Impact of Family Engagement on Middle & High School

This section will discuss the impact of family engagement research and practice on the middle and high school years. We will explore current work and past studies in family engagement with adolescents and teenagers to understand why family engagement is important at these stages of education.

Supporting Adolescents & their Families

Partnerships in Middle & High Schools

What has your research experience told you about the importance of engagement at the high school level or even the middle school level? 

So the older the grade level or the school level, the harder this work is because most middle and high schools will be larger than elementary schools, and they’re more of a distance from where the children live.

There are many things that complicate middle and high schools by comparison to elementary schools. What we’ve learned is every school is different, even elementary, even preschool, middle, and high school, but there are certain structures that can be helpful and the same, regardless of school level, the district level leadership, the action team at every school level, but what kinds of involvement occur must be age and grade-appropriate.

So when we were doing our high school studies, for example, parents would say, if you could just pin the children’s notices on their collar the way they did in kindergarten, we might see a notice once in a while.

But that would not be age-appropriate, right? The high school students were not about to do that. But we’ve learned by doing and by studying what works, and how does teamwork at a middle or high school, and why that is important.

So, for example, at the high school level, we do require two students to serve on the action team, because we learn that student agreement with what’s going on the team is really essential for other students to take that team and the engagement of their families seriously, where we don’t really require that at the elementary level.

But family engagement, as you say, tends to drop off with the transition to high school. So we have a project underway to understand transitions and where family engagement is really important, what information do families need, how can they understand the importance of attendance at the high school level, how do they understand credit-earning– which is different at the high school level– what do families need to know in order to remain engaged in their children’s education so that the children will know through high school my family is engaged in my education or cares and values education and wants me to graduate on time.

That work has just started, but it’s important because what we learn it should be useful to many, many high schools.

The notion that families can support children through the high school years has now a growing literature, many more studies than ten years ago, fewer than at the elementary level still, but it’s a kind of a growing knowledge base that shows family engagement in well-planned, goal linked programs still are important through high school graduation.

Foundational Support of Family Engagement from Middle School to College

Now, you mentioned middle school and high school. And I would love to hear about this because one of the things that we hear about a lot from staff in those roles is, you guys never talk about family engagement at the middle and high school level.

So could you tell us a little bit about that work? Yeah. So we are learning about middle school and high school. And again, just like in our elementary work, our first step is to go to middle school and high school teachers and learn from them.

That is our first step in anything. If we want to learn something, we go to the teachers who are good at it first. And we said to them, can you guys go do home visits? And they said, yeah, we can do home visits. So we’ve partnered with a middle school here in DC, in DCPS, Jefferson, run by Natalie Gordon, and she has created a phenomenal model for how to do family engagement.

It includes home visits; it includes student-led conferences. So instead of the academic parent-teacher teams, students are putting together portfolios of their work. They and their parents are sitting together with the teacher, and the student is sharing what they’re doing well in school, where they think they can improve and give real academic proof for what they’re saying to back up their work.

Parents are coming in droves to parent-teacher conferences because, why wouldn’t you? Your child is presenting their work, and you’re going to support your child. And it is really allowing parents to play that guiding role and to support high expectations for their kids.

The other place where we’re working is in the college-going conversations. And we are working with schools and nonprofit organizations both that have a college-going program or orientation.

Because I think what we often miss when we think about kids going off to college is the role families play once kids are in college, right? We may be able to get them there as educators, but it’s families who are going to keep them there or not keep them there.

I think as educators, we really do a disservice to families when we don’t recognize the role that they play in our students’ lives. We get kids for a year; families are with kids forever, right? And it is such a missed opportunity, and particularly in the college-going conversation.

Teens and Family Engagement

So, could you tell us a little bit about the work that you’re currently doing, and what are some of the exciting things that you’re finding out about this effect of families on the adolescent child?

Part of how I came to really want to understand family-school engagement in adolescence is that there’s this perception that family engagement doesn’t matter anymore. Those kids are growing up, and they’re becoming teenagers, and they’re more autonomous, and they don’t want their families involved, and parents are backing away, and that schools are more complex, and that now those families have gotten their kids through elementary school, they can rest a bit, and they can back away.

