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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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FINE Newsletter, Volume IV, Issue 3
Issue Topic: Facilitating Continuous Family Engagement

Tips & Tools From Harvard Family Research Project

Mandy Savitz-Romer is director of the Prevention Science and Practice Program and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Suzanne Bouffard is a research project manager and writer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this article, Bouffard and Savitz-Romer discuss findings from their recent book, Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success.

“I know that family involvement matters during adolescence, but what can I do that is appropriate and helpful?” We hear this question a lot from parents and educators alike. Adolescents are not just big children, and they’re not little adults, so the kinds of family engagement that are appropriate for them during this age period are unique. In particular, family engagement in children’s education takes new and significant directions during these formative years. One important role that parents and other family members can play during adolescence is helping their middle and high schoolers prepare to enter and succeed in college.


The means by which parents can support this process during adolescence are more varied, and often more indirect, than many people realize and, ideally, build on efforts started during a child’s earliest years. By engaging their children in learning from birth and continuing throughout the school years, for example, parents help them attain the academic foundation—knowledge, grades, test scores—for college. But equally important, parents can also take steps to help children develop the social and emotional foundations that they need for college, including identity, motivation, and self-regulation. These social and emotional factors are essential to all parts of the college-going process, from college exploration to matriculation to graduation. Some of them, like motivation, are particularly important for helping young people tackle challenges and persist once they are in college. Given the importance of these social and emotional skills, it’s surprising that college access efforts have historically placed little emphasis on them, focusing almost exclusively on academics and financial aid. This is true when it comes to educators’ outreach to families about college as well; most such efforts focus on building parents’ aspirations for their children and providing information about financial aid.

To support young people on the path to college, educators should help families to understand that social and emotional factors are as important to college readiness as traditional academic indicators, and provide guidance in how to help their children develop skills in these areas. With support from teachers and counselors, family members can engage adolescents in activities that tap into the developmental tasks and competencies that students need to master in order to plan for and succeed in college. For example, when parents take time to discuss their children’s hopes and goals with them, they are helping them develop the motivation to pursue higher education and to see themselves as college students. When families help their adolescents set aside dedicated time and space for academic and college-related activities and encourage them to take responsibility for certain parts of the process (like planning campus visits and mailing applications), they are helping their adolescents develop self-regulation and agency.


Families from all backgrounds want their children to succeed and want to support them. But families who are traditionally underrepresented in the education system—ethnic minority families, low-income families, and parents who have not attended college—tend to be less familiar with how to access and prepare for higher education. Similarly, these families are sometimes unaware of how they can help foster the critical developmental processes—such as identity development, motivation and goal setting, and self-regulatory skills—that will help their adolescents succeed in college. But efforts that focus on parents’ deficits are not only unhelpful, they miss key opportunities to build productive home–school relationships and leverage strengths among family members. Effective family engagement meets all parents where they are at, supports mutual responsibility for educational success, and goes well beyond school-based events and PTO meetings. Educators need to help all families recognize that these processes are just as important as observable indicators of college readiness, such as grades, attendance, and knowledge about college requirements.

In our experience, there are many ways that teachers, counselors, and other educators can engage families—especially families who do not have prior experience with college—in supporting students’ developmental readiness for college. We explore these strategies, along with ways educators can work directly with youth to support these skills, in our book, Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success. The following are five strategies we describe in the book that educators can use to help families—especially families of first-generation college-bound students—pave the path to college by supporting developmental readiness:

