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FINE Newsletter, Volume II, Issue 1
Issue Topic: Family Engagement Across the Developmental Continuum

Harvard Family Research Project Commentary

Family engagement supports children’s learning and growth across the developmental continuum—from birth through young adulthood. Harvard Family Research Project’s Heidi Rosenberg and Elena Lopez discuss how effective family engagement strategies evolve over time to reflect children’s changing developmental needs.

From the time children are born, parents influence their cognitive, social, and emotional development. Parents’ interactions and activities help shape children’s readiness for school, and consistent engagement during children’s elementary years is also related to positive academic and behavioral outcomes. Family engagement remains important in adolescence and predicts healthy youth behaviors and higher rates of college enrollment.

In this issue of the FINE Newsletter, we explore the final component of our three-part expanded definition: family engagement across the developmental continuum. Understanding how family engagement supports student growth at different points along the developmental continuum can help families and educators tailor their strategies to ensure the work they do is developmentally appropriate and effective.

Early Childhood
Children’s educational trajectories are significantly influenced by their early learning experiences at home and in the community. Long before children enter formal schooling, parents help shape their language and literacy development, as well as their general curiosity for exploring and learning new concepts. Families can help facilitate young children’s growth by creating literacy-rich home environments, taking children to visit libraries and other places that stimulate their interest in learning about their surroundings, and constantly talking to them about what they see, do, hear, and feel.

Early childhood teachers, too, have a responsibility to reach out to parents of incoming children to let them know about opportunities to become involved in their children’s educational experiences and to learn from parents the ways that they are promoting children’s learning at home and in the community. When educators are proactive about reaching out to make parents feel welcome and creating opportunities for families’ involvement, educators can develop long-term, meaningful partnerships with families that help set the stage for parents’ continued engagement as their children transition to the school system.

Elementary Years
The start of formal schooling brings children into contact with many new classmates and adults, who help shape their understanding of their environments, their interests, and their growing sense of competency. Supportive parent–child relationships—in which parents convey warmth, sensitivity, and encouragement and provide appropriate opportunities for children to develop autonomy—provide the foundation for healthy social and cognitive growth as children become more engaged in school. Positive home–school relationships—in which parents communicate with teachers, help out in the child’s classroom, and participate in school activities—promote children’s educational engagement. Parents’ presence at the school, whether in classrooms or at other activities, reinforces children’s sense of school as a welcoming environment and facilitates their ability to see learning as a continuous process, not just something that takes place within the school walls away from their homes. Parents also reinforce children’s school lessons at home by engaging in home- and community-based learning experiences and helping children with homework and school projects.

Middle/High School Years
Effective family engagement during adolescence differs from the types of involvement parents find successful during earlier years, and these changes reflect adolescents’ changing developmental needs. Researcher Nancy Hill and her colleagues have studied how families can remain effectively involved in their children’s learning during adolescence. Their findings suggest that effective family engagement during this developmental period needs to focus on academic socialization, including communicating parental expectations about education and its value, linking schoolwork to current events, fostering educational and occupational aspirations, discussing learning strategies with children, and making preparations and plans for the future.1  This type of involvement—in which families openly talk about their expectations for their children, promote opportunities for their children to take independent responsibility for their schoolwork, and develop concrete plans for the future—is far more effective with adolescents than standard homework assistance or more traditional school-based parent involvement.

Just as families have a responsibility to engage in activities that help prepare their adolescent children for college, high school educators have a responsibility to help families understand graduation requirements and the ways parents can support their children’s ability to successfully navigate decisions about course-work to ensure they are well-positioned for college or other post-secondary training programs. At a time when many parents struggle to understand how to best support their older children’s learning, it is vitally important for educators to help families recognize how factors such as attendance and credit accumulation keep students on the path to on-time graduation and college and career readiness. This guidance helps shape parents’ ability to remain meaningfully involved in their children’s education throughout the high school years.

In This Issue
This issue of the FINE Newsletter focuses on family engagement across the developmental continuum—from birth through young adulthood. In Voices from the Field, we highlight the Strive initiative, a complementary learning program in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is working to develop a cradle-to-career educational trajectory for children that engages families, schools, and communities in understanding how to promote cross-context learning opportunities to encourage children’s growth. We also feature a teaching case that addresses the transition from high school to college and the ways that schools can support students and families in making decisions about post-secondary options. Finally, we offer an annotated bibliography of family engagement resources, which serves as an addendum to Harvard Family Research Project’s 2006/2007 Family Involvement Makes a Difference series, updating these research briefs with more recent studies on effective family engagement approaches, with particular attention paid to family involvement during adolescence and the transitions to high school and college.

Reflecting on Family Engagement Strategies
As we close this series of FINE Newsletters expanding on the new definition proposed in the May 2009 issue, we invite readers to reflect on how their work with children, families, and schools addresses the three critical components of our expanded definition: family engagement as a shared responsibility; family engagement as a continuous pathway from birth through young adulthood; and family engagement that occurs across the multiple settings where children learn. In which areas of this definition are your family engagement strategies the strongest? Where is there room for growth? How might you link together additional strategies and resources to help promote a more systemic vision of family and community engagement?  We welcome your ideas by contacting us at fine@gse.harvard.edu.

1 Hill, N.E., & Chao, R.K. (Eds.) (2009). Families, school and the adolescent: Connecting research, policy, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

This article is part of the April 2010 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.

© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project