Parental Involvement vs. Parental Engagement

Updated February 13, 2023 | Posted February 1, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A young boy of color sits between his two parents in a classroom, listening to his teacher talk.

Par­ents are vital in ensur­ing their children’s safe­ty, secu­ri­ty, and well-being as well as their edu­ca­tion­al success.

Parental involve­ment in school is key: In a 1994 meta-analy­sis of 66 stud­ies and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, researchers found that fam­i­ly makes crit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions to stu­dent achieve­ment from the ear­li­est child­hood years through high school.” Efforts to improve chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion­al out­comes are much more effec­tive when the fam­i­ly is active­ly involved,” the researchers con­clud­ed.

What Is the Dif­fer­ence Between Parental Involve­ment and Engagement?

What many may not know is that there is an impor­tant dif­fer­ence between parental involve­ment and parental engagement.

An involved par­ent takes part in the activ­i­ties already deter­mined by the school. An engaged par­ent takes a step fur­ther, often becom­ing part of the school’s deci­sion-mak­ing process.

Think of the two as com­pli­men­ta­ry actions, a kind of yin and yang that togeth­er pro­duce bet­ter out­comes for students.

Parental involve­ment may include class­room vol­un­teer­ing, chap­er­on­ing school events, par­tic­i­pat­ing in par­ent-teacher con­fer­ences and oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tion with teach­ers. Edu­ca­tors large­ly con­trol these activ­i­ties, invit­ing par­ents to participate.

With engage­ment, schools inten­tion­al­ly give par­ents oppor­tu­ni­ties to offer their own input, devel­op on their own abil­i­ties and take own­er­ship over ideas. Effec­tive engage­ment can include train­ing for par­ents of chil­dren with spe­cial needs and involv­ing par­ents in key school-wide decisions.

It is dri­ven, fore­most, by par­ents’ needs as their children’s pri­ma­ry caregivers.

Long­time edu­ca­tor Lar­ry Fer­laz­zo has writ­ten that while par­ent involve­ment often involves one-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion, par­ent engage­ment involves two-way con­ver­sa­tions. These con­ver­sa­tions occur not just through more inten­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion but through efforts like home vis­its and phone calls to par­ents in cri­sis or rou­tine check-ins that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly only hap­pen when there’s a prob­lem with a child.”

Down­load the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion’s Engag­ing Par­ents, Devel­op­ing Lead­ers report. This pub­li­ca­tion intro­duces an assess­ment and plan­ning tool to help non­prof­its eval­u­ate their par­ent engage­ment efforts and chart a path toward deep­er part­ner­ships with par­ents and caregivers.

Exam­ples of Par­ent Involve­ment vs. Engagement

Par­ents can become involved in their chil­dren’s edu­ca­tion by: 

  • attend­ing or vol­un­teer­ing at school functions;
  • dis­cussing school events;
  • help­ing out with home­work; and
  • read­ing with children;

Becom­ing more involved cre­ates a sup­port­ive learn­ing envi­ron­ment at home.

Schools can build engage­ment by:

  • involv­ing par­ents in school-wide deci­sion-mak­ing, from instruc­tion to nutrition;
  • devel­op­ing pro­gram­ming for par­ents that trains them in key areas such as dig­i­tal skills;
  • invit­ing par­ents in to learn more about how schools work and how they can meet their children’s needs;
  • ini­ti­at­ing par­ent acad­e­mies” con­ceived and run by par­ents them­selves, focus­ing on con­cerns and needs that they iden­ti­fy; and
  • encour­ag­ing par­ents to see their school as an insti­tu­tion that is part of a neigh­bor­hood or larg­er community.

Fer­laz­zo, the edu­ca­tor, said it best when he wrote: A school striv­ing for fam­i­ly involve­ment often leads with its mouth — iden­ti­fy­ing projects, needs and goals and then telling par­ents how they can con­tribute. A school striv­ing for par­ent engage­ment, on the oth­er hand, tends to lead with its ears — lis­ten­ing to what par­ents think, dream and wor­ry about. The goal of fam­i­ly engage­ment is not to serve clients but to gain partners.”