And it turns out that that’s not true. And we did 20 focus groups with middle school kids, youth, their teachers, and their parents to ask them what do they think about family-school engagement during adolescence?

And one of the most surprising things, and positive things, we found, are that children, teenagers, tweens, when you close the door, feed them pizza, and say, ‘tell us what you really think, and we won’t tell your parents,’ they want their parents involved.

They want their parents to care. They want their parents to help them. Now, they also said they don’t want their parents to lecture them. They don’t want their parents checking their book bags. They don’t want their parents coming on field trips. All the things you would expect teenagers to say and that we kind of know.

But at the same time, our youth understand the importance of their family’s commitment to them, and how proud their families are of them, and how much they want to succeed. And they know that parents and teachers should talk to one another. And it really affirmed what I kind of suspected already, which was that it’s not that family engagement declines in significance or importance between elementary school and middle school, but that it really changes shape to match where youth are developmental.

Parents should be doing different kinds of things in adolescence than perhaps they did in elementary school, which will both support youth in their own developmental stage and match the middle school and high school context, which just doesn’t function same way as elementary school.

So it sounds like what your research has found tells us that the old, traditional indicators of family engagement that we were using maybe predominantly informed by the elementary school experience are not what we should be looking at in terms of family engagement behaviors and activities in high school.

Is that what I’m hearing? That’s exactly right. In part, we need to be doing different things because the youth are capable of different things, as they have matured cognitively and socially, and can plan better, understand the consequences of their actions better.

And so they’re better able to be incorporated into the conversation. And rightfully so, and it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to have some autonomy and some decision making.

But they can’t just start out doing it. They need support. They need to be scaffold. And part of the right kind of family engagement in adolescence is to help parents support that kind of autonomy that youth need, and help parents give their kids ways to try things out and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

Identity Agents

I heard you use a term one time that I found very intriguing, and it was that of an identity agent. Yes. And you were talking about how families and school staff could learn how to be identity agents for adolescents. Could you explain that term and what it actually means when it comes to supporting kids? Yeah, I can.

One of the primary things that adolescents are doing is they’re figuring out who they are. And they’re developing their sense of identity. And particularly in early adolescence, they often try on extreme versions of themselves and wait for us to react to them.

And then they decide if this thing that they’ve tried on, this identity that they’ve tried on, fits them or yielded the reaction that they really wanted– so positive or negative, depending on what they wanted. But they’re trying these things on. And they’re not doing it in isolation. They’re doing it for us.

And as a way to test who they are. While they’re doing all of this, we’re reacting to them, whether we are doing the plan fully or not.

And an identity agent is someone who reacts to this trying on of identities and affirms who youth are. So if a child doesn’t do well on a test, and it’s the third time, and you don’t give in and say, oh, they must not be good at that.

Because if they’re trying on this identity, I’m not good at math and science. And they’re starting to see evidence of it, and we affirm it, then we are losing that opportunity for achieving in school, seeing themselves in relation to a career option, seeing their sense of purpose aligned with a future career.

We are missing that opportunity to integrate that for the youth. And so, as parents, we’re identity agents. As teachers– no matter what we’re teaching in the classroom, we’re still there reacting to students.

And so often, when a student will come to us with presenting themselves in an extreme way, and we will react negatively, we push them away. And so, how do we really treat these extreme kinds of trying on of identities in ways that really yields an integrated identity that includes academic achievement and future planning?

Autonomy And Teens

So in all of this research that you’ve done, Nancy, in this area, are there things that really took you aback when you looked at your results or talked to teenagers about family engagement?

What the research shows, typically– not just my research, but a lot of the research, most of the research on adolescents and parenting– shows that parents need to give their kids a sense of autonomy as they get older, and that’s associated with positive outcomes.

And that’s been true for white, middle-class parents for a long, long time. And for ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos, but Asians as well, you see that more authoritarian, or controlling, parenting practices tend to have positive outcomes with grades and test scores and things like that and other mental health outcomes across the board.

It’s pretty consistent. And for many African-American families and many African-American parents, they get that they have to be a little bit more controlling. They can’t give you too much benefit to the doubt, because the consequences are real for African American kids’re so often not given the second chance.

