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Engaging Digital-First Student Families at School

Need some ways to get parents invested and engaged at school for their students? Here are 10.

Theresa Rex
Theresa Rex

Sep 06, 2021

Getting parents and guardians engaged in what is going on at school isn't always an easy nut to crack. With the additional twist of hybrid or entirely virtual learning environments, schools and districts have to figure out how to retool their strategies for our digital-first world.

The benefits of engaged guardians are well-known by now, and working to do that digitally has been shown to have added benefits. Not only is that particularly crucial now, in an increasingly digital educational landscape, but it can make an overarching positive impact outside of it, as well. 

10 Ways to Engage Parents and Guardians Digitally

A 2014 Stanford University study, for instance, investigated how daily text messages in the form of "literacy tips" influenced the behavior of families with preschoolers getting ready to enroll in kindergarten. 

These tips ranged from encouraging guardian-to-educator interactions ("Ask the teacher about your child's knowledge of concepts of print. Concepts of print include knowing how books are organized & that words have meaning.") to guardian-to-child activities ("When you're bathing your child, point out the letters on the shampoo bottles. Ask your child to name them & tell you the sounds that they make."). 

Ultimately, the study found that the recipients of those daily texts were 13% more likely to follow the literacy tips themselves. That is highly encouraging and an excellent case for digital engagement. There is reason to believe that those results can be achieved with older students' parents and guardians, too.

A similarly promising 2017 study out of Columbia University saw an 18% increase in attendance and a 39% boost in completed assignments when parents were sent automated texts if their child missed an assignment, logged a full-day absence, or their grades started to slip.

Another reason to make a shift toward digital engagement? It's realistic. Many students have working guardians or parents that can communicate more consistently and effectively the way we all do — with a text message, email, or online meeting space. Many of us got a crash course in how to communicate without the usual face-to-face interactions of Meet the Teacher night and in-person 1:1s that have made up the majority of school-to-home interactions for decades last year. It turns out that parents aren't tuned out. You just have to reach them where they already are. 

Here are 10 ways to get started:

1. Start By Evaluating Access

The digital divide does not only affect students. Effective digital engagement will hit a speed. bump in school communities where families don't have equal access to the devices and internet connections they need to get online. Many school districts started to tackle this problem when the Coronavirus pandemic brought it to the forefront with mobile hotspots that could be sent home with students to ensure connectivity for all. 

For instance, relief packages and additional funding — like ESSER I, II, and III — provide additional resources that allow schools to provide such devices.

2. Using Text to Get Parents Engaged Can Have Powerful Results

Educators, school districts, and higher education have all begun to unlock the potential of text messaging as a tool for more connected and engaged school communities. Besides the studies discussed above, text message campaigns have also shown promise for reducing summer melt for college-intending students — particularly for low-income and underserved groups (and the broader student cohort), making text an inexpensive and scalable way to increase parent engagement at school.

3. When it Comes to Engaging Digital-First Student Families, Email is Your Friend

Email is an incredibly useful tool, even if it isn't getting the same headlines as texting is. 90% of Americans over 15 years old use email to communicate, and that number jumps an additional 3 percentage points for adults 24-44, making it an effective way to get your message to the right people.

Emails can be used to make announcements, have back-and-forth conversations, send the same alerts and reminders to guardians that texts do, and even be used as a second line of "defense". When a parent gets only a text or an email about an absence or missed assignment, it might slip through or be filed away for later. We've all been there. Having the same message in two inboxes helps reach more people and reinforce the message you're sending.

4. Engage Students, Families, and Guardians on Social Media

As a culture, we've gotten used to seeking out answers on our own in the public spheres of the businesses, people, and communities we interact with regularly. Digitally, those public spheres are the social media channels of those same businesses, people, and communities. 

That includes schools. Social media presents a unique opportunity for family engagement because it exists to be engaged with. Social media channels like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook represent overlapping spaces for schools, districts, students, and families, and allow for passive and active feedback collection. 

We've seen school districts share really useful content about what's on the minds of their students and families, like this tweet from Spokane Public Schools:

Showcase phenomenal students and spotlight success like Dallas Independent School District regularly does on Instagram:

And spread the word about important mental health resources for students and their families, like Dublin City Public Schools recently did on Facebook:

 

Those are examples of three different school districts, three different platforms, and three different messages that all have the potential to resonate with students and families. The possibilities for engagement through these channels is really only limited by what you envision for them.

5. Host Virtual School Events and Invite Families to Attend

When it wasn't safe to meet in person, communities had to find a way to make the interactions that usually occurred in-person work anyway. For many, that meant the rise of virtual events — whether that took the form of Sunday dinner with friends over FaceTime, town hall meetings over Zoom, or online-only trade shows, what we once did in the physical space went online instead.

Schools have entered the digital space, too. While it might not be possible to digitize the Homecoming game, it is possible to put together Meet the Teacher nights, electives information sessions, Career Fairs, and awards ceremonies that bring parents, guardians, and families into the fold.

It's possible to make these events hybrid (or even keep some fully virtual!) in the future. That matters a lot for families traditionally left out of these events due to tight schedules, limited mobility, or transportation challenges. 

