Increase Family Engagement Now | First Steps

The “five R’s of family engagement” include reaching out, raising up, reinforcement, relating to others, and reimagining services.
Lisa KroppIn March, the Suffolk (NY) Cooperative Library System, my local library, sponsored the Family Engagement in Public Libraries program, featuring Margaret Caspe, director of research and professional learning for the Global Family Research Project (GFRP). The organization connects research, policy, and practice to make innovative family and community engagement strategies available in all areas where children learn.

Public libraries are an important piece of the puzzle for GFRP. In August, it collaborated with the Public Library Association to create the 26-page PDF “Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement” (­­ The takeaway? “Simply put: What we’ve learned is extraordinary,” GFRP codirector Heather B. Weiss wrote in the report’s opening acknowledgments. “We heard from a ­librarian in Alaska who reaches out to families—so ­geographically dispersed that you need a plane to get to them—by setting up satellite bookshelves in fire stations. We talked with a librarian in California who brings the ideas of predominantly Spanish-speaking parents from low-income households to all of its services.”

The document acknowledges what librarians already know: kids learn in all environments, all the time. Caspe stated that children are awake roughly 6,000 hours each year but spend only 1,000 in formal schooling. That leaves the vast majority of time open to explore interests outside of school with their families.

Early learning is the foundation of family engagement. Without it, cracks appear later in life as children enter school without the skills to flourish academically. Family engagement is also a matter of equity. Citing research from ExpandED Schools, a nonprofit that works to broaden learning opportunities, Caspe noted a 6,000-hour learning gap. Looking at educational studies and reports, ExpandED Schools found that by the time kids reach sixth grade, middle-class students have spent approximately 6,000 more hours ­learning than those living in poverty.

The GFRP realized that public libraries can become community anchors in this area. It has also released “Ideabook: Libraries for Families,” which picks up where the call-to-action document left off. The PDF file offers a research-based framework and includes innovative ways to support families in promoting children’s learning and development.

In Colorado, for example, some libraries lend out ­hiking backpacks for free. The Pima County (AZ) ­Public Library partners with registered nurses who meet with patrons at the library for consultations, and the New York Public Library joins with early education teachers to share universal pre-K curricula with families.

So why am I preaching to the choir? Because there is often little communication among departments. We need to integrate family engagement services by building a complete house. We can’t lay the early learning foundation and walk away. That means creating the first floor in youth services, focusing on school-age and tween services, and building a strong second floor of teen and adult services. The third floor is senior services, and the library itself is the leakproof roof. The hallways and staircases connect us to different departments—and outside agencies.

Caspe pointed to other critical elements that promote family involvement: leadership and support services. Leadership, for example, means giving a copy of this column to your director and then asking to discuss it at a staff meeting. Caspe spoke about GFRP’s “five R’s of family engagement”—reaching out, raising up, reinforcement, relating to others, and reimagining services.

Support services boil down to this mantra: a library needs to be relevant to its community. This means ­having updated collections, welcoming spaces, accessible ­technology, and informed staff members who can help families utilize all of the services.

So talk to us. Share a family engagement success story in the comments section.

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