Engagement vs. Involvement: Building an Inclusive School Community

There is a strong consensus, supported by a variety of research from the last 40 years, that positive parental engagement can and does significantly impact student outcomes. Yet, the challenge many schools face today is understanding the difference between parent engagement and parent involvement.

The literature on parent engagement varies in its definition, recommendations on approaches and agreed measures to understand which programs are most effective. This provides little benefit to a school who may seek to increase parent engagement activities but may  end up implementing a parent involvement plan for lack of clarity between the two strategies.

For simplicity in our organization and the schools we work with, we have adopted the following definition on parent engagement as outlined by the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth for the Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau:

“Parental engagement consists of partnerships between families, schools and communities, raising parental awareness of the benefits of engaging in their children’s education, and providing them with the skills to do so.”

The Alliance also clearly distinguishes parent engagement from parent involvement:

“… there is an important distinction between involving parents in schooling and engaging parents in learning; it is the latter that has shown to have the greatest positive impact. While involving parents in school activities may have an important community and social function, the key to facilitating positive change in a child’s academic attainment is the engagement of parents in learning outcomes in the home.”

Parent Involvement

Schools use parent involvement programs to increase opportunities for families to participate in school activities. Common activities include field trip chaperones, library helpers, room parents, class party participation and helping with school fundraisers.

While parent involvement tends to focus on getting parents to show up for school activities, it is important to note there are many benefits associated with implementing an effective program. Parental involvement saves the school money in labor costs, builds relationships between parents and teachers and creates a better understanding of school expectations, all of which ultimately benefits the students.

Given the many benefits of parent involvement programs, it easy to see why they tend to be the default program for most schools. In fact, there are several tools on the market today which help schools promote involvement activities, making the temptation to settle for such programs even greater.

  • PimsPoints tracks and rewards attendance and involvement so users can accumulate reward points that can be put towards purchases at local businesses. Much of the rewards focus on attendance, though points can also be earned for filling out forms online. The program uses incentive motivation theory, or the belief that people are motivated to act by external rewards, to encourage parental involvement.
  • Youtopia awards badges for parent participation, both for volunteer activities and traditional engagement activities including helping with homework, reading at home, and reinforcing classroom lessons at home. Achievements can be shared on social media, so the premise is that desire for social approval and public recognition will encourage action.
  • Volunteer Programs (e.g. Signup Genius or Signup.com) help schools more effectively manage the recruitment and signup process for volunteers. Names on the list are visible, identifying who has responded, thus there is an element of public recognition associated with volunteering.

The biggest challenge with a parent involvement strategy which requires participation at school activities is that it is not inclusive of the entire school community. Families whose school or home responsibilities prohibit them from being available to fully participate, and working families may encounter frustration and ultimately dissatisfaction with both the involvement activities and the school itself. When this happens, parents may feel excluded and begin to distance themselves, thus missing opportunities to get involved and positively impact student outcomes.

Conversely, active parent volunteers may also experience frustration if they feel the same people continue to show up when a call for volunteers is made. In schools with a diverse population, especially those whose parents are not available to visit school during the day or attend meetings at night, the parent involvement program may have a negative impact on school culture.

A school focused solely on getting parents to show up at school is missing an opportunity to connect with their families. Parent engagement, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for all families to be involved in their child’s learning outcomes.

Parent Engagement

As Muller (2009) states: ‘Family-school and community partnerships are re-defining the boundaries and functions of education. They enlarge parental and community capacity; they create conditions in which children learn more effectively. In these ways’ they take education beyond the school gates’.

Schools with effective parent engagement programs create a partnership with their families and design activities for home which focus on a child’s learning outcomes. These programs include reading-related activities, helping with homework, maintaining high expectations and creating a positive learning environment. All families, regardless of work obligations, income level or access to technology, can participate. Simple steps such as asking about a child’s day or establishing a time and place for homework go a long way towards teaching kids to work hard and value the opportunities school gives them.

When focused on learning outcomes, parent engagement has the greatest impact on student achievement, and the benefits span beyond the immediate school year. As Ken Leithwood suggests, “we need to think about shifting our focus from ‘How to get more parents into the school’ to ‘How we can support them at home,’ where half of the achievement we’re responsible for as educators happens,” (Webcasts for Educators, 2012).

It has been suggested that the relative influence of the home on student achievement is 60-80 percent, while the school accounts for 20-40 percent. Students with two parents operating in supportive roles are 52% more likely to enjoy school and get straight A’s than students whose parents are disengaged with what’s going on at school (The Effect of Parental Involvement on Academic Achievement 2013).

