Understanding Family Engagement and Why It Matters

This is a back to the basics post. Teachers are woefully underprepared to engage with families, which is freaking hard and complicated (D’Haem & Griswold, 2017; De Bruine et al., 2014; Epstein, 2018). One area where teachers are unprepared is pretty basic-- just understanding why we bother with family engagement and what it even means. I mean there is a moral argument for family engagement and a legal argument-- but there is also a rock bottom, fundamental evidence for family engagement. You do it because you want your students to learn.This post hits on four things-- a quick overview of the relevant laws for family engagement, what family engagement does and does not mean, the evidence for why engagement matters, and how families are engaged. This post doesn’t hit on how to build partnerships with families or run amazing conferences. Those are separate posts, so check them out!

Research to Practice: The Importance of Family Engagement

The law

Parent involvement is part of the fabric of the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), which is the big federal regulation for education. Here is some of the relevant language: “Parental involvement’’ means the participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities, including: (A) Integral role in assisting their child’s learning; (B) Active involvement in their child’s education at school; (C) Partners in their child’s education and are included, as appropriate, in decision-making and on advisory committees; and (D) Included in carrying out of other activities, described in section 1116.” If your school gets Title I funding, some of that money is supposed to go to family engagement per ESSA!


In addition, most states have laws about family engagement (Belway et al., 2013). And, if you are a special education teacher, you know that IDEA, the special education law, has a LOT in it about parent rights and engagement! 


The law isn’t the focus of this piece– it’s just in here as a reminder that family engagement is the law, not just a nice thing to do. 

A formal definition of family engagement

ESSA defines family engagement as “participation of parents in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities.” The National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (2019) defines it as, “a shared responsibility in which schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to reaching out to engage families in meaningful ways and in which families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development.”

Informal definitions of family engagement: How families define it.

When researchers ask families how they are engaged in their children’s learning, their answers are pretty expansive.


When Mapp (2003) asked parents how they were involved, they told her:

  • They gave their children verbal support and encouraged them to do well at school
  • They encouraged and supported their children around homework
  • They communicated with teachers
  • They visited the school and went to events at the school
  • They joined school committees and volunteered


The laws on family engagement are written to tell schools and teachers not to do– not provide a list of all of the many, many ways that teachers are involved in their children’s learning! And what researchers find on which of those are the most helpful for students might surprise you.


Broad findings on the impact of family engagement

  • Parental involvement is associated with higher grades for students, including high school students (Jeynes, 2007; Ma et al., 2016; Wilder, 2016)
  • Strong partnerships between schools and home has benefits for students’ mental health and social behavioral success (Sheridan et al., 2019)
  • Of any school-based actions, two way communication between home and school has the strongest relationship to students’ mental health and behavioral outcomes. Communication makes a difference (Sheridan et al., 2019)!
  • In terms of student engagement and academic outcomes, the most impactful teacher and school practices are building respectful and effective relationships with families and creating real partnerships (Ma et al., 2016)
  • When high schools reach out to parents more, 9th graders struggle less (Abele et al., 2015)

What types of parental involvement drives positive outcomes?

We tend to think that what matters is parents’ presence in schools but …. Guess again! It’s their expectations at home, not their face in your classroom that matters. 

  • Parental expectations for their child’s success has the LARGEST relationship with student performance across many different studies (Jeynes, 2007). Parents’ expectations for their children are pretty correlated with whether their children graduate from high school (Ross, 2016). In middle school that “academic socialization,” which includes the communication of expectation, academic goals, and purpose of education, has the strongest relationship to outcomes of anything (Hill & Tyson, 2009). 
  • Checking homework has a relationship with grades, but not test scores (Jeynes, 2007)– and in some studies helping with homework has a negative relationship with grades, possibly because the students who need more help have more challenges (Hill & Tyson, 2009)
  • Parental attendance at school events and functions has, overall, little impact, but has some relationship with high school graduation rates (Hill & Tyson, 2009; Jeynes, 2007; Ross, 2016)
  • Parents and students talking about school is also pretty impactful (Jeynes, 2007)
  • Talking about behaviors is, not shockingly, negatively related to graduation rates— you are only talking about behavior if there is a problem (Ross, 2016). A lot of communication only occurs when there is a problem and that type of communication is not great for kids (Fan et al., 2012).


Here are my big takeaways. 

1) The most impactful thing schools can do is engage in two-way communication and respectful partnership building with parents. It is also required by the law;

2) The most impactful thing parents can do is encourage their children at home– not show up at school– so we need to stop judging parents’ engagement by their presence in our rooms and at our schools.


  • Abele, M., Epstein, J., Sheldon, S., and Fonesca, E. (2015). Engaging families to support students’ transition to high school: Evidence from the field. High School Journal, Fall 2015, 27-45. 
  • Belway, S., Duran, M., & Spielberg, L. (2013). State laws on family engagement in education: National PTA reference guide. 
  • Fan, W., Williams, C., Wolters, C. (2012). Parental involvement in predicting school motivation: Similar and differential effects across ethnic groups. The Journal of Educational Research, 105, 21-35. 
  • Hill, N., and Tyson, D. (2009). Parental involvement in middle school: A meta-analytic assessment of the strategies that promote achievement. Developmental Psychologist, 45, 740-763.
  • Jeynes, W. (2007) The relationship between parental involvement and urban secondary school student academic achievement. Urban Education, 42, 82-110. 
  • Ma, X., Shen, J., Krenn, H. Y., Hu, S., & Yuan, J. (2016). A meta-analysis of the relationship between learning outcomes and parental involvement during early childhood education and early elementary education. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 771-801.
  • Mapp, K. L. (2003). Having their say: Parents describe why and how they are engaged in their children’s learning. School Community Journal, 13(1), 35–64. 
  • National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (2019). Family, school, and community engagement within state educator licensure requirements. https://cdn.ymaws.com/nafsce.org/resource/resmgr/custompages/NAFSCE_States_Report_FINAL_0.pdf
  • Ross, T. (2016). The differential effects of parental involvement on high school completion  and postsecondary attendance. Education Policy and Analysis Archives, 24(30), 1-38. 
  • Sheridan, S. M., Smith, T. E., Moorman Kim, E., Beretvas, S. N., & Park, S. (2019). A meta-analysis of family-school interventions and children’s social-emotional functioning: Moderators and components of efficacy. Review of educational Research, 89(2), 296-332.
  • Wilder, S. (2014). Effects of parental involvement on academic achievement: a meta-synthesis. Educational Review, 66(3), 377-397.