And so you have to make sure that they don’t make a mistake the first time. And so, high levels of monitoring and behavioral control tend to be related to positive outcomes. But it might come at a cost in terms of developing these goals and a sense of purpose and aspirations that we really want kids to have, because that’s the kind of thing that’s going to drive them forward to continue to persist in school when things are boring and difficult.

So I would imagine, then, in some of our environments where parents, and rightly so, are monitoring their kids, say in neighborhoods where they’ve got to really worry about their child even getting to school and getting home safely, that sounds like a real tricky balance. It is a tricky balance.

And we have kids that are then growing up in environments that require the kinds of parenting practices that will keep them safe but might not let them blossom in how we might want them to be. 

I want every school to be safe, and then parents can say that we can give great opportunities for autonomy to make choices, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, make them twice, even, and then make better decisions.

You don’t come out as a good decision-maker right off the bat. You have to have the opportunity to make your own decisions and make your own mistakes and not have your future derailed by them.

And this really adds a dimension to the choice conversation that we don’t often hear. I think you’re exactly right, that often you hear about the high-discipline schools where they have good outcomes in terms of grades and test scores.

And that’s not surprising. It’s very consistent with my research. It’s consistent with other research. But do they know what they want to be? Do they know what their gifts and their talents are and how they can use those to bring a sense of well-being to themselves and a sense of contribution to society?

That’s not whether I’m going to go to college or not or whether I’m going to be in this particular profession. It’s whether or not I have a sense of purpose that I know why I’m here.

And so what I see now– you’ve got me thinking very differently about some of the reform narratives that are out there. You have children being sent to schools that are pretty highly regulated, and then if you have families that are also heavy on the monitoring because they’re nervous about that child’s safety, it’s almost like a double whammy when it comes to the development of this autonomy piece that you’re talking about.

You’ll absolutely keep the child safe, and you’ll keep them on the path, but when they’re on their own, will they know where the boundaries are? So much of the job of adolescence is to figure out where the boundaries are. And if any mistake is potentially fatal, literally and figuratively for their future, then what parent wants their kid to make any mistakes?

Additional Resources

  1. Green, Christa L., Joan M. T. Walker, Kathleen V. Hoover-Dempsey, and Howard M. Sandler. “Parents’ Motivations for Involvement in Children’s Education: An Empirical Test of a Theoretical Model of Parental Involvement.” Journal of Educational Psychology 99, no. 3 (August 2007): 532-44.
  2. Jeynes, W. H. “The Relationship Between Parental Involvement and Urban Secondary School Student Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis.” Urban Education 42, no. 1 (January 2007): 82-110.

High School: Student Voices and Research Results

Impact of Family Engagement on Students

I feel like the more our families are involved, the better we are doing in school. I think family engagement is most important at the high school level. These teenagers are going through so much and so many changes that we need to be there.

We need to help guide them. We need to let them know we support them, and we care about them. As a classroom teacher of many years, I can tell you that students are more likely to succeed in school when their parents are engaged with the school.

If a student is struggling, having an involved parent is so, so important to get them back on track. And if a student is doing well, having an involved parent is critical to connecting them with other opportunities for excelling, for enrichment. So it doesn’t really matter where the student is at in terms of their desire to be in school or their academic achievement level.

An involved parent helps students to be successful in high school. They’re just trying to help you get into where you want to be instead of like going on the wrong track and like doing something you’re not supposed to be doing.

I think it’s very important with families helping their kids with their education because it helps them at home to come to school and learn even more. It helps motivate us to get better grades and keep us active and know that our parents want us to do well in school.

It’s a transition for both the student and the parent to make. So as that student may be pushing the parent away, the parent still needs to know. It’s very easy when you have a surly teenager that is always, I don’t want you to come up. I don’t need you to come up. I don’t want to see you or anything like that.

It’s easy to go, OK, you’re big and ugly enough to take care of yourself. But this is where they have to come in and at least pay attention. To have my dad involved is weird sometimes because he’s very intense, and he loves to know absolutely everything.

It does like to get on my nerves sometimes. But I know like he just wants the best for me and like to see me get far in life. I know in my case, my daughter is not always happy about it, but she claims I know everybody and I’m always saying hi to somebody that I know because I come to school.

