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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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An adult can wield a glue stick just as ably as any 8-year-old—and generate some creative ideas that engage families in the transition to kindergarten in the process! We learned this during a Program in Professional Education, hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Harvard Family Research Project’s Heather B. Weiss, Carolina Buitrago, and Lorette McWilliams presented Family and Community Engagement in the Transition to Kindergarten (PDF) to a diverse group: teachers, principals, administrators, superintendents, nonprofit leaders, school board members, and other educators. We used a human-centered design approach to inspire innovative transition practices, and ideas were presented in concrete, visible ways. We modified the approach to fit a 45-minute session, during which participants brainstormed, chose one idea, designed and constructed a solution, and presented their ideas to the group.

Human-centered design puts people and their experiences at the center of the design process. By gathering information about those using the intended product or process, and how they experience it, human-centered design is both innovative and collaborative. “It’s not about ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them,’” writes Tim Brown, CEO and president of the IDEO design firm.1 “For the design thinker it has to be us with them.”2 Part of the design process involves making thinking visible, through a skit, sketch, or other product. By making ideas visible, others can add, adjust, and amend subsequent concepts iteratively.

To kick off the workshop, we presented an overview of what research tells us about family engagement in the transition to kindergarten. A smooth transition to school can make a big difference in children’s outcomes and families play an essential part in this transition by providing their children with information, stability, comfort, preparation, and support to succeed.3Then, using a modified human-centered design process, we challenged participants to create an idea or solution that promotes family engagement in the transition to school. Below is the process we used for our modified human-centered design challenge, and some of the solutions and main ideas posed by the groups.

1) Provide a design challenge.

We challenged participants to design an idea or strategy for supporting family engagement for children and families phasing out of preschool and into school settings.

2) Involve an “unusual suspect,” an organization not typically part of the transition to kindergarten.

This sketch illustrates two ideas:

1) libraries and museums prepare young children for school success, and

2) since community organizations are accessible to all, they are in advantageous positions to share transition information with families and others.

3) Make ideas visible.

By making thinking visible, group members can “piggyback” on others’ ideas.

This idea offers an “unusual suspect”: a hair salon, where families receive transition information, such as early kindergarten registration.

4) Design and create an idea using a wide range of materials.

In small groups, participants worked with clay, Legos, straws, sticky notes, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks as well as other commonly found materials.

 5) Try pairing an idea with a skit to demonstrate an experience.

One way to get to know the user is to “be” the user.

For example, one skit demonstrated that parents can prepare children for school in places like the local grocery store. Families can teach children to count, recognize words, and talk about their surroundings.

6) Make an idea visible–it can inspire other new ideas.

In this “open school day” model, families visit classrooms and also find out about other community and school services that are available.


 7) Share and present ideas.

Participants presented their ideas to the rest of the group.

8) Get to yes:  Make the case for why family engagement and securing stakeholder support are important.

Participants supported their ideas with research: a smooth transition matters to children’s outcomes, and families play an important role in a smooth transition to school.4


We learned that integrating a modified human-centered design approach with a conventional research presentation offers participants the opportunity to answer why family engagement is important while creating new ideas to engage families in the transition to school. By keeping families and their experiences at the center of the design process, team members better understand families’ needs, hopes, and desires. By making ideas visible, participants built on one another’s concepts, ultimately creating unique and innovative designs. We left feeling inspired and we hope others did as well!

Want more information about human-centered design? We like these sites:

Related Resources:

1 Brown, T. (2009) Change by design. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 58.

2 Ibid.

3 Caspe, M.; Lopez, M. E., & Chattrabhuti, C. (2015). Four important things to know about the transition to school. Family Involvement Network of Educators (FINE) Newsletter, 7(1). Retrieved from

4 Ibid.

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