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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.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  To access the full research publication summarized in this digest, please see the citation below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

Although many studies highlight outcomes of family involvement (Henderson & Mapp, 2002), teachers' role in family involvement and the processes of forming partnership with parents are less well studied. Existing research suggests that when teachers hold positive beliefs about families and view them as a child's first teacher, they are more likely to invite parents to become active participants in their children's education (Epstein & Dauber, 1991; Eccles & Harold, 1996). Teacher outreach encourages home involvement practices, such as reading with children and homework help, which are important predictors of student achievement (Izzo, Weissberg, Kasprow & Fendrich, 1999; Nord, Lennon, Liu & Chandler, 2000). Further, when schools foster communication and facilitate involvement, families may become more involved in the school and community (Scribner, Young & Pedroza, 1999; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997).

While research demonstrates the link between teacher outreach, family educational involvement, and student outcomes, a better knowledge of the process of forming home–school links is needed. Research on interpersonal relationships stresses that understanding a person with whom you have a relationship is critical to the partnership (Selman, Levitt & Schultz, 1997). Drawing on this perspective, this paper explores the question, How do teachers come to understand families?


Data for this investigation were drawn from the School Transition Study (STS), a five-year longitudinal study of approximately 400 ethnically diverse, low-income children, their families, and schools from kindergarten through fifth grade. The exploratory analysis is based on in-depth data from the case study subset of 23 STS children over first and second grade. Specifically, this analysis focuses on seven children from a small New England town, using data from a total of 13 in-depth interviews with the children's teachers in first grade (six interviews) and second grade (seven interviews). All teachers interviewed except one were female and teachers were European-American ranging in age from 23 to 55.

Teachers were interviewed about: relationships, roles, responsibilities, barriers, communication practices, and concerns related to family involvement; child strengths and weaknesses (e.g., math and literacy skills); school context including available school services; school, familial, and societal factors influencing the child's success; and teacher resources for and role in supporting the child. The 13 teacher interviews were thematically coded using the computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software package NUD*IST N4 (Qualitative Solutions and Research PTY Ltd, 1997). Open coding produced a more refined set of conceptual categories for how teachers were obtaining and making meaning of information about families, and patterns within and across these categories were examined.


This paper identifies two key processes whereby teachers come to understand families: gathering information and meaning making. Figure 1 summarizes these processes.

Figure 1. Key Processes for Understanding Families

Information Gathering Methods

• Communicating with parents, school personnel, and child
• Observing child and child-parent interactions

Meaning-Making Processes

• Process information by referencing prior work with other families
• Process information by referencing personal experience with own family
• Process information by referencing particular family over time

Gathering Information
Communication and observation were the two most common methods employed by teachers to collect information about families. Through communication and observation, teachers collected information about families' situations, child-rearing practices, and family involvement practices. Specifically they learned about the family structure, family strengths and needs, status in the community, and parent employment status and work schedules. Parents' educational levels, their goals and expectations for children, and cultural beliefs about child-rearing also constituted important aspects of a teacher's knowledge of family contexts. Finally, teachers discovered how families helped their children with homework, how they planned their children's life outside of school time, and the other educational supports they provided.

Meaning Making
As teachers collected information about families, they also made meaning of what they collected. Meaning making was defined broadly as the ways teachers code or categorize information to understand and interpret it. Teachers weighed the information against their own knowledge, values, and perceptions derived from three reference points: other families they had worked with in the past, their experience within their own family, or longtime knowledge of the particular family or child. By comparing information against one or more of these points of reference teachers began to understand (whether accurately or inaccurately) families with whom they worked.

Implications for Teacher Preparation in Family Involvement

1. Promote deeper reflection on teachers' perceptions of low-income families. Social class and culture shape teachers' understandings of families. Personal beliefs and values are a filter through which teachers understand the families they work with. Teachers need to critically reflect on their own values and judgments so that their basis for understanding families is rooted not in inaccurate stereotypes, but in authentic relationships and culturally-sensitive interpretations.

2. Promote teachers' study of children's family life. Outreach and study of children's family life may lead teachers to better know the cultures from which their students emerge, allowing them to integrate these family “funds of knowledge” into their curricula (Moll & Gonzalez, 1997). When teachers collect comprehensive information about families and make meaning of it, they may glean a better understanding of where to reach families, whom to contact, what issues the families are facing, and what potential barriers exist to their involvement. Through this deeper understanding, outreach has the potential to become more individualized and targeted, in effect yielding stronger parental responses.

Summarized from Caspe, M. S. (2003). How teachers come to understand families. School Community Journal, 13(1).


Eccles, J. S., & Harold, R. D. (1996). Family involvement in children's and adolescents' schooling. In A. Booth & J. F. Dunn (Eds.), Family school links (pp. 3–34). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Epstein, J. L., & Dauber, S. (1991). School programs and teacher practices of parent involvement in inner-city elementary and middle schools. The Elementary School Journal, 91, 279–289.

Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: National Center for Family & Community Connections with Schools.

Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., & Sandler, H. M. (1997). Why do parents become involved in their children's education? Review of Educational Research, 67, 3–42.

Izzo, C., Weissberg, R., Kasprow, W., & Fendrich, M. (1999). A longitudinal assessment of teacher perceptions of parent involvement in children's education and school performance. American Journal of Community Psychology, 27(6), 817–839.

Moll, L. C., & Gonzalez, N. (1997). Teachers as social scientists: Learning about culture from household research. In P. M. Hall (Ed.), Race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism: Policy and practice (pp. 89–114). New York: Garland.

Nord, C., Lennon, J., Liu, B., & Chandler, K. (2000). Home literacy activities and signs of children's emerging literacy. Education Statistics Quarterly. Retrieved October 15, 2002 from

Qualitative Solutions and Research Pty Ltd. (1997). QSDR NUD*IST User Guide (2nd ed., Vol. 1). Melbourne: Author.

Scribner, J. D., Young, M. D., & Pedroza, A. (1999). Building collaborative relationships with parents. In P. Reyes, J. D. Scribner & A. Paredes-Scribner (Eds.), Lessons from high-performing Hispanic schools: Creating learning communities (pp. 36–60). New York: Teachers College Press.

Selman, R. L., Levitt, M. Z., & Schultz, L. H. (1997). The friendship framework: Tools for the assessment of psychosocial development. In R. L. Selman, C. L. Watts & L. H. Schultz (Eds.), Fostering friendship: Pair therapy for treatment and prevention. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Margaret Caspe
Harvard Family Research Project
50 Church Street, 4th Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138

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