Or I’m out in the street, and I always see somebody or a teacher or her classmates. I know their parents. So I think that knowing that I know is one of those kinds of a safety thing that I see. I think it makes a huge difference of being involved. I think they appreciate it. They do. They don’t want me saying hi in front of certain groups. If I walk by them, they may turn their head. But they know I’m there. And I think they’re glad I am.

Some kids try to ignore their parents. They think they embarrass them. Which I agree with. Sometimes they embarrass you, so you just got to deal with it. They’re family. That’s what they do. I always try to tell the parents, even if you do have to work, I get it, because the bills do have to be paid.

But you still need to be in touch and just remain relevant in your students’ education. Because if not, whatever we’ve been able to develop here in the school, the minute the kid leaves the school, it’s all gone.

The parents are not involved, it’s like nobody cares. If nobody cares, I do as I please. But if a parent gets involved in the school, the student change completely. I see differences when the parents are involved when they help me get better, like my sports that I’m playing. And they show us how to get better grades in school, get better at everything in life, actually. Because it like helps kids throughout their lives. Like the advice that parents give them, by the time you grow up, you’ll be like, yup, I listened to that advice, and look where it got me, to somewhere really good, I really wanted to be.

Family Engagement via Text Messaging

So I want to give you an opportunity to actually describe one of your studies. Because you mentioned that you use a randomized control trial methodology, which we consider sort of the highest standard of the gold standard of research.

So could you just talk about one of your studies and tell us how you set it up and what you found? Sure. I’ll describe a project that we’re working on right now that we’ve just finished analyzing. We worked with a large urban district and we took 10 high schools.

And the district uses learning management software, and the teachers enter their homework assignments and tests grades into it. The school district also had contact information for parents. About half of those phone numbers were cell phones that the school was allowed to communicate to parents about school-related things on their cell phones.

And so we randomly sent them to three groups. One is the control group, which they get what they normally get from school– no additional information and based on what we know, probably not much information at all.

Treatment 2, we text them and we say, there is going to be over the next five months a program of communication that we are going to push out to you, which will be whenever your student is at risk of failing a class or below some threshold, we will alert you by text about the class and the specific things that the student needs to do.

And you can opt-out of it if you would like. And only about 5% of parents opt-out. So you end up with about 95% of parents in the treatment group. The third condition, we text the exact same message saying there’s a program of communication over the next five months pushing this information out that could be useful.

Text us back if you would like to opt-in. And only about 5% of parents opt-in. And what we find is that in the treatment group, in which 95% were receiving the treatment, large treatment effects on grades and performance in the class.

In the group that only 5% opt-in, there is no effect. So the parents who have opted in, we couldn’t detect any improvement in their kids’ performance. And that makes two points for me.

One is it once again sort of provides further replication and further evidence that just pushing out actionable information to parents leads to improved student success.

But then the fact that when we offer the program to families, so if you opt-in, but when we ask them to opt-out, so if you opt-out and they benefit, it tells us that a lot of the common practices of making information available to parents on parent portals that they have to opt into and they have to pool the information, single-digit percentages of parents actually actively pull information.

But we could just as easily push it out in a useful way. And so what we’re trying to make is a sort of policy level point that we should be actively pushing information out to parents and not waiting for them to come actively pull it for exactly that original insight, which is that when you empower parents with actionable information, they act on it, they improve student achievement, and they want more of it.

It’s not just that parents are sitting here waiting for it. They’ve gone through an educational system where they’re just not accustomed to getting that kind of useful information pushed out to them, and when we do they act on it and they want more of it.

Families & Improving School Attendance

So Todd, I know you’ve done some research on engaging families around attendance. Could you talk about that study and sort of– I know there may have some preliminary results out on it. Could you talk about that for us? Sure.

One of the early projects we started doing was inspired by work that friends of mine do with a company called Opower, where they send people home energy reports that compare their energy use to their neighbor’s energy use.

I get those. Yeah, do you? And it turns out that it’s surprisingly effective. One in eight US households receive these reports. And they do everything as these randomized experiments with treatment groups and control groups.

And they find that this ongoing report can reduce energy use the equivalent of increasing energy costs by about a third. And so I took that as inspiration for maybe we could do something similar for attendance.

