Connect and Collaborate With Families

When educators and families are partners in children’s social and emotional development, educators gain insight to better support students, and families gain an ally in supporting the social and emotional skill-building they already engage in with their children.

First, schools must actively work to build a connection with families to develop trust and learn from caregivers about their goals for their children. Once that foundation is in place, schools can enlist families in a partnership to deepen SEL work in a way that answers local needs and resonates with what they want for their children. (Note: We use the term “families” to refer inclusively to parents as well as the broad range of people who may be students’ primary caregivers).

Cultivate School-Family Connection and Trust

School-family engagement is a predictor of academic achievement and other positive student outcomes (Jeynes, 2005, 2007). Research also has shown that evidence-based SEL programs are more effective when they include strategies for family engagement (Albright & Weissberg, 2010). Families can provide educators with key insights about their children, community, and values, and staff can build upon and learn from these funds of knowledge as they design learning experiences and environments that work for the students they serve (Mapp et al., 2013).

In the report Building Authentic School-Family Partnerships Through the Lens of Social and Emotional Learning (2023), the authors describe four guiding actions for school staff. Schools build trusting, authentic partnerships when they:


Families are most likely to be engaged with schools in ways that positively impact their children when they have positive relationships with staff, regular two-way communication, and when they are invited to contribute and collaborate with educators in meaningful, relevant ways that are aligned with their values and perspectives (Santiago, et al., 2016; Sheridan et al., 2019). Educators who have trusting relationships with families are more likely to share power and include them meaningfully in planning and decision-making. Trust is built over the course of many small, positive interactions, beginning with something as simple as a 5-minute chat.

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5-Minute Chats With Parents and Caregivers

This template includes a structure and sample questions for one-on-one chats to open dialogue between school staff and students’ family members and caregivers near the beginning of a school year.


Unfortunately, mutual trust, authentic two-way communication, and shared power are not the norm in many school communities. The traditional school-family dynamic situates educators as experts and families as supporters: the school shares information and families receive it. As a result:

  • Students’ families may be cast as “difficult” or “hard-to-reach” or even seen as a barrier to student success when they do not match the unspoken cultural expectations educators have for the “involved parent.”
  • Families may view educators as lacking understanding about the community and culture, dismissive of their concerns, or insufficiently invested in their child’s well-being.

Differences in race and class are strong predictors of the level of trust between families and educators, with negative assumptions rooted in a history of bias, discrimination, and families’ prior experiences with the school system (Goddard, et al., 2001; Ishimaru, 2019). Schools that are prioritizing family engagement must strive to gain an accurate sense of families’ perceptions of the school and address teacher beliefs and mindsets that may impact equitable outreach, communication, and relationship-building.

SEL teams can begin with curiosity, critically examining current family engagement practices—both formal and informal—to identify specific areas for growth. If available, SEL teams can review existing parent survey results. If not, teams can administer CASEL’s Family/Caregiver Survey on Schoolwide SEL Implementation and use this self-reflection exercise:

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Reflection: Authentic Partnership With Families and Caregivers

Spark reflection and discussion among school leadership teams about areas for growth for creating a more welcoming and participatory school environment for students’ families.


Next, provide professional learning to build staff agency around family engagement. Topics may include building trust and demonstrating respect and openness to families’ experience and knowledge; counteracting biases or deficit mindsets; and learning about, from, and alongside families. These resources can serve as a starting point:

SEL and Equity in Action

How can educators lean into the five SEL competencies as they connect and collaborate with famili…More

How can educators lean into the five SEL competencies as they connect and collaborate with families?

SELF-AWARENESS → with a focus on identity
“My identities impact how I perceive and navigate the world and how others perceive me. It is important to be aware of this and continue to explore and reflect on this.”

Example: A teacher considers how aspects of their own identity—a young professional, without children, commuting to work in a community they do not live in, among other aspects—may impact the way they are perceived by the families they serve. They recognize there is always a lot they don’t yet understand about families’ perspectives and experiences. They communicate directly, early, and often with families about how they appreciate and want the best for their child, show that they are interested and open to the family’s advice and concerns, and ask about and accommodate needs and culture (language, religious customs and holidays, communication style, physical needs, schedule, etc.).

SELF-MANAGEMENT → with a focus on agency
“I know I can have an impact and choose to act to improve conditions for myself and others. I will intentionally make room for others to act as well.”

