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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.  For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the authors at the addresses below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

Children live in the socializing environments of home and school. Over the years research has shown that strengthening the relationship between schools and families promotes children's school success. However, parents and teachers often lack the dialogue that supports positive relations between home and school.

To promote and analyze the interactions between parents and teachers our research adopted a constructive-collaborative model. This demands learning about the reality of teachers' work, defining what they think, and understanding what they do and why they do it. With this kind of information it is possible for researchers and teachers to reflect collaboratively, and, if necessary, construct strategies to deal with parent-teacher relations, taking into account both the school and community characteristics.

The constructive-collaborative model proposes that learning to teach and becoming a teacher is a process—based on several experiences and knowledge modes—that begins before formal teacher education, continues throughout this period, and permeates all professional activities (Mizukami et al., 2002). Learning to teach is understood to be developmental and demands time and resources for teachers to modify their practices. These changes go beyond learning new techniques and imply conceptual revisions of their educational and instructional processes, and of the teaching framework itself.

The goals of the project were twofold: to generate knowledge about teachers' professional development processes and to collaboratively construct strategies to bring together schools and their students' families in order to foster learning. The research attempted to answer the following questions: Does the adoption of a constructive-collaborative model involving university-school partnerships, based on the strengthening of parent-teacher relations produce favorable results in the professional education of teachers? If so, what processes are involved?

This paper examines the results of a set of three studies carried out by researchers from the Universidade Federal de São Carlos and teachers from three public elementary schools. The schools are situated in lower-class neighborhoods in a medium-sized city in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Each of the studies lasted approximately 18 months.

Research Methods

The studies were conducted in different elementary school contexts:

  • The first study involved two highly experienced teachers of acceleration classes—with more than 10 years of teaching experience—and 50 students' families. In these classes children often came from migrant families and their ages and grades were mismatched due to frequent school transfers.
  • The second study involved 27 teachers in a K–6 school with special day and evening programs for students. It included 650 students' families. Most of the teachers were highly experienced and worked in the school for about 10 years.
  • The third study involved a grades 5–8 elementary school that also offered programs for adults in the evening. It included 46 teachers with different levels of experience at the school.

In all of the three studies teacher participation was voluntary and the interviewed families were randomly selected. Data collection consisted of interviews, questionnaires, and observations at meetings and events.

Each study began with a school's request to the university to help develop new parent-teacher strategies in order to foster learning. Then followed meetings between the researchers and teachers to establish a common work agenda. The work always began by eliciting the teachers' conceptions about their students and families, school-family interactions, and possible ways to improve these relationships. The teachers participated in the preparation of the interviews or questionnaires to be used with students' families.

The researchers interviewed the families once, at school or at their homes, about the school's functions, the importance they attribute to the school and its work, type of contact with the school and the teachers, and expectations of school-family interactions.

The researchers shared with the teachers their findings about the families through fortnightly meetings. The teachers discussed the findings and organized the schools' next actions to support family involvement. Researchers and teachers collaborated on events that aimed at bringing the school and families together.

Research Findings

Our observational data initially confirmed what the teachers and parents reported in all of the three studies:

  • The contact between the school and the families often occurred through the students, who acted as mediators.
  • The meetings with families and teachers lasted just a few minutes.
  • Meetings took place at the beginning or end of classes, and along classroom doors or in hallways.
  • Contacts between parents and teachers occurred in bimonthly meetings to consider the students' performance and other school announcements.

Our interviews revealed that teachers and families presented different visions about parent involvement in students' school lives and school-family relationships. In the three school communities most of the teachers participating in this research felt that the students' parents were not interested in their children's schooling process, and that they either were not involved or were confrontational in dealings with the school. The teachers felt that parents' investment in educational issues was low and that their ability to understand what was taught at school was limited. However, we noted that the parents expressed great interest in the school and its educational processes, even when they were low-income, less well educated, and had children with a past history of school failure.

This research informed teachers about the families' commitment to their children's education and the positive value they attributed to the school environment. The research also highlighted similar areas of teachers' and families' interests. Based on these interests, teachers and researchers organized events for parents that promoted the establishment of alternative ways for parental participation at school. In the three studies, parents showed up in large numbers. Teachers showed a lot of enthusiasm in carrying out, improving, or expanding their activities with families.

The development of the activities created an opportunity for the teachers and their students' families to construct new mutual knowledge about themselves. Parents had the opportunity to express their interests, worries, and expectations, and maintain longer and more comfortable face-to-face contacts with their children' teachers. These contacts provided the teachers with information indicating that their conceptions about the students' families were not always valid.

As a professional development intervention, the meetings between the teachers and the university partners to share research findings offered important moments of inquiry, reflection, and collaboration. They also served as an opportunity for both teachers and researchers to characterize the teachers' thinking modes, especially about why they think the way they do. Teachers' learning developed with the opportunities to reflect on their practice, share criticisms, and accept change.

Implications for Teacher Preparation in Family Involvement

Some lessons from the constructive-collaborative model of teacher professional development include the following:

  • The school should be considered as the place for the construction of new knowledge about families' involvement in their children' school lives, since it is in the school environment that these relationships are fostered.
  • The knowledge and experiences of teachers, families, and researchers should be respected in their specificity and shared by all.
  • The school has to allocate enough time for teachers to be engaged in the work, especially for the meetings between the teachers and the researchers.
  • Trust among all parties is important and takes time to be accomplished.
  • All the members are engaged in a continuous learning process—including the university-researchers who reconceptualize and reconstruct their roles during the course of the investigation (Cole & Knowles, 1993).

The adoption of a constructive-collaborative model does more than expose teachers to the knowledge offered through a university-based research project. It helps them to actively participate in the construction of this knowledge and to implement viable alternatives to problems of practice. These processes become formative and investigative spaces for the promotion of professional development, which demands from the participants—teachers and researchers—a strong personal and voluntary involvement in the proposed activities.


Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (1993). Teacher development in partnership research: a focus on methods and issues. American Educational Research Journal, 30(3), 473–496.

Mizukami, M.G. N., Reali, A. M. M. R., Reyes, C. R., Martucci, E. M., Lima, E. R., Tancredi, R. M. S. P., et al. (2002). Escola e aprendizagem da docência: Processos de investigação e formação. São Carlos, Brazil: EdUFSCar.

Aline M. M. R Reali, Professor
Rod. Washington Luiz, Km 235
Universidade Federal de São Carlos
San Paulo, Brazil 13565-905

Regina M. S. P. Tancredi, Professor
Universidade Federal de São Carlos
San Paulo, Brazil

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project