Informal Education Series: Building Trust, and Capacity, with Families

This post is about both capacity-building and building trust with families – but I’m going to tackle them in reverse, since that’s what happens in real life. You really do need to build trust first.

Let’s start with a real story. A few years ago, I moved across the country, into an apartment I had never seen, with roommates I had never met. After days of driving, I pulled up, and my new roommate came downstairs and asked if I needed help carrying boxes in. Yes! He then wondered if I was hungry, and if I needed recommendations of restaurants to try nearby. Of course! He also let me know that if I needed any tools or materials, he had plenty, and to feel free to ask, as I was getting set up. Great!

Okay – so why am I sharing this story?

Imagine if he hadn’t first interacted with me like this. What if…after days of driving, I carried my items up the three flights of stairs, and then he said to me, “Liz, this space out here is the common area – could you please get your boxes organized in your own room as soon as possible?”

We…probably would have had some conflict going forward, wouldn’t you say?

But instead, we – and our third roommate, who moved in a few weeks later into said common area until her room was ready – lived pretty happily for a few years together.

Yet there were certainly times when something would come up, like I forgot to take out the trash when it was my day. My roommate messaged, “Hey, Liz, when you get home, can you take the trash out?” When I saw the message, I wasn’t upset or frustrated – I could hear him, and then respond (and, of course, take the trash out when I got home). 

Those positive interactions at the beginning – they created a foundation of trust between us. And, as educators, we need to build the same with all of our families – because often, for families, the beginning of the school year feels the same as it did when I drove across the country: exhausting, overwhelming, and looking for support that everything, in this wild transition, will be okay.

Building trust with families can lead to building capacity – for both families and educators toward effective family engagement that connects to student achievement; there’s even a framework to use.

The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships lays out the challenges when it comes to equal partnerships between school and home. For educators, challenges include that they have received minimal training in family engagement and have not been exposed to strong examples of what family engagement looks like (which I shared a bit about in this post).  For families, some challenges include negative experiences with schools in the past, and that they, too, have not been exposed to strong examples of what family engagement looks like. 

The Framework also shows the essential conditions for building capacity, which are based on research: engagement must be relational, which means that it is built on mutual trust. This, of course, means that we want families to trust us – but it also means we need to trust our students’ families. 

When engaging with families, we need to link our engagement practices to learning and development. We need to look beyond bake sales and barbeques – these are great events. Yet, they are mostly for community-building, and not necessarily connected to individual student learning. 

So what are ways to connect families with the learning that’s happening in your classroom? 

Every night at dinner, my dad would ask me the same question: “What did you learn in school today?” And every day I would answer: “Nothing.” And he would respond, “You learned nothing in school?” And I would say, “Yep.”

My father was always trapped in that conversation. He wanted to be engaged with my learning, but he didn’t know how

Here’s an idea: send home a question families can ask their students every once in a while (through an email, a text message, or in your classroom newsletter). Maybe something like, “Ask your student what happened with Lady MacBeth today.” When our elementary-aged boys come home with information in their backpacks like, “Today, we learned about rhinos!,” it cues us at home with what we can ask about.

We also need to engage with families collaboratively and interactively; when we meet or speak with families for the first time, we often have so much information we want to give them. But what information can we learn from them? In the Relationship-Building Home Visit protocol, educators ask families about their hopes and dreams for their child. The role of the educator on these visits is really just to listen and learn (pssst: research shows that home visits support students learning). 

You might not be ready for a home visit right now, but you can still ask families what their hopes and dreams are. You can find out what worked best for their child in school last year, and what they love to do when they are with their friends. You can ask families what they expect and need from you this year before you share what you need from them.

Ask your families questions — elementary educators, you can send the questions home through a backpack folder for families to complete, or even for families to interview their child (or vice versa!). Secondary educators, you can ask students these questions directly. It was always helpful for me to know who in my class was watching the same TV shows as I was. But then call home – yes, build relationships with your students, but make sure to call and introduce yourself and learn from the family, too. Families can and will provide a wealth of information when it comes to teenagers, especially if you ask, “What worked best last year in English class?” or “What do you need from me this year to support [student]?” 

That kind of engagement goes a long way. Dauber and Epstein (1989) identify that “the strongest, most consistent predictor of family engagement are the specific school and teacher practices that encourage and guide a family’s engagement” (p. 8).  

Educators, to work as equal partners with families, need to extend our hands first to carry boxes up the three flights of stairs. 

Liz Canada is our Director of Policy and Practice. Prior to her work at Reaching Higher NH, she taught high school English in Denver, and coached educators and administrators in Family Engagement in Massachusetts. She is also on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s teaching team for Dr. Karen Mapp’s course “The Why, What, and How of School, Family, and Community Partnerships.”Have questions about family engagement? Want to point out that her cousin also helped to move her in to her apartment? Email Liz at And, share this information with your colleagues.