Additionally, international research from the Australian Research Alliance has shown that parental engagement (of various kinds) has a positive impact on student achievement. Their research outlines these specific indicators:

  • higher grades and test scores
  • enrollment in higher level programs and advanced classes
  • higher successful completion of classes
  • lower dropout rates
  • higher graduation rates
  • a greater likelihood of commencing postsecondary education

Their research also looks beyond educational achievement and identifies indicators related to student development. These include:

  • more regular school attendance
  • better social skills
  • improved behavior
  • better adaptation to school
  • increased social capital
  • a greater sense of personal competence and efficacy for learning
  • greater engagement in school work
  • a stronger belief in the importance of education

Given all the benefits of engagement, why is it not a standard practice? Simply put, many parents wait for cues from the teacher to understand their role in the learning process. Acknowledging, for example, that “You don’t need to know how to do the homework to help your child,” can begin to open the concept of engagement for many parents who might not realize that identifying a quiet place to do homework is just as important as the homework itself.

School Communications

School communications is an important factor in setting relevant expectations with parents and involving them in the learning process. Parents who have the flexibility in their schedules and can participate in school activities have an advantage of speaking with their child’s teacher directly.

Without the benefit of seeing parents face-to-face during school hours, engagement strategies are more likely to be successful when teachers know how to communicate effectively with parents, where dedicated school staff work with parents, and where there is strong support from the principal for this work. While dedicated resources are often needed, the level of resourcing for each school is likely to vary with community need and with the engagement strategies chosen.

For parents to be effectively engaged in learning, schools need to ensure there are trusting relationships between teachers and parents. Building trust can be difficult and may require additional effort and creativity on the part of teachers and schools. This is particularly the case for parents in traditionally ‘hard to reach’ or ‘underserved’ groups, including those from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Trust is a product of effective communication. Technology has provided us with more opportunities to communicate, but much of that comes in the form of reminders of upcoming events or requests for volunteers. Studies show that while 60% of parents’ report being satisfied with their schools’ communication (pdkpoll48_2016) only 46% say their school provides opportunities for parental input, with just 41% reporting that their school is interested in what they have to say. By opening the lines of communication and inviting parents to become engaged we can change these statistics.

Communication is critical to building trust. As the precursor to parent engagement it is possible to promote engagement while implementing a parent involvement program. But as the table below shows high engagement produces better outcomes than low engagement, so it’s important to build a communication strategy that incorporates a variety of methodologies.

Source: http:// www.sedl.org/connections/resources/evidence.pdf 

Join the Discussion

Successful parental engagement is continuous. It starts before children even begin school with simple tasks like reading bedtime stories and learning colors, and needs to be maintained throughout childhood and well into teenage years and early adulthood. Though the nature of parental participation may change, the level of commitment from parents needs to remain the same.

For parents to understand and appreciate their continuing role, parents, schools and the general community need to build a mutual understanding of positive parental engagement and strategies to achieve and sustain it. Through this mutual understanding and commitment student outcomes will be enhanced, and children will have a much greater chance of living a life that they value, where their full capacities and aspirations are fulfilled.

How does your school engage its parents? What do you like/dislike about their current involvement/engagement activities?


The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. (August, 2005). Meeting the Challenge: Getting Parents Involved in Schools. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved February 2017 from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/getting-parents-involved-schools

Emerson, L., Fear. J., Fox, S., and Sanders, E. (2012). Parental engagement in learning and schooling: Lessons from research. A report by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) for the Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau: Canberra. Retrieved February 2017 from https://www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/command/download_file/id/7/filename/Parental_engagement_in_learning_and_schooling_Lessons_from_research_BUREAU_ARACY_August_2012.pdf

Muller, D (2009). Parental engagement: Social and economic effects. Prepared for the Australian Parents Council, Available: http://www.austparents.edu.au

Leithwood, K., &Jantzi, D. (2006). Transformational school leadership for large-scale reform: Effects on students, teachers, and their classroom practices. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 17, 201–227.

Pinantoan, A. (2013). The Effect of Parental Involvment on Academic Achievement. Retrieved February 2017 from http://www.teachthought.com/learning/the-effect-of-parental-involvement-on-academic-achievement/ 

Saad, L. (2016). Five Inishts into U.S. Parents’ Satisfaction with Education. Retrieved February 2017 from http://www.gallup.com/poll/195011/five-insights-parents-satisfaction-education.aspx