Families & the Community Opinion

Families Are Students’ First SEL Teachers. Here’s How to Engage Them

4 steps for building stronger family-school partnerships to enhance social-emotional learning
By Alexandra Skoog-Hoffman — October 19, 2022 5 min read
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We know students need support from schools and their families to cope with academic and mental health challenges. We’ve seen over and over that children’s academic learning can’t be separated from their social and emotional lives. In the wake of pandemic disruptions to schooling, it’s more important than ever for families and educators to come together and form meaningful partnerships that nurture children’s social, emotional, and academic development.

Parents and other caregivers are children’s first teachers, from whom they begin to learn critical social and emotional skills like respect, empathy, and perseverance. Substantial research demonstrates the positive impacts of parent engagement on children’s academic achievement and social-emotional development. When family members model the social-emotional skills through their parenting practices, they help reinforce what children are learning at school. When surrounded by positive social-emotional support, students are much more likely to develop important skills that lead to improved peer relationships and social skills.

But creating this sort of positive environment doesn’t just happen—it requires an intentional partnership among schools, families, and communities. And by investing in these multidirectional partnerships, schools have the opportunity to learn from families that are the experts in their children’s lives.

The majority of parents already support social-emotional learning for their children. By partnering with them, schools can continue to build on that support while learning from the strategies that families are already using to teach SEL and leveraging that expertise to foster more inclusive school environments. And when families feel valued as partners in the school, they can also learn how to support and build on schoolwide SEL practices in their homes. In fact, decades of research suggests that evidence-based SEL programs are more effective when they extend into young people’s home lives.

Partnerships between schools and parents is not always easy, and SEL researchers and educators alike know that families are far more likely to form partnerships with schools when the school’s norms, values, and cultural representations reflect their own experiences. Because of this, it is important that schools promote a culturally responsive and welcoming environment in order to authentically engage families in promoting students’ SEL. In our work at CASEL (where I serve as the director of research-practice partnerships), we have been partnering with schools, districts, researchers, and community organizations to study innovative family-engagement practices that embody social- and emotional-learning principles.

We’ve found four research-based actions that make it easier for school leaders and staff to build authentic school-family partnerships.

  1. Cultivate trusting relationships between educators and families. School staff should begin every school year seeking input on family priorities, concerns, interests, knowledge, and resources. This creates an opportunity to build trust between families and schools. For example, the Michigan chapter of the dropout-prevention organization Community in Schools fields an annual needs and assets inventory asking for family and community feedback, which schools then use to inform policies such as early/late pickup times and enrichment programming.
  2. Build the confidence and skills of both staff and caregivers. When school and district leaders reconsider existing structures and policies driving school improvement efforts, they can embed families into decisionmaking processes more effectively. Remember, schools can be a place of learning for everyone. Consider investing in opportunities for parents to develop their own skills, as well as for educators looking to learn more about partnering with diverse populations, including through culturally responsive pedagogy practices and recognizing parents as assets and “funds of knowledge.” For example, one Chicago public high school set up the opportunity for a group of parents to complete CASEL’s SEL Dialogue Series for Caregiver-School Partnerships, a 10-session training designed to help caregivers learn about and practice social-emotional skills.
  3. Reposition families’ roles from spectators to collaborators. Educators and parents alike should feel connected as partners and stewards of students’ education. In doing so, they are able to determine shared goals and outcomes for their students while planning and strategizing as equal partners. These connections are not limited to just parents and educators but among families as well. Families seeing each other as sources of knowledge and collaborators can produce empowering spaces where they can coordinate and enact the change they wish to see for their children.
  4. Involve families in interpreting data and posing solutions. Traditionally, we see families’ voices captured in surveys or through traditional means of gathering parent feedback, such as town halls, PTA meetings, and parent-teacher conferences. Getting families involved in reviewing data can foster even greater agency, trust, and communication, leading to equitable school improvements. Parents may identify inconsistencies in what and how data are gathered relative to them or their children’s cultural understandings, offer context, and propose solutions that can create more supportive and nurturing schools. For example, the Minneapolis district’s Parent Participatory Evaluation program partners a group of “parent researchers” with educators to improve their children’s learning. Parents have access to district data and receive training on culturally relevant data collection and evaluation. Parents identify a research question and plan how to collect and analyze data to address the issue. Then, the parent group advises school- and district-level stakeholders on how best to make the data accessible to other parents and community members.

Speakers and participants at the recent 2022 CASEL annual summit—which was centered around the understanding that school-family partnerships are integral to a child’s success—confirmed what we know: We’re all stronger when we work together for our children. With parents overwhelmingly supportive of SEL, educators should take advantage of the moment to build these partnerships to ensure children are set up for success. When families and educators work together, we can set students up for success to rise to any challenge in school and in life.


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