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Increasing Family Engagement in Distance Learning Classrooms

Pacific | January 15, 2021

African-American youth doing homework at home on computer with grandmother

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, face-to-face instruction rapidly moved online. As the pandemic stretches into its eighth month, many students continue to learn from home either full- or part-time, potentially alongside parents who also work from home. This gives parents a new level of access to students' day-to-day schooling, including the opportunity to sit in on courses with their child. And while increasing family engagement in schools can be challenging, even without the complications introduced during a global pandemic, determining how best to engage families in their students' education is as—if not more—critical than ever.

More than forty years of accumulated research suggests that family engagement is among the strongest predictors of student performance.1, 2 And the recent shift toward remote learning may provide an opportunity for educators to provide more—and more accessible—ways for parents and other caregivers to be a part of their children's education.

In 2016, REL Pacific and the Institute of Education Sciences published a Toolkit of Resources for Engaging Families and the Community as Partners in Education. Each of the toolkit's four sections, briefly summarized below, provides research, promising practices, and tools and activities meant to help educators establish and maintain positive partnerships with families and the community.

  • Building an understanding of family and community engagement. Family engagement is an ongoing process focused on two-way communication between schools and communities and meaningful goals focused on student outcomes. This section of the toolkit focuses on reflecting on beliefs and assumptions, getting to know school families, understanding the influence of a cultural lens, and acknowledging cultural differences.
  • Building a cultural bridge. Building a cultural bridge involves getting to know parents as individuals in order to tap into their unique strengths. This section of the toolkit provides strategies for tapping into the strengths of families and community members and establishing roles for building family and community engagement.
  • Building trusting relationships with families and community through effective communication. Family engagement relies on strong, trusting relationships between parents and educators, based on the perception of each other's reliability, competence, honesty, and openness. This section of the toolkit focuses on cross-cultural communication within the school community and preparing educators for two-way communication with families.
  • Engaging families and community members in data conversations. Sharing data with caregivers allows them to better understand how their child is performing and what steps they can take to help. This section of the toolkit focuses on determining what student data are important to share with families and community members and presenting student data in meaningful ways.

Adapting the Toolkit to an Online Environment

Information in the toolkit is adapted from a variety of sources and applicable to a variety of contexts, including the distance and hybrid learning challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Listed below are a few ideas on how to use the toolkit's guidance to engage families within a distance learning environment.

Establish multiple open, two-way communication channels. The same platforms that connect remote learners to educators can also be used by teachers to connect with parents. The normalization of video conferencing, for example, provides an opportunity for face-to-face conversations about student progress and needed supports, and instant messaging platforms can allow educators and caregivers to communicate in real time. While considering platforms for connecting with caregivers, educators should be cognizant of any potential issues with access to technology (discussed in more detail below) and needs for accessibility or translation services. For example, if a classroom includes multiple English learners with caregivers who require translation services, teachers might consider regularly scheduling “office hours” with a translator or translators to provide opportunities for families to discuss their students' progress, required support, and any questions or concerns.

Acknowledge and mitigate issues of equity and access. Though the use of multiple virtual platforms provides additional ways to connect with students and parents, educators need to be aware of any potential limitations in families' technology access. As educators consider how best to help students with limited computer or internet access, they also have the opportunity to consider how to communicate with, engage, and provide supports to parents. For example, if educators provide take-home packets to support distance learning for students with limited internet connectivity, they might also include a list of instructions for parents on how to help their students complete assignments or reports on their students' progress in the content area to date.

Value and respect families' strengths and differences. When working in partnership with families to support students, it's important to engage with them from a strengths-based perspective, which acknowledges that families want to help their students succeed.3 In collectivist cultures, for example, extended family or other community members may come to school functions or otherwise support a student when a parent is not available. Rather than viewing this as a deficit (on the part of the parent), educators can instead view it as strength, because the student has access to multiple engaged family members or other adults who have a vested interest in their success. When working with children remotely or within a hybrid model, it is important for educators to learn about their students' support systems, as parents may not be the only point of contact for students. Similarly, caregivers' willingness to work with educators depends largely on trust. To establish trust, families must first believe that educators are reliable, fair, qualified, and have their children's best interests at heart. Further, it's important that educators show respect to the entire family, engage them personally (rather than only professionally), refrain from being too authoritative, and create a sense of commonality by framing parents and educators as a team.4

Share and interpret information about students' progress. Online platforms and applications have made student grades more available to parents than ever before. However, faced with a sea of data, it may not always be clear which data are meaningful to share with families—and caregivers may not always know how to interpret the information sent to them by schools. When considering which data to share with families, it's important to first consider why families are interested in receiving education data. Some reasons may include monitoring their child's general progress and knowing when to be concerned, monitoring their child's achievement of education standards, staying connected to their child's teacher(s) and administrator(s), and helping their child with homework.5 In a virtual environment, however, how progress is measured and how data are collected may look very different. For example, whereas caregivers of middle school-aged children may have been primarily interested in assessment scores pre-pandemic, they may now be curious about how attendance is taken, particularly if classes are asynchronous.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has physically distanced educators, students, and students' families from each other, they still have the tools to build and maintain enriching relationships. By establishing open and frequent communication, addressing issues of equity, and sharing meaningful information, educators can create relationships with families that are mutually beneficial and supportive.


1 California Department of Education. (2011). Family engagement framework: A tool for California school districts. Author. http://

2 Weiss, H., Bouffard, S., Bridglall B., & Gordon, E. (2009). Reframing family involvement in education: Supporting families to support educational equity. Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University.

3 Moore, T. (2011). Drawing on parents' strengths: The role of districts and schools in empowering families to be effective partners in learning. Family Involvement Network of Educators (FINE) Newsletter, 3(2).

4 Garcia, M. E., Frunzi, K., Dean, C. B., Flores, N., & Miller, K. B. (2016). Toolkit of Resources for Engaging Families and the Community as Partners in Education: Building trusting relationships with families and the community through effective communication. REL 2016–153. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.

5 Northwest Evaluation Association. (2012). For every child, multiple measures: What parents and educators want for K–12 assessments. Author.


Kirsten Miller

Jason Victor