Home Social group Families are the first SEL teachers of students. Here’s how to engage them (Opinion)

Families are the first SEL teachers of students. Here’s how to engage them (Opinion)


We know that students need the support of schools and their families to deal with academic and mental health challenges. We have seen time and time again that children’s academic learning cannot be separated from their social and emotional lives. In the wake of the pandemic school disruptions, it is more important than ever for families and educators to come together and form meaningful partnerships that support the social, emotional and academic development of children.

Parents and other caregivers are children’s first teachers, from whom they begin to learn essential social and emotional skills like respect, empathy and perseverance. Substantial research demonstrates the positive impacts of parental engagement on children’s academic achievement and social-emotional development. When family members model social-emotional skills through their parenting practices, they help reinforce what children learn in school. When surrounded by positive socio-emotional support, students are much more likely to develop important skills that lead to improved peer relationships and social skills.

But creating this kind of positive environment does not happen by accident, it requires an intentional partnership between schools, families and communities. And by investing in these multi-directional partnerships, schools have the opportunity to learn from families who are the experts in their children’s lives.

The majority of parents already support social-emotional learning for their children. By partnering with them, schools can continue to build on this support while learning strategies families are already using to teach SEL and leveraging this expertise to foster more inclusive school environments. And when families feel valued as partners with the school, they can also learn to support and build on school-wide SEL practices at home. In fact, decades of research suggest that evidence-based SEL programs are most effective when they extend into young people’s family lives.

Partnerships between schools and parents are not always easy, and SEL researchers and educators know that families are much more likely to form partnerships with schools when school norms, values, and cultural representations reflect their own experiences. For this reason, it is important that schools promote a welcoming and culturally appropriate environment in order to authentically engage families in promoting student SEL. In our work at CASEL (where I serve as Director of Research-Practice Partnerships), we have partnered with schools, districts, researchers, and community organizations to study innovative family engagement practices that embody the principles of social and emotional learning.

We’ve found four research-based actions that make it easier for school leaders and staff to build authentic school-family partnerships.

  1. Cultivate trusting relationships between educators and families. School staff should begin each school year by soliciting input about family priorities, concerns, interests, knowledge, and resources. This creates an opportunity to build trust between families and schools. For example, the Michigan chapter of community dropout prevention organization Community in Schools conducts an annual needs and asset inventory soliciting input from family and community, which schools then use to inform policies such as early/late pick-up times and enrichment programs.
  2. Building the confidence and skills of staff and caregivers. When school and district leaders reconsider existing structures and policies that guide school improvement efforts, they can more effectively include families in decision-making processes. Remember that schools can be a place of learning for everybody. Consider investing in opportunities for parents to develop their own skills, as well as educators seeking to learn more about partnering with diverse populations, including through culturally appropriate teaching practices and parent recognition as assets and “knowledge funds”. For example, a public high school in Chicago offered a group of parents the opportunity to participate in CASEL’s SEL Dialogue Series for Caregiver-School Partnerships.a 10-session training designed to help caregivers learn and practice social-emotional skills.
  3. Reposition family roles from viewers to collaborators. Educators and parents need to feel connected as partners and stewards of student education. In doing so, they are able to determine common goals and outcomes for their students while planning and strategizing as equal partners. These connections are not limited only to parents and educators, but also to families. Families who see themselves as sources of knowledge and collaborators can create spaces of empowerment where they can coordinate and implement the change they want to see for their children.
  4. Involve families in interpreting data and proposing solutions. Traditionally, we see families’ voices captured in surveys or through traditional means of collecting parent feedback, such as town halls, PTA meetings, and parent-teacher conferences. Involving families in reviewing data can foster greater agency, trust, and communication, leading to equitable school improvements. Parents can identify inconsistencies in what and how data is collected about them or their children’s cultural understanding, provide context, and offer solutions that can create more supportive and nurturing schools. For example, the Minneapolis District’s Participatory Parent Assessment Program pairs a group of “parent researchers” with educators to improve their children’s learning. Parents have access to district data and receive training on collecting and evaluating culturally relevant data. Parents identify a research question and plan how to collect and analyze data to solve the problem. Then, the parent group advises stakeholders at the school and district level on how best to make the data accessible to other parents and community members.

Speakers and attendees at the recent CASEL 2022 Annual Summit– which centered on the understanding that school-family partnerships are integral to a child’s success – confirmed what we know: we are all stronger when we work together for our children. With parents overwhelmingly supportive of SEL, educators should seize the moment to build these partnerships to ensure children are set up to succeed. When families and educators work together, we can help students succeed in meeting any challenge in school and in life.