Examining family-school partnerships: Defining features and future directions
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.
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.
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.
Several features appear necessary to facilitate effective family-school partnerships. Based on a review of the literature, the following defining features of family-school partnerships are proposed: collaboration on child-focused goals, shared responsibility and decision making, inclusion of all pertinent parties, building strengths and promoting skills, and placing an emphasis on continuity across systems (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001; Clarke et al., 2010; Crosnoe et al., 2010; Daniel, 2011; Garbacz et al., 2008; Jones, 2010; Sheridan & Kratochwill, 2008).
Collaboration on Student-Focused Goals
The first feature of family-school partnerships is collaboration between families and schools toward achieving common goals for children. Collaboration has been defined as families and schools working collegially and jointly and valuing each other's input toward meeting a shared goal for a child (Sheridan & Kratochwill, 2008). Collaborative relationships are the backbone of any family-school partnership.
Collaboration cannot occur without a healthy relationship between families and school personnel. Healthy family-school relationships include three elements: trust, sensitivity and equality (Clarke et al., 2010). Trust is hypothesized to facilitate all other components of family-school partnerships (Reschly & Christenson, 2012). For families and schools to work collaboratively toward common goals they must trust that each member of the partnership is acting in ways that will help them meet agreed upon goals. The importance of trust in family-school partnerships can be seen in the seminal research conducted by Adams and Christenson (2000). They found that the perceived quality of the family-school relationship by caregivers and teachers was the strongest predictor of trust , and this trust was positively correlated with credits earned, grade point average and attendance for high school students (Adams & Christenson, 2000).
The second element of a healthy family-school relationship is sensitivity. Sensitivity is defined as the degree to which participants in one setting adapt to the individual needs of participants in another setting (i.e., home-school). Currently, across the United States, cultural differences between families and schools occur more often than in years past (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010); thus, it is important that families and schools be sensitive to the cultural background of each member in a partnership. Differences between families and schools should be viewed as strengths rather than potential barriers that might be problematic. Some cultural differences requiring sensitivity in family-school relationships include language, beliefs about discipline and rewards, religious affiliations, and socioeconomic status.
The final element of a healthy family-school relationship is equality. Equality within a family-school partnership is demonstrated by acknowledging that each member of the partnership has unique strengths and information about the child that they bring to the problem-solving process. Families often enter these partnerships viewing the relationship as one of inequality, with school personnel having more power (Lareau & McNamara-Horvat, 1999); thus, school personnel may need to foster and promote equality within the relationship by openly acknowledging family strengths and valuing family opinions.
Shared Responsibility and Decision Making
The second defining feature of family-school partnerships is shared responsibility and decision-making. When individuals within collaborative partnerships recognize the unique strengths of all members, the tone is set for all parties to feel like valued members, share in the responsibility for outcomes, and join in the decision making process. In contrast, schools have traditionally been the primary decision makers regarding children's education. Shared responsibility and mutual input can help prevent blame when partners experience problems or difficulties (Sheridan & Kratochwill, 2008). When faced with a difficult problem, partners can immediately begin working together toward a solution instead of spending time discussing who is at fault.
Inclusion of All Pertinent Parties
Family-school partnerships may also include many important members of the child's microsystems. The ever-changing family structure in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010) can alter traditional family-school partnership practices. Now it is recognized that parents, grandparents, siblings, other caregivers, community members, school psychologists, principals and other professionals can participate and contribute to the partnership. Inclusive partnerships allow for a more diverse set of input from important professionals (e.g., psychologists, pediatricians) who can inform the problem-solving process. For example, caregivers and a teacher of a first grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might enter into a partnership to help support the child's work completion at home and school. In this case it might be helpful to have the child's therapist or psychiatrist join the partnership and provide additional perspectives and recommendations.
Building Strengths and Promoting Skills
Promoting competencies of all members is another important feature of family-school partnerships (Garbacz et al., 2008; Sheridan & Kratochwill, 2008). Determining and then pooling the skills and strengths of school personnel and family members can allow for a synergistic effect resulting in a more optimal utilization of available resources. Each family-school partnership member brings different strengths and resources to the partnership allowing members opportunities to learn about, refine or adopt new skills. One example can be seen in communication patterns. A teacher with experience working with families might engage in a partnership with a family that has had little communication with schools (e.g., a family with a kindergartener that did not attend preschool). In this instance, communicating collaboratively provides the family with a model that they had not experienced previously and allows the family to adopt similar patterns in the future.