  • Communicate with family members about the skills needed for college in a comfortable, accessible manner on an ongoing basis. Communication is essential, both for building relationships and for sharing the many kinds of information that parents need about college. With strong relationships and ongoing communication, educators can share more than just information about course requirements and financial aid; they can also talk about how important it is for young people to envision themselves as college students, how to help navigate cultural and other identity conflicts that can arise in college, and how to help young people take ownership of the process. Communication should begin in middle school or even earlier and be frequent throughout the school years. It should be generated in multiple ways (e.g., in person, in writing, and through texting and social media), at multiple locations (e.g., school resource centers, local businesses, and community settings such as churches and social service agencies), and from multiple people (e.g., school staff, community members, and neighbors). To reach all parents, educators need to arrange for translation assistance when necessary and provide written materials that can be easily understood by parents of all reading abilities.
  • Invite families to be involved in college exploration activities. Including family members in campus visits and other exploratory activities can help them become informed about college, help them envision their children in a college setting, and help young people see that their parents are invested in their continuing education after high school graduation. School-sponsored college exploration activities can also provide an opportunity for parents to talk with children about goals and identity. When parents help their children understand who they are and what they want out of college, it can help young people get and stay committed to college-going, even when the going gets tough. And educators should remember that, while research shows that outreach from schools is one of the strongest predictors of whether and how families get involved in their children’s education, especially ethnic minority families, one invitation is rarely enough, especially for families who have negative histories with or a distrust of schools. Respectful persistence is key, as are soliciting and welcoming family input and providing logistical support such as schedule flexibility and childcare for younger siblings.
  • Create opportunities for families to connect and build networks. Many middle-class parents and those with college degrees have extensive social networks through which they obtain knowledge about college. But families who have no experience with college may not have the same kinds of networks and may therefore not be able to enter into similar discussions about college. Parents who come from cultures or neighborhoods not represented by most school staff might therefore benefit from meeting and speaking with other parents from their community, with whom they have more in common and with whom they can more easily develop a trusting relationship. These connections can be helpful not only in facilitating information-sharing, but also in helping families (and ultimately their children) develop strong college-going identities, especially if families worry that their children’s college pursuits may create distance from their homes or cultures.
    Some college access programs intentionally encourage relationships among families of similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds, either through helping them build parent social networks or facilitating one-on-one conversations. During many of these contacts, parents whose children have gone to college share their experiences and perspectives with parents of high school students. Even without a formal program, parent liaisons can set up groups, or educators can informally ask parents of alumni or current college students to lead workshops or speak at college-focused events. Another benefit of these approaches is that they can help parents and young people develop college-going goals and motivation, by showing them how they can give back to their community and connect with others.
  • Facilitate family-youth discussions about college. Many parents have high aspirations for their children, but don’t know how to help them or talk to them about the subject. Educators can provide parents questions that they can use as a basis for conversations with their children about their future hopes and plans. They can also get youth involved through activities and assignments such as interviewing a family member about his or her hopes for the student. In all of these discussions, it is important for educators to help parents and young people talk about the reasons for pursuing higher education. Research shows that young people are more likely to persist in their goals when they have intrinsic, personal reasons than when they are driven solely by extrinsic reasons such as attaining a higher salary or prestige. Parents can support intrinsic motivation for college by helping young people explore and pursue their interests and passions, think about how they can give back to their families and communities, and internalize the benefits of college.
  • Organize student-led conferences for cooperative planning. Student-led conferences are a great way to get students and their family members talking about and planning for college and to develop students’ self-direction and self-regulation. These events provide an opportunity for educators to facilitate in ways that encourage student agency in the college-going process and that set families up for later productive conversations. These conferences can include discussions about how to support study habits, organization, and planning, which are essential throughout the college-going process. Student-led conferences can also help young people develop leadership and presentation skills, which are needed in college.

These strategies can complement the many other college readiness efforts underway in middle and high schools, such as advisory periods, peer counseling, and assistance completing applications. When families, educators, and students all work together, their efforts can go a long way—and so can young people.

The ideas in this article are further explored in the authors’ book, Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success from the Harvard Education Press.1 The book explains how adolescents’ social, emotional, and cognitive development influences college-going, especially for first-generation college-bound youth. It provides concrete strategies for educators, counselors, community-based providers, and policymakers to go beyond academics and financial aid to help more young people get and stay on the path to college graduation.


1 Savitz-Romer, M., & Bouffard, S. M. (2012). Ready, willing, and able: A developmental approach to college access and success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

This resource is part of the September 2012 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 archive of past issues, please visit

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