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Focus Area 3

Family Partnerships

Create meaningful partnership opportunities and two-way communication that invites families to participate in planning processes and support social and emotional learning (SEL) at school, at home, and in the community.

Families and caregivers are children’s first teachers, and play an essential role in the cultivation of social and emotional competencies throughout a child’s life. When educators and families are partners in children’s social and emotional development, the benefits go two ways: Teachers enrich their ability to support their students, and families gain an ally in supporting the social and emotional skill-building they already do with their children.

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In the CASEL framework, authentic partnership with families and caregivers is one of four key settings for SEL efforts. In an authentic partnership, partners work together to define challenges, develop shared goals, and design plans to promote SEL. This requires intentional relationship-building and genuine appreciation for the perspectives and skills that families bring (from this point forward, the word “families” is used to refer inclusively to the variety of attached relationships between students and the adults who care for them in homes and residences). When schools and families work together, they can build strong connections to ensure that SEL is taught in culturally responsive ways that celebrate the assets, identities, and diversity students bring to school, making SEL more impactful and lasting.

School personnel must reflect on the power dynamics between schools and families that may hinder authentic partnership, then work to recalibrate relationships. It is common for family engagement strategies to be enacted with a deficit lens, especially in communities where many families experience marginalization based on race, class, language, or immigration status (Mapp & Bergman, 2021). Recalibration requires that school staff position all families as experts about their own children, whose experience and knowledge make them essential partners for shaping students’ school experiences. Schools build trust with families when they are aware of and responsive to community needs, cultural practices, and history, and when they center the voices of students, families, and the community as they set goals and make decisions.

Research suggests that evidence-based SEL programs are more effective when they include strategies for connecting with students’ families (Albright & Weissberg, 2010). Families can provide educators with key insights about their children, their community, and their values. Schools can build upon and learn from these funds of knowledge and the strategies that families are already using to support SEL (Mapp et al., 2013).

Families are far more likely to join partnership efforts when the school’s norms, values, and cultural representations reflect their own experiences (Atunez, 2000). A sense of school connectedness is stronger when students feel that they, their family, their culture, and the people and contexts with which they feel most at home are respected and included in their schools. For these reasons, it is important for teams to foster a culturally responsive and welcoming school environment as they authentically engage families as partners in promoting students’ SEL.

If you have already begun develop family partnerships for SEL, use the rubric or the questions below to identify areas for continuous improvement:

Does the school have multiple avenues for ongoing two-way communication with families?

Does the school invite families as partners to shape goals and strategies to support students’ social and emotional development?

Do families actively participate on the SEL team?

Does the school provide meaningful opportunities for all families to learn more about and contribute to SEL in the school?

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Reflection: Authentic Partnership with Families and Caregivers

Use this tool to spark reflection and discussion among school leadership teams about areas for growth for creating a more welcoming and participatory school environment for students’ families and caregivers.

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Strategies for Establishing School-Family Partnerships in Support of SEL

This tool suggests ways that the SEL team can further engage families in learning about, supporting, and promoting SEL.

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Whether you are beginning to build family partnerships or looking to improve your existing partnerships, the examples and strategies below can help you meaningfully engage families in schoolwide SEL.

Seek Expertise and Input From Families

When engaging families about SEL, it is essential to approach them as partners, not recipients. Strong family engagement that prioritizes two-way communication and decision-making positively impacts academic, social, and emotional outcomes (Sheridan et al., 2019; McWayne et al., 2004). Both educators and families hold expertise, and through collaboration can build more culturally responsive and accountable decisions and plans together. Traditional family involvement is unidirectional: Schools provide information to families so that caregivers can support their children to reach goals that the school has established. To begin to shift this dynamic, start by learning from families about their priorities, concerns, interests, and knowledge.

Case Example:

Peck Elementary School - Collaboratively Designing a Mural

At Peck Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, family and community involvement is a priority. In 2020, the school’s principal, Dr. Ashley Triplett, launched a project to remove a mural in the school’s front hallway due to its outdated and stereotyped depictions of students and replace it with a new representation of Peck’s diverse community and collective hopes for the future. Dr. Triplett, the school’s community liaison, and a local artist co-hosted a series of open houses to gather input from school families. The events engaged families to explore the purpose of the mural project and make decisions about the new mural’s design, colors, and themes. Parents left the open house knowing their voices and opinions were valued.

