Equity-Based Family Engagement

January 26, 2021 / by Sarah Ottow

As we start 2021, I’d like to share some tips for working with families through a resource round up/collection of our most popular articles on this topic. At Confianza, as we coach, train and support educators, we know that sharing strategies is only half of what it takes to work successfully with all students and especially growingly diverse communities. The other half is what we call an “equity-based approach” where we all work to consistently check our own mindsets and keep focused on others’ perspectives, not just our own.

An equity-based approach points out the injustices happening through bias, stereotyping and prejudice and by not engaging in self-reflection and the unpacking of our own biases. These terms need defining in order to have a fully transparent culture that is equity-based and always striving for equity for all.

Bias: negative labels, words and actions that reflect a stereotype

Stereotype: distorted truths, generalizations, or exaggerated beliefs or images about a group and does not allow for individual variation

Implicit Bias or Unconscious Bias: attitudes or beliefs that occur without our awareness

Prejudice: preconceived point of view or opinion

Anti-Bias: challenging bias in inclusive ways that address bias including anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, anti-colonial, and other forms of institutionalized discrimination

For an equity-based mindset to work, an anti-bias mindset is key. Much of the root causes of how we perceive disengagement is through our own set of biases. Let’s unpack some statements through an equity-based approach:

Assumption #1: This student doesn’t have any support at home.

Communicating in absolutes like “any”, “none”, or “never”, for example, connote a fixed mindset, a black and white way of being. We need to foster a growth mindset and a more gray way of seeking to understand those we serve. Often there is more to learn about the household, about the family and we need to do the work to bridge to where they are, not to where we think they need to be. We may be devaluing what supports may exist at home. We can consider:

  • Who is at home with the child?
  • Are their role models at home or in the community?
  • What is our goal for the child?
  • Are they the same goals that the family has? 

Read more about examining your own biases in We Must Always Look Inward, and, especially for White educators, Social Justice and Anti-Bias Education Steps for the White Educator.

Assumption #2: If only the family would just get involved, the student would do better in school.

Traditionally, we often refer to schools engaging with families as parental involvement. However, this term can be limiting. First, using the word “parents” is not an inclusive way of referring to the home communities of our students, where many may be multi-generational, caregivers, or guardians. Second, the word “involvement” is problematic. Involvement connotes something that is being done to families, more of a one-way communication path from the school to the home. Whereas, “engagement” is a term that connotes something that is being done with families in a reciprocal way. Engagement is more of a two-way street, a proactive partnership that is built on mutual respect and shared goals. We can probe deeper by finding the answers to these questions:

  • Does the student live with a caregiver who needs to work several jobs and simply isn’t available?
  • Does this family know that the school values their perspective? Or, backing up, does the school value all families’ perspectives in words and actions?
  • Are the school and classrooms welcoming, providing access to families from other language and culture backgrounds?
  • Do we know families’ hopes and dreams for the child?

Assumption #3: ELL parents just do not participate actively in conferences. 

There are many varying cultural values on the role of parents/families and schooling for their children.  Values manifest in different behaviors which can be understood, especially from the dominant American culture where parents are often expected to be physically present at home and at school for their child. Some cultures view the role of the family to take care of children at home, fostering independence on the part of the student at school. Others view it inappropriate or disrespectful to get involved at school. None of these perspectives state that families don’t care about their children’s education, as the statement can infer, from a deficit-based perspective. We should refrain from making value statements on an entire family or a culture if the adults are not as present in schooling as we might expect. Questions to dig deeper may be:

  • What are the culture values present in this home culture?
  • What language and/or cultural barriers may exist that we need to build bridges across?
  • Do we explicitly value many types of family engagement or only one, more traditional “American” or White type of family engagement?

We all know how important it is to have partnerships with families as one key element of student success. However, to only focus on the things that aren’t working isn’t completely productive and doesn’t necessarily move things forward. I hope this set of tips and resources for bringing an equity-based approach into your family engagement strategy is useful. I invite you to explore more below and join us in our upcoming webinar series!

Tch is also hosting a webinar series Confianza Webinar Series for Instructional Leaders: Equity-Based Support for Multilingual Students & Families.

Topics: Equity, Teacher-Family Engagement, Communicating with Families

Sarah Ottow

Written by Sarah Ottow

Sarah Ottow, founder of Confianza, has partnered with countless school districts and companies nationally and internationally. Her focus is on reinforcing relationship skills and value-identification of the ever-growing ELL population, while improving student outcomes and profitability within organizations. With Sarah’s extensive and diverse background in identifying needs of faculty, students, and employees coupled with her education in curriculum and social justice, she creates programs and tools tailored to the exact needs of each organization and population of English learners. Connect with Sarah on Twitter: @SarahOttow and learn more about Confianza at

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