Examining family-school partnerships: Defining features and future directions

Differentiating Family-School Partnerships and Family Involvement

Note: Due to the diversifying profile of families in the United States, the term “family involvement” is used in place of “parent involvement” and “caregiver” is used in place of “parent” to more accurately reflect the current state of the construct.

Two of the most important systems influencing children's development are families and schools. Although education is the primary role of schools in children's development, families also play a central role in educational outcomes. In particular, family participation in children's education has been shown to be an essential part of children's social, emotional, behavioral and academic growth (Fan & Chen, 2001; Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Family participation in children's education can take many forms, including family involvement activities and family-school partnership activities. However, these terms are often used interchangeably in the literature without distinguishing unique aspects of the different types of participation. Thus, the purpose of this article is to propose a set of features for defining family-school partnerships by: (a) differentiating family-school partnerships from other family involvement activities, (b) describing key features of family-school partnerships, (c) identifying limitations in the family-school partnership literature, and (d) suggesting future directions for research in this area. 

Family Involvement

In a broad sense, family involvement in education can be defined as the dedication of family resources to a child's education (Grolnick & Slowiaczeck, 1994). Sheldon and Epstein (2005) identified six general categories of involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making and collaborating with the community. These categories include activities such as volunteering at school, participating in parent training, joining the PTA, taking a child to a cultural event, discussing school with the child or the child's teacher or helping the child with homework. As such, family involvement generally: (a) emphasizes one setting (e.g., home or school), (b) uses unidirectional communication (e.g., school personnel teaching caregivers to use a preplanned set of skills at home with their children), and (c) has clearly defined hierarchical roles (e.g., school personnel serving the role of instructor and the caregiver the role of learner; Sheldon & Epstein, 2005 ).

A model of family involvement, as illustrated by Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler (1995), documents the process whereby families become involved in their child's education. The first step in the model is a parent's decision to involve themselves in their child's education, based on their perception of the role of parents in education, their sense of efficacy for helping their child succeed academically and the opportunities provided by the child and school. The type of involvement (i.e., one of the aforementioned six types) that the parent chooses is then based upon their unique skill set, the time and energy they have available, or the invitations from the child, teacher or the school. Once parents choose which type of involvement to engage in, they use modeling of school-related behaviors, reinforcement of child school-related behaviors and/or instruction to influence child outcomes, which are defined as skills, knowledge and efficacy for succeeding in school. The impact of parental involvement is mediated by parent use of developmentally appropriate strategies and the fit between parent actions and school expectations (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1995). The model described emphasizes one setting, with the parent being involved either at school or at home, as opposed to across settings. Unidirectional communication also appears in the model, with the parent responding to invitations to be involved from the child, teacher or school. There are also clearly defined roles and expectations set forth, with the parent choosing to work with their child at home or participate in activities that the school has offered.

Family-School Partnerships

Although many definitions of family-school partnerships exist, herein they are defined as “child-centered connections between individuals in the home and school settings who share responsibility for supporting the growth and development of children” (Clarke, Sheridan, & Woods, 2010, p. 61). Unlike family involvement, the focus of this definition is on the relationship between members of the home and school settings, their joint roles and responsibilities and their collaborative work in addressing children's needs. In family-school partnerships, caregivers and teachers are viewed as equals who have unique strengths and are jointly accountable for student success (Reschly & Christenson, 2012).

Family-school partnerships are grounded in an ecological perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), which views children's development as influenced by the many systems in which they function (i.e., microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem). In particular, family-school partnerships assume that optimal development occurs when there are healthy relationships within the primary systems within which children have direct contact (e.g., home, school; the microsystem) and across these systems (i.e., the mesosystem). Therefore, family-school partnerships focus dually on supporting children in the home and school setting and creating positive relationships between caregivers and teachers. 

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