The new mural was unveiled at a community party. Families, community members, and Peck students all joined together to celebrate the new mural, eat local food, and participate in arts activities. Parents expressed their happiness with the new mural, calling it a true representation of the Peck community.

Surveys are useful for gathering a broad picture of family priorities when participation is equitable and meaningful (that is, the widest range of caregiver perspectives is represented in results, and respondents are aware of the purpose and importance of the survey). CASEL’s Caregiver SEL Implementation Survey can be used to gather perceptions and experiences of the school and how SEL is integrated. In addition to surveys or open invitations to offer feedback, prioritize personal connection with families at school events, focus groups, community visits, or discussion groups as a way of building relationships while also hearing a richer and more nuanced perspective than the results of a survey can provide.

Collecting family input is a step in the right direction; go further by partnering with families to design plans and make decisions. Consider the following ways to partner with families in SEL efforts:

  • Partner with families to develop a shared vision and goals for SEL.  What are their hopes for SEL within the broader school community? This vision-setting process includes questions you can use in a listening session.
  • Collaborate with families in the planning, selecting, implementing, and evaluating SEL programs or curriculum. This program selection tool includes questions for families and students.
  • Invite families to participate in a school “walkthrough” to look for indicators of schoolwide SEL and identify areas to celebrate and areas for growth.
  • Send positive notes home to families about their children, and ask them to tell you about their child (e.g., how they learn best, what kinds of supports and approaches have been most helpful in the past, etc. See Understood’s Questionnaire for Connecting With Families for an example).
  • Partner with families to collect and reflect on SEL data, then collaboratively determine next steps. This SEL Data Reflection Protocol can help structure the conversation, and thoughtfully prepared norms for discussion can help ensure that all participants feel welcome and empowered to share their perspectives.

Case Example:

Minneapolis Public Schools - Parent Participatory Evaluation

At Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), parents help identify pressing district challenges and innovative solutions through Parent Participatory Evaluation (PPE). Through this program, parent leaders receive 10 hours of training in research and evaluation practices, then conduct research in collaboration with district research staff within their peer communities (parent researchers in Minneapolis represent African American, American Indian, Latino, Hmong, and Somali communities).

Parent leaders then present their findings in a community-wide meeting. Importantly, board members and the Superintendent are present to listen and learn. Themes emerging from these meetings have led to powerful changes. For example, MPS responded to families by adjusting school attendance boundaries, which reduced racially and economically segregated schools by 40 percent in the first year alone. Funds saved from the boundary changes were reinvested in mental health, literacy, and equity training. When parents identified the problem that magnet schools were not accessible to all families, they were relocated from outlying (and predominantly white) neighborhoods to the city’s center. Funds saved from transportation were reinvested in magnet school programs, doubling the amount of resources available for programming and increasing the number of seats available to serve more students.

Organize Opportunities for Families to Learn About and Discuss SEL

CASEL has collaborated with families and partner organizations to develop an SEL Discussion Series for Parents and Caregivers (English/Spanish), along with an introductory video for families (English/Spanish). This discussion series features 10 fully scripted sessions that explore key topics around parenting and SEL. Sessions should be facilitated by parent leaders, but the school SEL team can help with logistics, publicity, and meeting space. The series was first piloted in Chicago, led by elementary school parent leaders in partnership with community partner Latinos Progresando, and later replicated in other cities. Family members who participate in the discussion series are later encouraged to become members of their school’s SEL team.

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SEL Discussion Series for Parents and Caregivers (English)

This series offers 10 sessions that are designed to help caregivers and school staff grow together as partners while supporting all children as they practice social and emotional skills.

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SEL Discussion Series for Parents and Caregivers (Spanish)

A translation of the tool above.

