June 30, 2021 8:00 am

Engaging Families in Math Learning

Family members are important partners in student learning, but how do we best to engage them in the learning process? Imagine Learning undertook a two-year-long research study, and these are the results.

Educators know that parents and family members are important partners in student learning, but some may not be aware of how best to engage family members in the learning process.

To help answer this question, Imagine Learning undertook a two-year-long research study, specifically around middle-years mathematics learning with a focus on third-grade students and their families. 

At the outset of this study, Imagine Learning positioned family engagement in math learning as a design challenge, not a social problem. Imagine Learning did not want to perpetuate the idea that family engagement with low-income, Black, and Latino families is a social problem, meaning the problem resides within families and needs to be solved. Instead, the work was framed with an asset-based lens, which acknowledges that family members want to and do support their children in learning mathematics.

To partner and collaborate with family members to increase student academic achievement, it is essential for educators to support families and, most importantly, know how to recognize, honor, and acknowledge all efforts made by family members throughout the learning process. This is particularly important with low-income, Black, and Latino families, whose efforts supporting their students have commonly been unacknowledged or leveraged in mathematics.

By redefining family engagement and partnership as a design challenge, a pivotal change happens, in which family members — specifically those from low-income, Black, and Latino families — are properly seen and recognized as a child’s greatest asset in the learning process.

Our recent white paper describes the lessons learned from this study, which educators everywhere can use to further engage families as collaborators and partners in all learning, but particularly in math learning.

Here, we’ll share the research study’s five key lessons — “Lessons to Design By” — that may help other educators develop or further enhance approaches for increasing family engagement in mathematics, building stronger community relations, and accelerating academic achievement for students.

parent congratulates child with a high-five

Key Lessons and Takeaways for Engaging Family Members as Partners and Collaborators

As a result of this study, Imagine Learning determined five key lessons related to the importance of communication, establishing trusting relationships between schools and families, and inviting families to be partners in supporting their child’s learning. These lessons should all be considered when working to engage families as partners and collaborators in learning.

Lesson 1: The Importance of Invitations to Families. Family members do not always feel that teachers and schools welcome their involvement as educational partners, and this can be a particular issue for low-income families and families of color, even though they reported wanting to be engaged in their child’s math learning. Helping families feel welcome and as equal partners in their child’s learning is an important contextual factor that needs to be considered.

Lesson 2: The Importance of Family–Teacher Trust. Family members trust teachers as the primary source of information regarding their child’s learning. For families to engage with online supports or other resources, messaging about their value and importance needs to come from the teacher. This trust goes both ways, so building relationships of trust in which family members can share concerns is an essential precondition to a successful design. Research finds that low-income families of color and families of varying linguistic backgrounds are often underrepresented in school-level decision-making and family involvement activities. This speaks to differing needs, values, and levels of trust rather than families’ lack of interest or unwillingness to get involved.

Lesson 3: The Importance of Family–Teacher Collaboration. In general, teachers are frequently only in touch with families when discipline issues arise. Hence, there is value in establishing collaborative relationships and proactively communicating with positive and learning-related news early and often. Families value invitations to discuss their child’s learning as an equal to educators. Family members demonstrated that they sometimes do not feel like equals in decision-making relative to their child’s education, which supports the notion of empowering parents as partners in supporting learning. Not all parents know where to look for help, and some may not come to the school for assistance when they are not sure how to help their child.

Lesson 4: Honoring Family Experience Over Theoretical Models. To fully engage in community work with restricted resources, challenges with poverty, public trust, and language barriers requires significant energy, attention, and nuance. This is particularly true in math, as this is a subject in which parents and families tend to have less confidence in their content knowledge and skills, and are therefore more reluctant to get involved in their child’s learning at home.

Lesson 5: Community-Based Work with Families is Resource-Intensive. Implementing this project was resource-intensive work and given that, Imagine Learning concluded that there is a need to identify additional strategies that are more cost-effective in building math efficacy. We know that there is a need to develop community-specific, family-responsive designs, and one potential solution could be to provide coaching and support to families at the community level instead of individual schools.

Imagine Learning continually seeks design solutions to support the relationship between teachers, families, children, and mathematics content, as we recognize that family members are the greatest asset in children’s learning and development. Learn more in our white paper about this research study and the effects COVID-19 also had on the body of work.