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» A Culture that Engages Every Family, Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

» How to Revitalize Your School-Parent Compact, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.

» How Do You Know if You're Really Open to Partnership, Anne Henderson & Karen Mapp

»PTA--Gateway to Engagement, Advocacy, and Access, Meryl Ain, Ed.D.

» The Power of Asking-Instead of Telling, Jody McVittie, M.D.

» Empathy in Action, Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

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Two Questions Heard Around the World

By Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

HandsI read with great interest, Meryl Ain’s recent post that quizzed parents about their level of engagement with school.  I thought this article was timely and it actually inspired me to write about two questions that probably do the most damage to family-school relationships.  These same two questions, by the way, are the catalyst for The New Standards for Global Family Engagement ™.

For as many years as I have been involved in the pursuit of family engagement research and practice, my lone frustration centers on the collective inability to bring about a systems-change in education as it relates to meaningfully engaging every family in the educational lives of their children.

Our success as educators to engage every family has been well documented at the teacher and classroom level; the school level, but rarely at the district level. That seems to be where it stops and that is what motivates my continued work in the field.

How the Two Questions Motivated the Standards

In 2007, I traveled to Australia to work with educators throughout the State of Victoria. Little did I know that I would experience a defining moment while on this trip.

It had become quite customary for me to include my now-famous “two question test” in speeches and workshops throughout the United States. Those two questions “what did you do in school today?” and “do you have any homework?” always result in unanimous responses from American audiences. In response to the first question, the answer was always “nothing,” followed by “no,” as the uniform response to the second question. I use these universal answers to underscore the need for educators to provide better information to families so that they might ask their children better questions.

As I prepared the workshops for the Australian audiences, a thought crossed through my mind. What if the questions did not translate to the Australian audience?  Not only was it a fun and humorous portion of presentations, the ideas presented in the two-question test set the stage for the need to engage families in the educational lives of children. I decided that I would try the test. If it failed the first time, I would simply eliminate it from the remaining presentations.

As the first presentation began, I remember being very nervous. Here I was, thousands of miles away from home speaking to educators from another country. It came time for the two-question test. I prepared the audience by sharing that while American audiences usually got the answers right, there was really no telling what would happen in Australia. The audience was gracious and now as curious of the outcome as me. With some trepidation, I started the test.

“What did you do in school today?” I asked the group.

“Nothing!” they shouted in unison.

“Do you have any homework?” I asked

“No!” The test worked!

It was at this very moment that I had a slight epiphany. The issues and challenges of engaging families seemed no different in Australia than in the United States. During the next ten days of my trip, I heard almost identical challenges and frustrations from educators about how to garner more family engagement in education. The questions I took from the audiences were virtually identical to those of American audiences. Family engagement is as much of a challenge in Australia as it is in the United States. I started to realize that the answer was the same for both countries. I then used the same questions for the heads of principal associations from countries all over the world and yes, the answers were exactly the same. 

And so there it was, proof that the issues of family engagement were indeed worldwide. Thus began a simple vision of global family engagement.  A set of principles or practices that might help educators around the globe grapple with the fundamental issue of engaging families in the educational lives of children and building their efficacy to support and advance the achievement of all children.

Replacing the Questions with Statements

homeworkAs educators, we can easily stop the continued use of these two questions if we could put into place mechanisms that gave families more information about what is taking place in school and better yet, how they can support that learning at home. If we can communicate effectively and truly believe that it is worth our time and effort to engage every family, then the outcomes for all children will improve. How do we know this to be true?  Because 40 years of research proves it.

We tend to communicate information that has “already happened” to families (grades, report cards, examples of work, etc.).  The simple fact is this: it is virtually impossible to appropriately engage families with things that have already happened. This approach only leads to either no interaction, or negative interaction when grades or progress are not where families desire them to be.

Rather than fill folders and e-mails with information from the past, engage families with what will happen next week. In doing so, families then have the opportunity to change their questions into open-ended statements that will garner true discussion between them and their children. With information about what is to occur in school, as well as teachers giving families “look for’s,” families then can use the following statements to have a more meaningful dialog with their children about school:

Tell me about _____

Show me _____

Teach me ______

What do you remember about ______?

What is______

What do you think about _____?

These statements and questions can accomplish a great deal more to leverage the efficacy of families and to improve two-way communication between school and home. They will only work, however, with a real commitment from teachers to get information to families so that the dialog improves. Otherwise, we will be stuck with the two questions forever. 

Photo Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

Posted on August 15, 2012 by Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

Steve Constantino is an author, speaker, and thought leader in the field of family engagement as well as the superintendent of the Williamsburg-James City County School District in Williamsburg, Virginia. Look for his latest book featuring "The New Standards for Global Family Engagement" due out this fall. Follow Dr. Constantino on Twitter. You can read more about Dr. Constantino's work at www.drsteveconstantino.com 

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