Culturally Responsive Family Engagement Practices

Jessica LavorgnaJessica Lavorgna engages families and communities in school improvement initiatives that close opportunity gaps for children and promote academic achievement. She brings experience in and passion for family and community engagement, adult education, language and literacy development, and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. She is the Family and Community Engagement Specialist for EDC’s Literacy and Academic Success for English Learners through Science (LASErS) Project.To strengthen and sustain these school-family-community partnerships, she works with the Hartford Public Schools, the Capitol Region Education Council of Hartford, the Connecticut Science Center, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, and several community-based organizations. Currently, she is collaborating with the Connecticut Science Center to develop bilingual family learning guides. In this blog post, Jessica describes what culturally responsive family engagement might look like, and why the "one-size-fits-all" approach does not work. 

Family Engagement is all the rage these days, and rightfully so. Decades of research have confirmed that students with engaged families are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, enroll in higher level academic programs, be promoted on time and earn more credits, adapt better to school and attend more regularly, have better social skills and behaviors, and graduate and go on to post-secondary opportunities (Harvard, 2014). These research findings have impacted practice and policy nationally; this impact is best illustrated through the creation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships and in the expansion of Family Engagement in Education Programs in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). However, despite the abundance of research, policies, and practices, many K-12 schools still struggle with one question: How do we get all families to become actively engaged in their children’s learning?

As our schools become increasingly more diverse, both linguistically and culturally, effectively engaging all families becomes an ever-growing challenge. One answer to this challenge, and that which the LASErS (Literacy and Academic Success for English Learners through Science) project is employing, is cultural responsiveness.

Photo From EDC's and CSC's Family Science Event on June 25

To be culturally responsive means to openly learn from and respectfully share with people from your and other cultures. To become culturally responsive takes time and practice, along with a commitment to engage in self-reflection. This practice allows for the challenge and expansion of one’s own perceptions. A great starting point for this practice is to recognize that you, too, were born, raised, and surrounded by culture, which had a profound impact on how you were educated and how your family participated in your education. Of note, this practice falls under cognition, one of the four components of Policy and Program Goals in the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships.

What might culturally responsive family engagement[i] look like? Below are five key practices to consider:

  1. Build Relationships and Be Present. All successful family engagement programs are built on solid relationships. The process of building relationships can be challenging, especially if families and school personnel have dissimilar cultural and linguistic backgrounds. A great way to start is with a conversation – be sure to always keep the child’s learning at the center when asking questions, listening, and sharing. These conversations can happen at school or in the community. By going into and being present in students’ communities, teachers and school administrators have an opportunity to not only build relationships, but also to establish mutual understanding and respect. Ideas: Enjoy neighborhood walks and porch visits (a less intrusive form of a home visit). Attend street fairs and other local events in your families’ neighborhoods. 
  2. Recognize, Honor, and Promote Existing Knowledge. All families have knowledge, and many are willing to share that knowledge. First by recognizing that knowledge (i.e., coming to understand what families know), then by honoring it (i.e., inviting families to share with the class/school), and finally by promoting it (i.e., engaging students, other families, and additional school personnel), family engagement programs send a clear message to all families: they matter and they are a vital component of their child’s education. Ideas: Invite linguistically diverse families to teach or share their primary language. Have culturally diverse families assist you when purchasing books for the school, or decorating the school building, or sharing student work in the classroom or halls.
  3. Identify and Use What Works for Your Families. When working with diverse families, the “one-size-fits-all” approach does not work. Not being present for school-based family events doesn’t mean that a child’s family isn’t engaged in student learning. For some families, attending school events is a cultural mismatch, which is to say that the school’s culture and a family’s culture don’t align. Instead of fighting against cultural mismatches, why not seek to reimagine what family engagement looks like? The better a school knows its families and their cultural beliefs around education, the easier it will be to engage those families in nontraditional, yet culturally responsive ways. Idea: Partner with families to co-plan a school-based family event or to co-design home-based family activity.
  4. Promote a culture of awareness, learning, and sharing. When bridging divergent cultures, it’s important to listen and observe before talking and acting. It is through the acts of listening and observing that we build a new understanding of others. When we begin by talking and acting, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to examine and challenge our preconceived notions of others. By ignoring these notions, we’re likely to make the mistake of using them as a foundation for engaging students’ families, which will result in a faulty, potentially offensive, structure. By taking the time, energy, and effort to promote a culture of awareness, learning, and sharing by listening and observing, the school environment is bound to become more inclusive and welcoming to all. Ideas: Host storytelling and listening groups in which teachers and families gather to share personal experiences. Host reading groups in which teachers and families read books and articles that examine unconscious bias, culture, and other relevant topics that help breakdown barriers.
  5. Foster Community by Building Social Capital. Vibrant and resilient communities are founded on the idea that “we’re all in this together." This belief is a fundamental component to developing, supporting, and sustaining community. However, when seeking to connect dissimilar groups, how can we establish an authentic sense of oneness? It is through the purposeful act of sharing funds of knowledge (also known as building social capital) that dissimilar groups can build unity. The growth of social capital allows for individuals to know that they are part of a network, which often brings about the sense of belonging. According to Warren (2011), “Building social capital among parents is particularly important to education…because studies have shown that working-class parents, unlike their middle-class counterparts, are not typically connected to each other around schools.” Ideas: Host mingling events that are centered on relationship building and resource-sharing on and off school property to connect everyone to the surrounding community. Create a “knowledge sharing” board in the school where parents and teachers share local and personal knowledge.

At its core, the field of family engagement seeks to tear down the walls that divide us and build relationships that sustain us, all with the goal of boosting student achievement. In order do this effectively and in a sustainable manner, educators must be willing to engage in reflection – both of themselves and of their practice. Infusing culturally responsive reflection into one’s practice will inevitably have a positive effect on one’s family engagement efforts.

[i] According to Grant and Ray (2016), the culturally responsive family engagement “approach involves practices that respect and acknowledge the cultural uniqueness, life experiences, and viewpoints of classroom families and draw on those experiences to enrich and energize the classroom curriculum and teaching activities, leading to respectful partnerships with students’ families” (p. 5).



Monday, July 11, 2016 - 10:30am