Skip to content

Usable Knowledge

Decrease text size Increase text size
Karen Mapp

Photo by Janet Smith

More Usable Knowledge
on Schools and community

Home > Community and Family > Popping the question: How can schools engage families in education?

Popping the question: How can schools engage families in education?
HGSE Lecturer Karen Mapp

Family and community engagement does not have to be considered only an outcome of a whole-school action plan. Instead, it can be a strategy for achieving learning outcomes. HGSE Lecturer Karen Mapp discusses how to enhance family engagement by linking it to learning in school.

WHY: Why focus on family engagement?

Just as certain instructional strategies can help a school to reach its learning goals, family and community engagement can be a strategy for getting students reading at grade level, closing achievement gaps, and motivating students for long-term educational success. With her colleagues, Karen Mapp has synthesized 51 studies looking at the influence of school-family-community relationships on academic achievement. The studies spanned diverse cultures and populations and the full range of K-12 grade levels.

The researchers found that there is a positive relationship between having home-school partnerships and desirable student outcomes. Family engagement interventions were associated with placement in advanced courses and other enrichment programs: with information about opportunities for students, parents could be better advocates for their children. Engagement is also linked to higher rates of school attendance, graduation, and pursuit of higher education. Beyond student outcomes, parents in schools with partnerships in place also seem to benefit, becoming more likely to pursue additional involvement in school leadership and decision-making.

WHO: Who can and should be a part of family engagement in schools?

According to research in several communities, parents are involved and have the capacity to be involved in their children's education, regardless of their own education level, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Parents from varied backgrounds can encourage their children about school, offer advice, talk to them about higher education, and keep them focused on learning and homework. They have the desire to be involved, though the level and quality of their involvement may differ. Education leaders can build on parents' commitment by making meaningful family involvement a strategy for achieving whole-school goals.

WHAT: What kinds of family engagement activities are associated with positive student outcomes?

In this video clip, Karen Mapp connects focusing on family and raising academic achievement, and describes the types of programs that work best for improving student outcomes. A key feature of effective family involvement programs is that they are linked to learning. Information and messages about how parents can support their children at home can be woven into family and community activities and events, such as school plays, talent shows, and teacher conferences.

HOW: How can schools and districts go about strengthening their family engagement efforts?

In this second video clip, Karen Mapp discusses two key aspects of effective family engagement practices: inclusion of a meaningful family needs and asset inventory, and emphasis on linking engagement activities to learning. Identifying needs and assets early on builds trust and encourages more families to be involved in their child's school, and helps schools recognize what unique resources their families have to offer. Family involvement efforts need to provide parents with good information about topics like curriculum and school expectations.

To parents of young children, schools can convey messages about weaving literacy and mathematics into daily experiences. At the middle and high school levels, parents can be supported in talking to their children; chat groups can draw in parents who often feel less confident about communicating with their children once they enter the teen years. In these and many other ways, we can provide parents with a tool kit of resources for how to encourage and support their children in areas of interest to schools and families (like literacy, and post-secondary education) during the out-of-school hours.

Video segments courtesy of the Iowa Parent Information Resource Center.

By Maria Fusaro, doctoral student in Human Development and Psychology at HGSE

For further research on the role of family involvement in student achievement, see:

Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp, editors (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Available online at

Harvard Family Research Project Web site

Professional Development:
For more than 25 years, the Harvard Graduate School of Education has offered professional education programs for educational leaders. We are committed to offering programs that make a difference — in the lives of students, in the work of institutions, and in the practice of educators.

Visit for a complete listing of upcoming professional development offerings with Harvard faculty.


Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College