Truly Engaging Families

Amanda Meeson
Happy family posing on the couch together at home in the living room-1

Our 3-and-a-half-year-old son just started full day pre-school last week after a few years nestled in a home daycare. My world has been rocked. There are sign-ins, sign-outs, and sign-ups for treat making, and volunteering. Oh, and there is homework. It might be tracing letters, but it’s homework nonetheless. Our son is at the YMCA, an accredited pre-school in our area that is also home to a traditional YMCA gym, pool, and community center.

I walk into schools, companies, conferences, and institutions all over the country. I am confident, comfortable, and sturdy in my step. Walking into the first day of pre-school with my mini-person proved to be a completely different experience. I questioned myself, our decision, whether or not I had packed the right peanut-free/picnic style lunch, if we had turned in all the appropriate documentation, if I remembered all of the teachers names in the room, if I was supposed to scan my actual YMCA badge at the front desk or just walk into the pre-school… unsteady, uncomfortable, and definitely faking my usual sturdy stride.

Luckily, I was greeted by a team who lovingly welcomed us in.

Our son, Reggie, had an assigned coat hook with an adorable owl sign indicating his name. There was already a page in the sign-in book for our family with a list of who is ready, willing, and able to pick up our child in case of an emergency. There was a cubby with his name to place his blanket for nap and his swimming gear, a fridge for his super cool lunch box, and Lego stations set up to distract him while I collected myself.

As I left the building that morning, reflections swarmed me—bridging my experience as a parent with the work we do with families across the country.

  • How vulnerable it can feel to drop off your child in an environment that is new to all of you.
  • How appreciative I am that Ms. Melissa and Ms. Tina walked me through the routine of each morning, politely and gently.
  • How the woman at the front desk’s smile and “good morning” put me at ease.
  • How grateful I am that I confidently speak the same language as the teachers supporting my child.
  • How comforting it was to hang up our son’s coat on an adorable owl-hook that already said ‘Reggie’.
  • How I hoped that this crew knew that I was doing my best as a parent and to be patient with me. (As I proceeded to leave his lunchbox in the fridge that evening when I picked him up. Oops.)

The question I keep pondering in this experience is why do we naturally decrease the customized service we provide our families as their children get older in the school system? Is there over-riding research that states that as a child matures, we feel that they or their families don’t need as much customization or love? How can we assume differently and knock their socks off when they enter? How can we create welcoming, engaging environments where we meet these families?

When I picked up Reggie that afternoon, Ms. Melissa asked if we could send Reggie in with a family picture to hang on their family tree. What!? Heck yeah, I can! It can be challenging for our organization to recruit recent parents to this country into our programs while they are spending much of their time acclimating with a new language, a new home, new jobs, and everything else new. What if a hard-working, Spanish-speaking mom in the Bronx entered her teenage son’s school and saw a picture of her family hanging on the wall below a ‘WELCOME’ sign in multiple languages. How does that change her experience with the school, with her child, with her day? How does that change her son’s experience?

Our organization leads over 700 workshops across NYC each year supporting school communities with programming for parents and families. My experience these last few weeks was a strong reminder that engaging families isn’t only about family literacy, workshops, PTA, or events we may provide. It is about genuine human connection and care. Let’s innovate this element of our work and experiment with the owls, the cubbies, the family pics and the smiles that pre-school so organically provides. Let’s bring it to our middle schools and even our high schools. When we first started doing this work, our team put together a list of ten tips for effective family engagement—check it out. In addition, take a look at this guidebook that supports schools in assessing their current environment while creating the feeling and care I am promoting: The Connecticut Welcoming Schools Initiative

One of the largest indicators of a child’s success is parent involvement. It will always be worth our energy to continue to explore new levels of engagement with this population. For now, I’m grateful for the reflection and fire our son’s pre-school has ignited in me.

How do you engage families? How do schools engage you? Where are the successes? Where are the blind-spots? Let me know your take on the subject in the comments section below, or tweet me @AmandaMeeson.



"Truly Engaging Families", The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016


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Amanda Meeson

By Amanda Meeson