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Schools have found that SEL Family Nights are a successful way to help families understand what SEL is, what it looks like, and how the school is implementing it. Others have found their school’s social media accounts to be an effective channel to show how SEL is integrated into the school day and generate discussion. When planning these opportunities, think about how to ensure the discussion that follows flows both ways; it is an important moment for staff and families to build trust, interact, and learn together. Consider these recommendations as you plan how you’ll invite families into conversations about SEL:

  • Ask families about the best ways to communicate with them and how to ensure that engagement opportunities accommodate their needs related to work hours, transportation, childcare, and language.
  • Invite family members to visit and volunteer in the classroom, observe SEL, and participate in a lesson or activity, then follow up and ask them about their experience.
  • Provide SEL-focused questions for families to bring up with their children as they ask about their day at school. For example, ask about SEL themes in a book they are reading or about the kinds of skills that help them work with a group on a project.
  • Use the SEL 3 Signature Practices at events to demonstrate activities that promote SEL and create space for discussion and engagement. See this article for suggestions to help catalyze a sense of belonging and authentic partnership at a school event.
  • Share books with an SEL theme that families can read together at home and ask them to recommend their favorite books. (See resources from First Books’ Healthy Feelings and Relationships.)
  • The National PTA Center for Family Engagement has created several strong resources to share with families interested in learning more about SEL, including a podcast episode, a brief article, and a toolkit.

As families grow in their understanding of SEL and how implementation looks at school, they are even better equipped to partner with school staff to shape continuous improvement of the school’s SEL practices. Whenever sharing out about SEL, pair it with an invitation to share their reactions and ideas back with the school and participate in next steps.

Share Strategies and Tools for Supporting Social and Emotional Development

When communicating about SEL with families, schools should take care to recognize and honor the role the family plays as a child’s first and foremost teacher of social and emotional skills. In a nationally representative survey, parents rated problem-solving, communication, interpersonal skills, and self-motivation among the top 10 priorities for their child’s education (Tyner, 2021). These skills directly align with social and emotional competencies and can be practiced and advanced through everyday routines, conversations, and even challenges.

Many evidence-based SEL programs include components that involve families (Durlak et al., 2011). CASEL’s Program Guide includes details about how individual programs promote SEL in homes and communities. A common feature of many SEL curricula is to provide “at-home activities” to support families to integrate SEL intentionally into their children’s daily experiences and discussions.

Apart from family-focused components of evidence-based SEL programs, schools can share other sources where families can have their questions answered about common developmental challenges, get ideas and see examples, and build their awareness of the many moments in their day that are ripe for modeling, teaching, and coaching social and emotional skills development with their children.

Families support their children’s social and emotional development when they:

  • Support them to set specific, meaningful goals and develop and follow through on a plan to achieve them.
  • Use a list or a chart of emotions and encourage their children to recognize and express feelings as they talk about their day.
  • Give them age-appropriate choices and opportunities to contribute to family decisions. Start small with what to have for a meal they help prepare or what game to play in the evening before bedtime.
  • Read together or listen to a podcast to learn about the experiences of others, practice empathy, and consider diverse perspectives.
  • Support them through a process to solve problems, including seeking out more information and points of view and identifying the pros and cons of alternative solutions.
  • Encourage them to share and be helpful to others by participating in neighborhood or community service projects.

Additional resources for families:

  • Confident Parents, Confident Kids (Jennifer Miller)
    This is the first blog dedicated to advancing parents’ and caregivers’ knowledge and understanding of parenting with SEL. The site has a wealth of free tools, resources, and strategies to use at each and every age and stage.
  • Learning Heroes
    Resources to help families team up with educators to understand their child’s progress and support growth. Also includes resource directories for families to lead discussions about online safety, bullying, learning habits, anti-racism, and more.
  • Parenting Montana (Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services + Montana State University)
    A website that offers over 100 research-based parenting tools or processes to address the most commonly faced challenges. These tools were developed to address the most asked-about issues at each age and stage, such as bullying in third grade, listening in eighth grade, or peer pressure in tenth grade.
  • Parenting Minutes (PBS)
    Short videos for parents of young children to learn simple ways to promote social and emotional skills at home, such as expressing emotions in healthy ways.
  • Family Resources and Activities to Promote Social and Emotional Development (National PTA)
    This collection of resources shows what SEL can look like at home and also offers specific family games and activities so that families can work on exercising these invaluable life skills together.
  • A Parent’s Resource Guide to Social and Emotional Learning (Edutopia)
    This curated collection of articles, activities, and videos  helps families learn new ways to foster skills such as kindness, empathy, resilience, perseverance, and focus.
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