• Tiffany Beason, PhD

Engaging Families

Tiffany Beason, PhD

NCS3 Cultural Responsiveness, Anti-Racism, and Equity Lead

National Center for School Mental Health



There are many ways for educators to promote equity in schools, particularly through their efforts to engage families. Family engagement is important because the family system is central to the child’s microsystem (or immediate surroundings), and thereby families are the experts on their children’s well-being. A strong school and family partnership can help to enhance educators’ understanding of children’s abilities, experiences, and related academic and social and emotional needs. Active family and youth partnership is critical to promoting sustainability and continuity of supports and services in schools. Therefore, in our work to promote equity for students, it is imperative that we build strong connections with families. Consider the following family engagement strategies that are aligned with cultural responsiveness, anti-racism and equity principles.

Foster your cultural humility and self-awareness.


Cultural humility involves being open and humble when engaging with individuals from cultural backgrounds that are different from our own. While the term "cultural competence" sometimes unintentionally implies that this process of demonstrating culturally humility has an end-point, this is not the case. Rather, cultural humility is a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and critique, to learning about diverse cultures, and working to limit power imbalances and dismantle systems of injustice.1


Manage your biases.


Part of being culturally humble is managing our implicit biases, or unconscious beliefs about specific groups. Implicit biases often reflect negative societal messages about groups, particularly Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). Everyone possesses implicit biases, including educators who value equity and those who hold marginalized identities. Fortunately, we can manage our implicit biases by engaging in critical self-reflection about how negative societal messaging may impact our thinking, behaviors, and relationships with others. When educators take time to reflect in this way, it raises our conscious awareness about how we “show up” in a space, which can ultimately help us avoid perpetuating injustice.


Engage in meaningful youth and family partnership.


A team of researchers (2) identified the key components of effective parent involvement programs for Black/African Americans. Some of the key components included: recognizing the contributions of family to the child’s well-being; owning the responsibility to nurture reciprocal family-school communications; encouraging and supporting parental involvement at school; supporting learning activities at home; fostering shared decision-making with families; fostering connections with helpful community-based organizations. You may wish to use these strategies to foster family engagement in families, and consider possible adaptations for different racial/ethnic groups or cultures.


Respect youth and families as the expert.


Respect youth and their caregivers as the experts on the student and learn from them about how we can help our students be the best version of themselves. Students from various backgrounds have different styles of communication, ways of relating to others, and motivations that are all influenced by cultural background and identity. To better understand the unique strengths and needs of students, be intentional about asking them to share this information. Further, be open to modifying your classroom environment, instructional practices, and interpersonal style, among other factors, to attend to the diverse needs of all your students.


Choose cultural responsiveness, not culture- or color- blindness.


Embrace cultural differences and assets by inviting youth and families to share about their cultural backgrounds and identities. Ask youth and families, "What is important for me to know about your culture and background?” and “What cultural strengths are you most proud of?" Intentionally engaging your students and their families in conversations about their cultural-based strengths communicates to them that you see their strengths and your school or classroom is a space where their strengths are both recognized and valued.


Work with families to overcome barriers to engagement.


Language barriers. To address language barriers, acknowledge language differences, identify the family's preferred methods of communication, use clear and plain language in verbal and written communications, and, when available, utilize translation services.


Logistical barriers. Time constraints, inflexible work schedules, childcare issues and transportation barriers may prevent parents and guardians from physically participating in school activities and meetings. To overcome these challenges, work with families to identify mutually convenient times for conversations and flexible methods of school engagement, such as home visits, phone calls and notes home.


Prior negative experiences in schools. Family histories with the educational system may also limit their engagement. Some parents, guardians and caregivers have had their own negative experiences with the education system. As a result of prior experiences, some families may feel unsafe or unwelcomed in schools. In your efforts to engage and partner with families, don't hesitate to ask, "What was your experience like when you were in school?" and "What can I do to help you feel welcome at school?".


Use a strengths-based approach to discussing student mental health needs.


Take a strengths-based approach to discussing student mental health needs. Within many cultures, there is a stigma associated with mental health difficulties, and a parent may justifiably become defensive if their child is being labeled by their problems and not appreciated for their strengths. A strengths-based approach that first focuses on what the child does well and then presents problems as areas for growth, demonstrates a balanced understanding of the child and can help build a positive alliance with families.

During referral conversations, acknowledge the child's potential and present mental health services as extra supports available to help them meet their goals.


Partner with families to overcome barriers to accessing mental health services.


Youth and families from marginalized communities often experience significant barriers to accessing mental health services. Some people, including those within the LGBTQ+ and some BIPOC communities, lack trust in mental health services due to the history of unethical, homophobic, and racist practices in mental health care. Below are some specific tips to support families with overcoming barriers to accessing treatment:​

  • Validate the student's and family's feelings, including concerns about stigma and/or being treated unethically by providers.​

  • Inform families that mental health problems in children are common and quality mental health support and services are helpful.

  • Acknowledge the history of unethical practices and educate families on the fact that harmful practices are banned among professional academies and agencies. Also, many therapists have specialized training in providing affirming and effective care to people from diverse communities.

  • Encourage families to openly express their needs to providers and ask providers questions about their training to determine if the therapist is a good fit for them.

  • Refer families to culturally- responsive providers known to the school community.​

​Become a systems-change agent.


Family engagement can be thought of as one way to promote resilience for students. However, to achieve social justice, our efforts to promote resilience should be paired systems-change work (3,4). Below are some examples of how educators can operate as systems change agents:

  • Serve on school- and community-based social justice organizations and committees

  • Host safe spaces or clubs at school

  • Report structural concerns to administrators and district leadership

  • Spread awareness through professional and social networks to influence policy

  • Serve as a social justice advocate and champion at your school


Selected References:

1. Tervalon, M., & Murray-García, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9(2), 117–125. https://doi-org.proxy-hs.researchport.umd.edu/10.1353/hpu.2010.0233

2. Bartz, D., Collins-Ayanlaja, C., & Rice, P. (2017). African-American Parents and Effective Parent Involvement Programs, Schooling, 8, 1-9. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalforum.com/Electronic%20Journal%20Volumes/Bartz,%20David%20African-American%20Parents%20an%20Effective%20Parent%20Involvement%20Programs%20SCHOOLING%20V8%20N1%202017.pdf

3. Anderson, L. A. (2019). Rethinking Resilience Theory in African American Families: Fostering Positive Adaptations and Transformative Social Justice. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 11(3), 385–397. https://doi-org.proxy-hs.researchport.umd.edu/10.1111/jftr.12343

4. Edwards, K. E. (2006). Aspiring social justice ally​ identity development: A conceptual model. NASPA Journal, 43(4), 39–60. https://doi.org/10.2202/ 1949- 6605.1722​