So what we did was we send these sort of repeated mailings, and now we’re starting to layer in text messages that report how many days your kid has missed. Sometimes how it compares to other people, other kids and their classmates, and then a variety of other messages that highlight and emphasize the importance of attendance, how parents have influence over attendance.

And we’ve been finding surprisingly large and cost-effective reductions in absences by sending these quarterly or monthly mailers to households of students who are missing a bunch of school.

The next best absence reduction intervention that we know from evaluations was something in the Bloomberg administration on success mentors, which is a great program that involves assigning mentors, and truancy officers and social workers to students to keep track of them each day.

And it was incredibly effective, right? So reduced absences, I think, from like 30 days per year for the focal students to 23 or 22 days. So like seven to nine-day reductions in absences– massive, but also pretty expensive, because these mentors, and social workers and truancy officers are expensive.

So back of the envelope, we estimate that it costs about $50 to $100 per incremental day of attendance generated by that program, right? So that’s the best practice that there is. And we all would agree.

That’s assigning specific mentors to students is pretty intensive, and seems to make sense, and there’s evidence that it works. Our intervention reduces absences at a cost of a few dollars per incremental day.

And so even though we’re not going to be able to shave off seven to nine days, we may shape you know, two to three. But those two to three are incredibly inexpensive to capture and easy to scale.

So you asked about this attendance work. We’ve been doing these attendance interventions. And again, the goal is scalable, insanely cost-effective automated communications that leverage behavioral science insights to make sure the messaging is powerful and comprehensible and trying to in the process make sure that we’re pushing out useful information to parents.

The Meaningful Effects of Family Engagement

Since you’ve been on this journey, you’ve made this pivot, as you called it, into this area. What’s has surprised you about what you’re learning about the field of family engagement? The actual functional, practical, most surprising thing? I’ve been amazed by the effect sizes that we’re getting.

You know, there’s this refrain that nothing works in education. Like all the interventions that get evaluated over three years, and millions of dollars are spent, and they’re super labor-intensive and everybody thinks they should work, and they have a tiny effect, if any at all.

They’re almost all classroom focused and curricular, school or teacher-focused. But as I and others have been working in this parent stuff, it just seems like the effect sizes are, at first seem unrealistically large, given the lightness of the communications.

And I realize now, as I’ve started to learn more, it’s because parents don’t basically get any information from their schools. And there’s this wall that sort of– it’s either implied or explicit, I don’t know– but that as the kids get older, they get further and further separated.

Parents are sort of further and further sort of removed from the education. And I think that what surprised me is just how powerful simply inviting them back can be. And you know, I think that what your research is telling us is that the information that families do get oftentimes is not actionable.

If you look at some of the typical communication, a lot of times it’s about the school’s rules, the uniform policy, the lunch policy, and the pick up time. But not anything that’s really linked to learning.

Your research shows us that when we get families engaged in ways that they can take an action that makes sense to help support children’s learning, we actually do see these effect sizes and these results.

One of the things that I’m afraid of when I think about how this work will be scaled up, is I’m afraid that it will just flood parents. I mean, a good problem to have. The exact opposite of where we are now. But we’ll flood parents with information, where it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise, the useful information from the useless information.

Like, I would hate for, every day, there to be a three page thing sent home to parents. Embedded in there is, your kid has a test tomorrow, so I hope he or she studies.


So I think there will be a challenge. I would love to see a world where we have this big challenge of trying to identify all the information we’d like parents to have tonight, what will actually be most useful, to realize that humans are humans and we’re not going to read a three-page memo every night, or 17 text messages.

This idea of pushing out information but not overdoing it is going to be a real trick. And I think that practitioners and policymakers are going to need advice on. And this is where your being a behavioral scientist comes in, is what should those messages really look like?

It may end up with– and I hope it ends up with this– where we end up with a checklist of when you’re sending information to parents. Is it very clear what needs to be done? Have we ruthlessly cut every word from this message that is unnecessary? And are we delivering it in a timely way?

Additional Resources

  1. Esparza, Patricia, and Bernadette Sánchez. “The Role of Attitudinal Familism in Academic Outcomes: A Study of Urban, Latino High School Seniors.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 14, no. 3 (July 14, 2008): 193-200.

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