Emphasizing Continuity Across Systems
Emphasizing continuity across systems is the final distinguishing feature of family-school partnerships. Continuity is established when there is direct contact between families and schools. This allows for the coordination of resources aimed at enhancing the child's skills (Crosnoe et al., 2010). Continuity goes beyond individual practices, beliefs and values displayed by caregivers and school personnel; it consists of those same aspects being united together across settings in a strategic manner to create a consistent and predictable message for children. Significant positive correlations have been reported between academic achievement and children exposed to high levels of continuity between home and school settings (Hansen, 1986; Phelan, Davidson & Yu, 1998; Warzon & Ginsburg-Block, 2008). Additionally, interventions targeting improvement of continuity between home and school can lead to positive behavioral and social outcomes for children (Galloway & Sheridan, 1994; Sheridan, Eagle, Cowan & Mickelson, 2001; Sheridan, Kratochwill & Elliott, 1990).
Research on Family-School Partnerships
Research on family-school partnerships, as cited in this manuscript, has demonstrated significant positive effects on child academic, behavioral, social and emotional outcomes. Academic outcomes include improvements in children's homework (Galloway & Sheridan, 1994; Kerawalla et al., 2007; Weiner, Sheridan, & Jenson, 1998), cognitive abilities (Wasik, Ramey, Bryant, & Sparling, 1990), math performance (Blechman, Taylor, & Schrader, 1981; Galloway & Sheridan, 1994), language readiness (Sheridan, Knoche, Kupzyk, Edwards, & Marvin, 2011), academic engagement (Lehr, Sinclair, & Christenson, 2004; Lien-Thorne & Kamps, 2005; McConaughy, Kay, & Fitzgerald, 1998; Mortier, Hunt, Desimple, & Hove, 2009) and academic performance (Kelley & McCain, 1995; McDonald et al., 2006; Morrow & Young, 1997; Mortier et al., 2009).
Additionally, family-school partnerships have produced immediate and long-term positive behavioral outcomes for children. Examples of immediate positive outcomes include more appropriate classroom behaviors (Kelley & McCain, 1995), fewer tantrums and incontinence (Barry & Santarelli, 2000) and fewer disruptive behaviors (Lien-Thorne & Kamps, 2005; McConaughy et al., 1998; McDonald et al., 2006). Long-term behavioral outcomes of family-school partnerships include decreased risk of substance use and conduct problems later in life (Connell, Dishion, Yasui, & Kavanagh, 2007; Ialongo, Werthamer, Kellam, Brown, Wang, & Lin, 1999). In addition to behavioral outcomes, positive social and emotional outcomes resulting from family-school partnerships were demonstrated through increased social interactions (Mortier et al., 2009), increased interpersonal competencies and social skill development (Colton & Sheridan, 1998; Sheridan, Knoche, Edwards, Bovaird, & Kupzyk, 2010; Sheridan, Bovaird, Glover, Garbacz, Witte, & Kwon, 2012) and reduced emotional disturbances (McConaughy, Kay, & Fitzgerald, 1999).
Practice implications. School psychologists are uniquely positioned to establish, support, and sustain family-school partnership practices. However, effective family-school partnerships involve collaborative attitudes and intentional, coordinated practices. As a result, it is necessary for school psychologists to infuse two broad tactics into their practice: (1) building capacity for families and school personnel to partner with each other, and (2) prioritizing family-school partnership practices in regular activities (e.g., assessments, interventions).
- School-wide support
As systems level consultants, school psychologists have the potential to build the capacity for families and schools to support student learning through coordination. School psychologists can help create the infrastructure (e.g., policies, procedures, practices) and climate (e.g., attitudes, atmosphere) necessary for joining families and schools (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). For example, school psychologists can coordinate trust-building events and activities (e.g., family fun nights, workshops for parents and teachers) between families and school personnel; ensure all families have the resources and opportunities to feel connected to the school (e.g., system-wide opportunities for bi-directional communication, access to materials on school policies and procedures); and regularly include families to achieve student goals (Christenson, 2002).
- Daily practices
School psychologists can embrace a partnership-orientation to their regular intervention and assessment duties. Families can be included as assessors and reporters of students' behaviors and skills (Christenson, 2002). Mesosystemic interventions (e.g., CBC; Sheridan & Kratochwill, 2008) can be used to capitalize on students' in-school and out-of-school time by encouraging bi-directional communication, supporting cross system problem solving and decision making, and creating consistent and congruent practices to support student learning across home and school settings.
Research directions. Constraints within existing literature limit the conclusions that can be drawn about the unique effects of family-school partnerships. As a result, several broad lines of inquiry are necessary. These include: (1) clearly identifying and defining the central features of family-school partnerships, and (2) measuring the family-school partnership construct in ways that account for the multi-systemic impact that family-school partnerships have on child development.