Example: An assistant principal is facilitating a focus group with families about the school’s climate survey results. They present themselves as a co-learner in the discussion, showing vulnerability and receptivity as the group shares interpretations and adds context to the data. As they develop conclusions and recommendations, the assistant principal builds trust by clarifying next steps and committing to transparency as they use their positional power to advance the group’s recommendations. 

SOCIAL AWARENESS → with a focus on belonging
“I am best able to contribute when I feel I am valued, welcomed, and an essential part of this community. It’s important to support others to feel this way too.”

Example: A school leadership team recognizes that families are far more likely to join partnership efforts when the school’s norms, values, and cultural representations reflect their own experiences (Atunez, 2000). Art, celebrations, and projects reflect the diversity of students’ home cultures. Events include activities for families to build community with one another. If many families speak a common language other than English, the school conducts meetings in that language and translates for English-speaking staff. 

RELATIONSHIP SKILLS → with a focus on collaborative problem-solving
“I am more effective when I listen to others to understand problems and share ideas to develop solutions. The process of sharing power and working together is important to get to the best solution.”

Example: A team of school counselors recognizes that parents understand and know things they don’t know about their own children, their needs, and the community context. They believe that partnering with families will lead to better decisions and outcomes. When planning a family event, they partner with families as they plan activities and ask for their support with outreach. 

RESPONSIBLE DECISION-MAKING → with a focus on curiosity
“I lean in with courage and choose to learn about myself, others, and the world. It is important to be open to and seek new information and perspectives when making decisions.”

Example: A teacher takes a learner stance when communicating with a parent or caregiver, recognizing them as the foremost expert about their child. They may say, “What would you like me to know about your child?” or “This is what I’ve noticed, this is what I’ve been trying to do to support your child so far. What are your thoughts on this?” 

When staff are prepared to engage families with an asset-based mindset and openness to learn, the next promising practice is to set up experiences for staff and families to work together toward a shared objective. There is evidence that these experiences can improve relationship dynamics and reduce race and class-based disparities (Ishimaru & Takahashi, 2017; Ishimaru, et al., 2019).

Collaborate to Support Social and Emotional Learning

Collaboration between families and the schools that serve their children can lead to stronger implementation plans, accountability, and outcomes, but collaboration is also an end in itself. It can reframe families in the eyes of educators as part of the solution, counteract biases and mistrust, and increase commitment to future advocacy and collaboration (Ishimaru, 2019).

Equitable Collaboration With Families

In a case example written by Ann Ishimaru in her book Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities, she and her team supported a family-school partnership to co-design a parent education program. These strategies for elevating families as experts and counteracting traditional power dynamics are based on their experience:

  • Create space for families to connect, discuss, and brainstorm first, before including school or district staff. This allows individuals to get to know each other, speak more openly, build on each other’s ideas, and come to a collaborative meeting committed and prepared to share their ideas.
  • Structure meetings in a way that allows parents and caregivers to speak first and most frequently. It may be helpful to ensure there are more parents and caregivers than staff in the room, develop shared agreements for engagement, use discussion protocols that encourage all to share, and coach school administrators and staff ahead of time to focus on understanding feedback rather than defending, rationalizing, or immediate problem-solving.
  • Monitor social dynamics during the meeting and review and debrief them. If possible, appoint someone to transcribe the meeting or at least keep a tally of who speaks and whether responses are affirming, neutral, or dismissive. In Ishimaru’s case example, families saw evidence in the transcript that they were being ignored and condescended to, while administrators reviewed the same transcript and believed the meeting had gone well. They adjusted discussion structures and group composition for future meetings to improve the dynamics.
  • Prepare to receive family feedback and seek to understand it even if you don’t agree. Avoid responding in ways that are defensive, use jargon, or are overly focused on what families can do to navigate the school’s systems and structures rather than adjusting systems and structures to better accommodate families.
  • Look for and share evidence that work is better when families are part of the process. Track outcomes and information such as attendance, response rates, and satisfaction for events and processes that families are involved in planning. Highlight the ways in which ideas from families altered a project or decision. Communicating these things to staff and to families builds collective efficacy and inspires more collaboration.

CASEL recommends that families be included as partners in the process of planning and continuously improving SEL implementation. This includes these important tasks:

For more information, see Focus Area 3 > Family Partnerships.

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