider, H., Caspe, M., Kennedy, S., & Weiss, H. (2007). Family involvement in middle and high school students’ education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

10 Adams, K. C., & Christenson, S. L. (2000). Trust and the family–school relationship. Examination of parent–teacher differences in elementary and secondary grades. Journal of School Psychology, 38, 477–497; Eccles, J. S., & Harold, R. D. (1993). Parent school involvement during the early adolescent years. Teachers College Record, 94 (3), 568-587; Grolnick, W. S., Kurowski, C. O., Dunlap, K. G., & Hevey, C. (2000). Parental resources and the transition to junior high. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10, 465–488; Hill, N. E., Castellino, D. R., & Lansford, J. E. (2004). Parent academic involvement as related to school behavior, achievement, and aspirations: Demographic variations across adolescence. Child Development, 75(5), 1491–1509; Lord, S. E., Eccles, J. S., & McCarthy, K. A. (1994). Surviving the junior high school transition: Family processes and self-perceptions as protective and risk factors. Journal of Early Adolescence, 14, 162–199.

11 Eccles & Harold, 1993.

12 Kraft-Sayre, M. E., & Pianta, R. C. (2000). Enhancing the transition to kindergarten: Linking children, families, and schools. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, National Center for Early Development & Learning; Kreider, H. (2002). Getting parents “ready” for kindergarten: The role of early childhood education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project; Schulting, A. B., Malone, P. S., & Dodge, K. A. (2005). The effect of school-based kindergarten transition policies and practices on child academic outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 41(6), 860–871; see also Amy Schulting’s article on page 8 of this issue.

13 Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and schools: Using social, economic, and educational reform to close the Black–White achievement gap. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

14 Simon , B. S. (2004). High school outreach and family involvement. Social Psychology of Education, 7, 185–209.

15 Lopez, M. E., Kreider, H., & Caspe, M. (2004/2005). Co-constructing family involvement. The Evaluation Exchange, 10(4), 2–3. Available at

16 Garcia Coll, C., & Chatman, C. (2005). Supporting ethnic and racial minority families. In H. B. Weiss, H. Kreider, M. E. Lopez, & C. Chatman, Preparing educators for family involvement: From theory to practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

17 For a fuller discussion of the role of social and cultural capital in family involvement, readers are referred to our upcoming paper from the Campaign for Educational Equity, featured in the sidebar on page 5.

Suzanne Bouffard, Ph.D., Project Manager, HFRP

Heather Weiss, Ed.D., Founder and Director, HFRP

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project