6. Offer Multiple Options for Parent or Guardian 1:1s With Educators and Staff

For all of the reasons listed above, offering virtual 1:1 options for parent-teacher, parent-administrator, and parent-counselor meetings can bring parents and guardians in that might not otherwise be able to. Setting aside virtual hours and posting them invites parents and guardians to initiate meeting times and important conversations about their students' progress in school and postsecondary plans where they might not have known how to begin before.

For the 33% of educators who experience a mismatch in communication-related expectations, virtual meetings and 1:1s present an opportunity to introduce digital communication as a tool while setting clear boundaries around its use.

7. Set up classroom pages and online meeting spaces

It's easier than ever for just about anyone to make a webpage of their own these days; no coding skills or hours of rare spare time necessary. A simple Google Sites page for a classroom or department gives parents and guardians a place to get the information they need quickly, including information about how to contact staff and educators, their child's schedule, what supplies they require, and what they're currently studying. 

Transparency is critical to effective engagement, especially where student parents and guardians are involved. Sometimes, just having the information in front of them is enough to open the door to deeper involvement.

8. Upload Student Work and Assignments to the Cloud

As far as cloud-based storage is involved, digital-first school communities and student families can benefit in more than one way.

Cloud-based storage (think Google Drive or Dropbox) can help keep graded work accessible to parents and students. Because you can upload multiple media types to most platforms and control the sharing and visibility settings, it's possible to bring parents into the physical classroom when they otherwise might not be able to while protecting student privacy.  

Educators can also keep digital versions of printout assignments on the Cloud for parents and students to access, so there's never a question of what the student is responsible for, even if an assignment gets lost in the abyss of a backpack. It's all right there.

9. Hit "Record" Whenever You Can

When offering digital versions of things like Parent Information Nights, FAFSA information sessions, record the content when you can. Even an after-hours online event may be out of reach for parents working a second or later shift. Having the information available afterward for parents and guardians who can't attend isn't just operationally sound — it's a way to signal that they haven't been forgotten simply because they don't work a 9-5 schedule. Many parents and guardians don't, after all.

10. Offer Synchronous And Asynchronous Engagement Opportunities at School

This is the bottom line, right here. Much as most parents would like to be able to attend every event, lend a hand in a volunteer capacity that was a good fit for their abilities, and stay as up-to-date as possible with every assignment, there's no getting around that doing that represents a lot of labor. 

For working parents especially, it's not feasible to work a labor load of this size into or around the paid labor they're already performing. Scheduling alone presents a significant problem that's compounded for second- or late-shift workers. Offering asynchronous opportunities for parent participation allows working parents to circumvent some of these scheduling issues and be a bigger part of what's going on at school.

Special Considerations for Engaging Families Digitally at School

To truly engage all families digitally — whatever they may look like — you may need to consider some extra points. We've outlined them here:

Do You Know What Parents and Guardians in the School Community Want From Digital Communication?

We're not talking about the parent-teacher association here. Or at least, not just the parent-teacher association. We're talking about all of your students' parents. Are the current structures for communication working for them, or might some other avenue or medium work better? Are they receiving communiqués in time to respond effectively? Do they feel engaged, or do you simply think that they should?

It might be time to ask your students' families, guardians, and parents how they want to be communicated with. It's not personal if they'd prefer an automated text over a "dads and donuts" session on Wednesday morning in the middle of your standard barista's post-commute rush. It's more likely just to be, well, realism. Your average PTA parent already has the benefit of having the time required to contribute labor to the PTA to spare — is it realistic to assume that every parent does? 

If you're not sure what the parents and guardians need or want from school-to-home communication and engagement, you shouldn't feel strange just asking them, as long as you take what they say to heart. 

Parents who would prefer text and email aren't signaling that they're checked out. On the contrary, they're telling you the ways that you can be assured they'll check-in, and that's good for everyone.

Are You Speaking Their Language?

As of 2018, almost 10% of all students in America were English Language Learners (ELLs). Do your communications reflect the number of ELL students in your district? Giving families the opportunity to communicate with your school community in the language that feels the most familiar and comfortable to them will ultimately increase the likelihood that they communicate at all. 

If you haven't already, think about how you can make the content you design to create engaged communities available in the top three languages that are uniquely spoken in your community. You may see results you hadn't otherwise anticipated.

Which Platforms Are Your Digital Engagement Efforts On?

Are you sure that they're the same platform as guardians, and of your students when they go home for the day? A 2015 Pew study found that some 13% and 12% of Black and Latinx families respectively are mobile-dependent, and don't use a broadband connection to get online. In 2004, a whopping 90% of families had a landline, but as of 2021, that number has trickled down to just 40%

The truth is, the communication channels that were once considered standard no longer are, and the assumptions many people make about how and where people access the internet are simply that: assumptions. Finding cross-platform technologies with multiple entry points and keeping the digital divide top-of-mind will help open up opportunities for further engagement with students, parents, guardians, and families.


SchooLinks is a comprehensive platform that sparks engagement for students and their families from anywhere, anytime, and on any device they have access to. Want to facilitate more effective, digital-first engagement between parents and guardians, students, educators, counselors, and the whole school community without managing multiple half-measures and piecemeal solutions?

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Theresa Rex

Theresa Rex is the content marketing manager at SchooLinks. She is a first-generation college grad and an absolute nerd for equity and em dashes.

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