- Identifying and defining the features of family-school partnerships
The first line of inquiry that appears necessary concerns how family-school partnerships are defined. This manuscript proposes a working definition of family-school partnerships; however, to date, there is no agreed upon definition among researchers (Albright & Weissberg, 2010). Without this type of consensus, interpreting future research on family-school partnerships may be difficult, even misleading. For example, reviewing child outcomes of research on family-school partnerships, based on the definition proposed in this article, may lead to different conclusions about the effectiveness of family-school partnerships than one structured on a different conceptualization.
Defining family-school partnerships begs the question of what are the features of family-school partnerships? This article presents potential features of family-school partnerships; however, many of these features have not been studied empirically. For instance, healthy family-school relationships are one hypothesized prerequisite to meaningful family-school partnerships (Clarke et al., 2010); however, this hypothesis has yet to be tested. Two lines of scientific inquiry into the features of family-school partnerships utilize meta- and component analyses. Such empirical techniques can help elucidate the operative features of family-school partnerships and make possible the comparison of family-school partnerships and family involvement activities to determine the relative strength of such interventions.
- Systems-level measurement
Family-school partnership interventions are impacted by “circular causality” wherein changes in one system cause changes to other systems (Reschly & Christenson, 2012). Unfortunately, most of the outcomes reported in the literature focus solely on child outcomes; few studies report outcome effects related to caregiver and teacher behavior (i.e., behaviors of members within the microsystems) and even fewer report evidence of impacts on the home-school relationship (i.e., the mesosystem).
Determining methods to accurately measure family-school partnerships is sorely needed. Past approaches have proven insufficient in assessing the various outcomes of family-school partnership interventions (Mattingly, Prislin, McKenzie, Rodriguez, & Kayzar, 2002). There is a pressing need for the development of multi-method (e.g., self-report, observation), multi-source and cross-system measures to adequately assess the effects of these interventions. One example of such a measure is the Parent-Teacher Relationship Scale-II (PTRS-II; Vickers & Minke, 1995). It is intended to measure the quality of caregiver-teacher relationships. Recent research demonstrated that teacher reports of the caregiver-teacher relationship mediated effects of a family-school partnership intervention (Sheridan et al., 2012). Additionally, future research might seek to identify caregiver-teacher relationship measures that use direct observation techniques. A well-researched coding system exists for measuring spousal relationship qualities using direct observations of interactions (Gottman, 1996) and may serve as a model for the development of a caregiver-teacher relationship quality measure.
Clearly evident are the advantages of a primary and secondary educational system in which family-school partnerships are a central component. Although much is known about the impact of these partnerships, broad questions remain regarding how best to encapsulate and measure them. To answer these questions will require an expanded research effort to better define and operationalize features of the family-school partnership. Proposed herein are considerations important to this effort and possible directions for future research. Through rigorous research, training, and collaboration with practitioners, prevention and intervention approaches that unlock the power and potential of family-school collaboration, to direct and redirect developmental trajectories, can be generated and refined.
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Michael J. Coutts, MEd, is a fifth-year school psychology doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a research assistant in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools and National Center for Research on Rural Education. During the last five years, he has served as a data collection coordinator for two IES funded randomized clinical trials assessing the efficacy of conjoint behavioral consultation. Coutts has bachelor's degrees in psychology and sociology and a master's degree in counseling psychology all from the University of Missouri. He is a student member of APA and NASP. His research interests include parenting practices from birth to early elementary school, parents' involvement in their children's learning, family-school partnerships and the implementation of evidence-based practices using distance technology.
Shannon R. Holmes, MA, is a fourth-year school psychology doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a research assistant at the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools and National Center for Research on Rural Education. During the last four years, she has served as a family-school consultant and data collector for an IES funded randomized clinical trial assessing the efficacy of conjoint behavioral consultation in rural communities. Holmes earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from DePaul University and a master's degree in educational psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a student member of APA and NASP. Her research interests include family-school partnerships, Conjoint Behavioral Consultation, and fidelity of school-based models of consultation.
Amanda L. Moen, BA, is second-year school psychology doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a research assistant in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools. Amanda has assisted with recruitment and data collection on a U.S. Department of Education and IES funded randomized clinical trial assessing the efficacy of a parental engagement intervention in promoting positive outcomes for preschool children. Moen has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a student member of APA and NASP. Her research interests include family-school partnerships, teacher practices for promoting family-school partnerships in early childhood, and social-emotional development in early childhood.
Sonya A. Bhatia, BS, is a first-year school psychology student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a research assistant in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools and National Center for Research on Rural Education. Bhatia has a bachelor's degree in education from Loyola University-Chicago. She is a student member of APA and NASP. Her research interests include family-school partnerships, parental engagement in education, and parental expectations.