Parental Engage­ment and Parental Involve­ment Work Togeth­er for the Bet­ter Outcomes

Though parental engage­ment often pro­duces bet­ter out­comes than involve­ment alone, the best school pro­grams inter­act with par­ents in both ways. Ben­e­fits to stu­dents may include high­er grades and test scores, bet­ter atten­dance and behav­ior, increased enroll­ment in chal­leng­ing cours­es and improved social skills.

As teach­ers, we know that fam­i­lies must be crit­i­cal allies in cre­at­ing learn­ing com­mu­ni­ties where all chil­dren can achieve equi­table out­comes,” writes edu­ca­tor Ilene Carv­er. We need to believe that all fam­i­lies sin­cere­ly care about their chil­dren and will do every­thing they can to sup­port them. If we, as teach­ers, reach out with respect, fam­i­ly mem­bers will get involved.”

Edu­ca­tors say that strong con­nec­tions between schools and fam­i­lies can help address impor­tant non-school fac­tors — such as health, safe­ty, and afford­able hous­ing — that account for about two-thirds of the vari­ance in stu­dent achieve­ment. These con­nec­tions can also improve par­ents’ feel­ings of effi­ca­cy” at school and increase com­mu­ni­ty sup­port for schools themselves.

Par­ent engage­ment is the ulti­mate goal of great schools,” accord­ing to the advo­ca­cy group Par­ents 4 Pub­lic Schools, because it allows for not only the cre­ation of bet­ter par­ent-school part­ner­ships but also has a tremen­dous impact on stu­dent achievement.”

How Schools Can Encour­age Fam­i­ly Engagement

Schools must build rela­tion­ships, first and foremost.

One place to start? By ask­ing fam­i­lies how they want to be engaged, says Carv­er. This means ask­ing fam­i­lies what days and times are con­ve­nient for them, and what the school could do to sup­port their involvement.”

Carv­er points to small dis­cus­sion groups or focus groups, host­ed either for­mal­ly or infor­mal­ly, as a means for gath­er­ing fam­i­ly per­spec­tives. If fam­i­lies say that trans­porta­tion, child­care, or the need to pre­pare a meal before com­ing are bar­ri­ers, set up a ride net­work,” she writes, invite the whole fam­i­ly, have activ­i­ties for younger chil­dren, and serve dinner.”

Schools should invite teach­ers, staff, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who can help view the envi­ron­ment as a new vis­i­tor would see it,” says Carv­er. How invit­ing is the entrance? Are there signs let­ting peo­ple know, in a friend­ly way, where to find what they’re look­ing for? What hap­pens when they go into the office? Can fam­i­lies eas­i­ly get their con­cerns addressed, ques­tions answered and prob­lems resolved?”

Putting stu­dent work in the spot­light draws fam­i­lies, Carv­er adds. Ask teach­ers and par­ents to be greeters’ and wel­come fam­i­lies as they come in. Offer inter­preters if Eng­lish is not their first lan­guage. Ask local musi­cians (many may be par­ents) to pro­vide music. And have fun!”

In areas strick­en with pover­ty and vio­lence, engage­ment is still pos­si­ble, accord­ing to edu­ca­tors. For exam­ple: In Sacra­men­to, Cal­i­for­nia, Par­ent Teacher Home Vis­its — a col­lab­o­ra­tion among an inter­faith orga­niz­ing group, the local school dis­trict and the teach­ers’ union — has result­ed in bet­ter stu­dent atten­dance, high­er grad­u­a­tion rates, more par­ent involve­ment and low­er teacher turnover, advo­cates say.

The Sacra­men­to pro­gram arose after par­ents com­plained that it was near­ly impos­si­ble to talk to teach­ers about their chil­dren. After the vis­its, advo­cates say, fam­i­lies are more com­fort­able com­ing to school.

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