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FINE Newsletter, Volume V, Issue 4
Issue Topic: Innovative Approaches to Preparing and Training Educators for Family Engagement

Resources and Research

In this article, Christine Patton and Shannon Wanless discuss the importance of professional development (PD) in the area of family engagement, point out effective professional development strategies, and highlight the changing nature of PD in general.

Most educators are eager to engage families, but they often lack the skills and practice time needed to do so effectively. One recent study shows that a fair number of teachers have rated their pre-service and in-service training as excellent or good in preparing them to effectively engage families;1 however, generally speaking, teachers often do not receive the preparation they need to engage families in ways that support children’s learning and development. Many university teacher-education programs include courses on family engagement, especially in early childhood and special education degree programs. But in addition to reaching only a targeted group of future teachers, these programs often do not fully prepare teachers to engage families in the work of promoting children’s academic success. For example, pre-service teacher placements out in the field usually do not include any direct interactions with families and rarely offer pre-service teachers opportunities to sit in on parent–teacher conferences prior to the start of their teaching careers. These missed opportunities limit the chances for future teachers to practice important relationship-building strategies with families, including two-way communication, active listening, and encouraging families to share their children’s interests and needs. Once teachers do start into their careers, they discover that the family engagement training that they had received early, during the pre-career stage of their training, was often not sufficient to prepare them for real-life conversations with families.

Because family engagement is a significant part of student success; because higher levels of family engagement are associated with higher job satisfaction among teachers;2 and because teachers are more likely to stay in schools where they have good relationships with parents,3 it is important for teachers to continue to learn and practice family engagement skills on an ongoing basis throughout their careers.


Across fields, including within the education arena, effective professional development is based on many of the same strategies. As the benefits of family engagement are becoming more widely known, it has become increasingly evident that teachers need effective professional development (PD) to learn and practice family engagement techniques. As course developers and trainers/coaches consider the design and execution of family engagement trainings, and as teachers think about participating in a training, they all need to consider several tenets of effective PD. Administrators may oversee such trainings, but they may also participate in them, and need to understand the components of effective professional development trainings as well.

Below, we draw from the larger literature on training and implementation science, and offer insights on implications that these findings might have for PD that is focused on family engagement. The most effective PD strategies take into consideration the following:

Teachers need to be ready to learn new techniques and content.

  • What do we know?
    Many studies have shown a positive correlation between teachers’ level of readiness and their success in implementing new techniques and content. The authors of one study found that teachers with higher observed emotional support before training were more engaged in the training, and then showed higher observed implementation of practices they learned in the training.4 Research also suggests that knowing the readiness level of a trainee helps coaches/trainers adjust their coaching strategies and approaches to meet the needs of the trainee.5

  • What are the implications of these findings for PD in family engagement?
    School administrators who are considering asking teachers to partner and interact with families in new ways, such as by having meaningful discussions with them about measuring student progress through a wide range of assessments, portfolios, and behavioral observations, should first consider talking with the teachers to determine their readiness for these activities. Administrators can determine how nervous the teachers are about interacting with families, how much experience they have had interacting with families, what their workloads are, and how much professional stress they are experiencing. Depending on each teacher’s level of readiness, administrators can decide how best to push forward with the approach.

Teachers need to feel safe taking risks as they learn new techniques.

  • What do we know?
    Research shows that, when trying out a new practice, teachers say that they need to feel like they can take risks and not be judged for making mistakes or for trying outside-of-the-box techniques.6
  • What are the implications of these findings for PD in family engagement?
    Course developers and coaches/trainers can build in opportunities for teachers to practice new approaches and techniques within the safe, nonthreatening environment of a training before they face real-life interactions with families. One way to provide teachers such opportunities is to encourage them to practice conversations with stand-in or virtual families through role plays and simulations. Teachers who engage in these activities are able to reflect on these exchanges; receive feedback on them from coaches/trainers, other teachers, and from avatars (in virtual settings); and redo them, as needed. One particularly effective activity is the Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Simulation—a virtual simulation of a Head Start intake interview—which allows early childhood educators to practice a number of new approaches as they interact with responsive avatars. Users can redo and undo their responses and experience the avatars’ reactions to different communication techniques.  

Teachers need social support as they explore new practices and techniques.

  • What do we know?
    Studies show that teachers who are trying out new practices say that they need to be supported by others7 in their field; they find it reassuring to know that other educators are willing and able to share strategies and new ideas with them.

