The Buzz on Parent Engagement

Almost two decades ago a popular report stated something we intrinsically seem to know today: “The family is critical to student achievement” (Henderson, A.T., & Berla, N. 1994). While this statement was first made in 1994, it continues to be referenced in reports focused on how to help students achieve success, and is a major component of education today.

Research by the U.S. Department of Education shows that parent engagement is linked to better student behavior, higher achievement, and enhanced social skills. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) finds parental engagement makes it more likely that students will stay in school longer, avoiding unhealthy behaviors such as adolescent sex, alcohol, and other drug use. In addition, the Harvard Graduate School of Education concludes parents who provide support with homework have children who tend to perform better in the classroom.

It seems to be without question that parents play an important role in education and development. What’s harder to define is what exactly that role entails.

Google “Parental Engagement” and you’ll find the CDC at the top of the results list with a definition of “parents and school staff working together to support the learning, development and health of children.” The key term here is “working together,” which unfortunately has no universal meaning.

Some schools interpret “working together” to mean keeping parents informed or providing a financial contribution. Others correlate it to volunteering at the school, and require parents to log a minimum number of hours each year. While students can benefit from these efforts they all more or less involve the school dictating to rather than working with parents.

Engagement vs Involvement

There is a disconnect between engagement and involvement; two complementary but not synonymous terms. Involvement is the participation of parents in school activities and includes things like organizing class parties, volunteering at an athletic event, helping to set up an art exhibit or even judging the science fair.

Engagement, on the other hand, focuses on the notion that not all learning has to take place at school. The U.S. Department of Education describes family engagement as a way for schools to help parents understand school expectations and “empower them to become active, informed advocates for their children throughout their education” (Ed Tech 2015). Examples of engagement include helping students with at-home activities, developing time management skills, and maintaining high expectations.

You may be wondering why engagement is preferable to involvement if both can have a positive impact. Consider the outcome of involvement activities. It’s true they help build relationships between parents and schools, and save money by providing labor the schools might not be able to afford. Yet for families whose work, school or family responsibilities prohibit them from being available to volunteer during regular school hours, involvement activities become challenging. This may result in parents feeling disconnected or inadequate, which can ultimately lead to miscommunication and dissatisfaction.

Now consider the result of engagement activities. Since engagement doesn’t have to take place inside the school it’s benefits aren’t limited to only those parents with flexible schedules. Simple steps such as reviewing a child’s homework, asking a child how they did on a test and getting them to school on time demonstrate a parent’s support and commitment to education. These simple steps have a lasting impact on the child.

School Tardiness Study – A Case For Engagement

Tresa S. Taylor, author of “Do Minutes Matter? Connecting Tardiness to Academic Achievement” studied a suburban Texas high school and found that tardiness contributed to a 25% variance in state math test results, noting that as tardiness increased passing rates decreased. The table below summarizes her results.

Why would tardiness have such an impact? Because being late implies time management isn’t important, the teacher doesn’t deserve respect, and education isn’t a priority. Tardiness impacts the entire class by distracting other students and disrupting the flow of the class discussion.

Of course, being tardy once or twice isn’t going to set a bad example, particularly if the parent demonstrates remorse for being behind schedule. But chronic tardiness sends a message students understand quite clearly; “I don’t have to take school seriously.”

Tardiness is often a precursor to dropping out, which can often be traced back to the early days in a student’s academic history (Taylor 2014). The simple act of being on time sends the message that school should be taken seriously, thereby keeping kids in school longer.

As Scott and Barrett (2004) concluded “simply maintaining successful behavior greatly increases the likelihood of positive academic engagement.” All parents should discourage tardiness, and doing so (engagement) has a greater impact on student outcomes than helping to chaperone field trips (involvement).

Join the Discussion

As you can see, parent engagement is more than just keeping parents informed; it’s about connecting with families, building relationships and encouraging them to play an active role in the learning process at home and at school.

It may seem simple, but parents and schools alike have trouble engaging one another and often settle for involvement, for reasons we’ll discuss next month. Involvement is important to creating a vibrant school culture, and has positive benefits on student outcomes. But not all parents can be actively involved, so schools should also develop strategies around parental engagement to include the entire school community in the learning process.

Do you see a difference between engagement and involvement at your own school? How do you encourage either form of interaction between staff, teachers and parents?

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). Parent Engagement. Retrieved January 2017 from
Ferlazzo, L. (2011). Involvement or Engagement. Retrieved January 2017 from
Henderson, A.T., & Berla, N. (1994). A New Generation of Evidence. Retrieved January 2017 from
Kreider, H. (2006). Family Involvement: What Does Research Say? Retrieved January 2017 from
Scott, T. M. & Barrett, S. B., (2004). Using staff and student time engaged in disciplinary procedures to evaluate the impact of school-wide PBS. Retrieved January 2017 from
Taylor, T. (2014). Do Minutes Matter? University of North Texas. Retrieved January 2017 from
U.S. Department of Education (2015). Office of Educational Technology. Retrieved April 2015 from
Wood, L. and Carson, J. (n.d.). Promoting Equity Through Family-School Partnerships. Retrieved January 2017 from