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FINE Newsletter, Volume I, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Family Involvement Policy

Harvard Family Research Project Commentary

Heather Weiss and Elena Lopez discuss the need to develop a broader definition of family engagement—one which focuses on the multiple contexts in which children grow and learn, from birth through adulthood—in this era of changing federal policy.

Historically, the federal government has supported the critical role of families in children’s learning through a number of policies and programs. All too often, however, these policies and programs have lacked a common definition of and framework for family engagement—a fact that has led one observer to comment that the field is dominated by “random acts of family engagement,” rather than a coherent strategy.

The current political moment represents an opportunity for change. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) creates a platform to elevate family, school, and community engagement in school reform and improvement. There is no better time than right now, as states begin to receive education stimulus funds, to clarify what we mean by family engagement and to shape its future in the policy arena.

Recently, a group of leading organizations and individuals in the field came together to offer bold strategies to make this redefinition of family engagement a reality. This Family, School and Community Engagement National Working Group, which seeks to inform federal policy issues on family, school and community engagement in education, framed a visionary memorandum to the White House. This memorandum reflects a key principle in Harvard Family Research Project’s work—namely that schools alone cannot meet students’ needs, especially the needs of those students who are the most disadvantaged. These students in particular need the benefits of a complementary learning approach, in which an array of school and nonschool supports complement one another to create an integrated set of community-wide resources that support learning and development from birth to young adulthood.

In this issue of the FINE Newsletter, we explore an expanded definition of family engagement that is based on research about children’s learning and the relationships among families, schools, and communities in support of such learning. It is Harvard Family Research Project’s belief that a clear and commonly shared definition of family engagement can—and will—inspire policy investments in family engagement, which will, in turn, contribute to school improvement and student success. 

This expanded definition of family engagement, which has already been adopted by the Family, School and Community National Working Group, reflects research showing that families play significant roles in supporting their children’s learning, in guiding their children successfully through a complex school system, and in strongly advocating for their children and for effective public schools. Reflecting a systemic approach to education from birth to young adulthood, this definition consists of the following principles:

  • First, family engagement 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.
  • Second, family engagement is continuous across a child’s life and entails enduring commitment but changing parent roles as children mature into young adulthood.
  • Third, effective family engagement 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 definition of family engagement focuses on children’s learning in a variety settings—not just in school—and reflects the many different ways in which families and schools engage with and support one another. Taken together, the three principles described above support the creation of new pathways for family engagement that honor the dynamic, multiple, and complementary ways in which children learn and grow.

This issue of the FINE Newsletter highlights how this broader definition of family engagement provides members of the family involvement field with a wide range of opportunities to influence family involvement policy and implementation at the local, state, and federal levels. First, we offer a look at how developments in federal out-of-school learning policy demands a cross-cutting and cohesive approach to learning, which includes family engagement. Then, in Voices From the Field, we spotlight the perspectives of two state Parental Information and Resource Centers that have built innovative statewide approaches to family engagement policy. 

In addition, we offer practical tools and resources to aid you in your own family involvement efforts. To help you make the case for family engagement in the public policy sphere, we provide an evaluation tool to help support rigorous assessments of family engagement initiatives. We also offer an annotated bibliography of resources and tools that provide background information about family engagement policy and introduce a more holistic model for family engagement—one that values shared responsibility, working across contexts, and supporting youth from “cradle to career.”

As we enter this exciting opportunity for change in the field of family involvement, we urge our readers to actively reflect on the definition proposed above and to bring your thoughts and reactions to the questions it raises into the forefront of the education policy discourse. What should we do to promote shared responsibility among families, schools and communities? How can we plan a pathway of family engagement that travels from parenting programs in early childhood to school and after school opportunities in the K–12 years to college ready initiatives and beyond? How can we connect and reinforce children’s learning at home, school, and in the community?

We welcome examples of your work and your thoughts on this definition of family engagement. Contact us soon!

This article is part of the May 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