  • What are the implications of these findings for PD in family engagement?
    During training, and then later, during implementation, coaches/trainers and administrators can create supportive networks among teachers by pairing up teachers who are trying out the same family engagement practices. When Chip Donahue—a leader in online education and distance learning—develops PD and distance learning courses for teachers, he always tries to create a sense of community among e-learners so that teachers are a click away from someone who understands what they are doing and supports them in their efforts. As teachers learn and try out new techniques, schools can also encourage them to form a learning community or community of practice in which they share activities and have discussions about ideas, challenges, and successes, with the common goal of improving their family engagement efforts.

Tracking progress and receiving feedback improve implementation.

  • What do we know? 
    Tracking their goals and rating their successful use of strategies to reach those goals help teachers keep their goals in mind.8

  • What are the implications of these findings for PD in family engagement?
    Coaches and administrators should work with teachers to help them define and track their post-training family engagement goals—their concrete, measurable, and reasonable goals. One way to do this is to help teachers create a table by which they can track their progress toward their goals for three weeks. A sample goal tracking sheet can be found in Figure 1.

Goal Tracking Table (Wanless, S.B.)


In addition to considering the above tenets, we suggest that course developers and coaches/trainers take new and innovative approaches to designing, offering, and implementing trainings in order to increase the likelihood that teachers will learn new family engagement techniques and implement them effectively. We know from online newspapers, blogs, and forums—with titles such as, “Why Teacher Training Fails Our Teachers,” “Professional-Development Reform: 8 Steps to Make It Happen,”Six Questions for Better Professional Development,” and “On Flipping the Professional Development Experience”—that there is a need to rethink how educators and future educators are trained. The format, delivery, and duration of the training and availability of time to practice new skills need to be reconsidered.

The good news is that there is momentum in this direction, and things are changing. Professional development course developers and coaches/trainers are approaching their jobs in new ways—relying on technology and the Web to offer on-demand and interactive trainings, and using live cases and teaching cases to highlight real dilemmas of practice. And these new and innovative approaches are proving to be not only engaging but also effective:

  • Some studies have shown that online and face-to-face PD have the same benefits;9
  • Simulation use has been connected to teacher’ self-efficacy and development of a professional identity; and 10
  • Teaching cases have been found to help pre-service teachers identify their own assumptions and biases about race, class, and gender.11

As teachers work to partner and interact with families in meaningful ways, they now, more than ever, have a variety of training options to consider as they seek to develop the skills to do so.

Christine Patton is a Senior Research Analyst at Harvard Family Research Project, and Shannon Wanless is Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology in Education in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh.
Shannon and Christine worked together as postdoctoral fellows at the University of Virginia and have co-authored articles in academic journals on teachers’ engagement in training, and influences on implementation of a social-emotional intervention.

1 Harris Interactive. (2011). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Teachers, parents and the economy. Retrieved from:

2 Ibid.

3 Allensworth, E., Ponisciak, S., & Mazzeo, C. (2009). The schools teachers leave: Teacher mobility in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

4 Wanless, S. B., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Abry, T., Larsen, R. A., & Patton, C. L. (2013). Engagement in training as a mechanism to understanding implementation of the responsive classroom approach. Manuscript submitted for publication.

5 Pieri, J. W., Wanless, S. B., Marks, D., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. E. (2013). Individualizing intervention coaching to increase fidelity of implementation. Paper presented at the Society for Prevention Research, San Francisco, CA.

6 Wanless, S. B., Patton, C. L., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., & Deutsch, N. L. (2012). Setting-level influences on implementation of the Responsive Classroom approach. Prevention Science, 14(1), 40–51.

7 Ibid.

8 Robinson, E., Higgs, S., Daley, A.J., Jolly, K., Lycett, D., Lewis, A., & Aveyard, P. (2013). Development and feasibility testing of a smart phone based attentive eating intervention. BMC Public Health, 13, 639–646.

9 Herold, B. (2013). Benefits of online, face-to-face professional development similar, study finds. Retrieved from:

10 Carrington, L., Kervin, L., & Ferry, B. (2011). Enhancing the development of pre-service teacher professional identity via an online classroom simulation. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 19(3), 351–368.

11 Brown, K. D., & Kraehe, A. (2010). When you’ve only got one class, one chance: Acquiring sociocultural knowledge using eclectic case pedagogy. Teaching Education, 21(3), 313–328.

This resource is part of the December 2013 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project