Evidence-Based Strategies for Supporting and Enhancing Family Engagement

Priscilla Little

Research and Strategy Consultant

Family engagement should be a vital component of any strategy to expand learning opportunities for children and youth after school and during the summertime—whether at the organizational, community, state, or national level. Under current federal guidelines for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, “family engagement” takes the form of activities to support parental involvement and family literacy. All centers are required to track and report the number of family members who participate as part of the annual Profile and Performance Information Collection System (PPICS). Consistently those data indicate that the majority of centers do, indeed, provide these important activities for families.

[21st Century Community Learning Centers] are supporting some of the most economically needy families in the country.

In 2010 alone, 9,139 centers (approximately 85% of all centers funded) served over 250,000 family members; the average adult attendance at adult activities was almost 28 family members. Further, data indicate that of the centers funded in 2010, over 60% served students eligible for free and reduced lunch, indicating that these centers are supporting some of the most economically needy families in the country. Summary data from the past 5 years of reporting indicate that the centers have cumulatively served over one million family members, with the average adult attendance per center rising each year.1

Figure 1. 21st Century Community Learning Centers adult family member participation, 2006–2010.

APR Year School Year Only Summer Only Both Total N Centers Avg. Adult Attendance per Center
2006 148,193 14,680 40,170 203,043 9,353 21.7
2007 165,960 12,537 34,249 211,192 8,987 23.5
2008 183,560 12,429 30,554 223,042 9,053 24.6
2009 173,791 14,031 27,199 213,552 8,704 24.5
2010 201,410 13,796 40,936 253,404 9,139 27.7
5-Year Total Parents Served 1,104,233

Despite impressive numbers of families served, however, many 21st Century Community Learning Centers and other afterschool and summer programs struggle with more fully engaging families. This article presents six research-derived strategies that afterschool programs can and do use to engage families. A set of additional resources for educators and program managers is also included, along with examples drawn from several programs that have experienced noteworthy success in engaging families.

What can afterschool and summer learning programs including 21st Century Community Learning Centers do to support and improve family engagement? The following are six research-based strategies that 21st Century Community Learning Centers and other similar programs can use to improve their family engagement efforts (Bouffard, Westmoreland, O’Carroll & Little, 2011; Little, 2011). 

Frequent and positive communication with family members is critical to effective family engagement.

  1. Have adequate and welcoming space to engage families. Helping families feel welcome is an important first step on the road to building trusting relationships with families. 21st Century Community Learning Centers and other similar afterschool and summer programs can help families feel welcome by establishing a “family corner” in which family members can find resources about the program and services in the community. They can also make sure the signage at the center is welcoming and accessible in the languages spoken by the families served.

  2. Establish policies and procedures to promote family engagement. To ensure that family engagement is a priority, afterschool and summer programs should include a section on family engagement in their operations manuals, laying out their strategies for engaging families; they should also consider including family engagement as part of their program quality standards. At minimum, this should include conducting at least one family open house per year. Many programs also have created a Family Handbook that helps family members understand the goals and purposes of the center. 

  3. Communicate and build trusting relationships. Frequent and positive communication with family members is critical to effective family engagement. This means treating family members with respect; asking them about their own lives and interests, as well as those of the students in the program; and ensuring that interactions with family members are not solely in response to negative student behaviors or performance. Some programs use a communications log to monitor the frequency and nature of communications with family members.

  4. Be intentional about staff hiring and training to promote effective staff-family interactions. At the heart of quality afterschool programs are the staff who run them. Core components of effective staff-family interactions include hiring staff who reflect the demographics of the families served and who are trained in respect for cultural differences, including an examination of their own biases. Once hired, it is important to provide ongoing training and support to ensure that family engagement is part of a staff member’s daily duties. In addition to external training, programs can set aside a time at staff meetings to reflect on and improve their family engagement strategies.

  5. Connect families to each other, to the program staff, to schools, and to other community institutions. Afterschool and summer programs can play a vital role in facilitating connections, both within the program to other families and outside the program to schools and other community institutions. This role is emerging as particularly important for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which have the opportunity to support a more holistic approach to education—one that requires afterschool programs, schools, and families to partner to provide expanded opportunities for learning throughout a longer learning day and across the entire calendar year.

  6. Help support families and their basic needs. Support for families and their basic needs runs the gamut from providing access to community resources to hosting forums and discussion nights to address topics of concern to families to providing training on leadership and advocacy. At minimum, afterschool programs need to help families overcome logistical challenges, such as transportation, that may affect their children’s participation. Many programs have community school partnerships. These partnerships can be enhanced in order to provide families with information about community resources to address particular social service needs.

While each of these strategies can serve to engage families, some research indicates that it is the constellation of many strategies that may best support participants. In a recent study of engaging older youth in afterschool, summer, and other out-of-school-time programs researchers found that programs for older youth that were successful in retaining at least 50% of the participants for 12 months or more utilized, on average, eight different family engagement strategies (Deschenes et al., 2010). 

Also from the research we know that engaging families is a win-win for programs, families, and afterschool and summer learning program participants. Moving forward, as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative and other efforts to expand learning beyond the school day continue to grow, it is imperative that the spotlight on family engagement, so evident in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, continues to shine throughout the expanded learning movement.

Find Out What Families Think and Need

New Settlement’s afterschool program at CES 64 in the Bronx decided that parent focus groups would be a good way to elicit information and initiate a strong platform for parent decision making in the afterschool program. To attract participants, flyers in Spanish and English were posted around the school and community. When the response was minimal, the site coordinator realized that this was not reaching her families. Since many parents had a history of feeling unwelcome, she had to take a different approach. She began direct outreach with a few parents, who in turn, gave her the names of others who may want to participate. She spoke to them individually, explaining the mission of her program and the need for parental input. In the end, 15 parents signed on to participate in the focus group sessions (The After School Corporation, 2006).

Case Management to Support Families’ Basic Needs

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds a Boys and Girls Club in Buffalo, New York, that recognizes the critical role it can play in helping its participants attend the program and school healthy and ready to learn by supporting families’ basic needs. It has created a full-time, salaried staff position at each clubhouse to help families deal with social issues, providing triage, case management, and referral services. It has also leveraged other resources to build an on-site kitchen that provides free meals and snacks to the program participants as well as deliberately cooks a surplus of meals and offers them to caretakers in “to go” boxes when they come to pick up their children (Manhattan Strategy Group, 2011).

For More Information 

Family Engagement in Afterschool Programs Resources

Several research-based toolkits and resources have been developed to help educators both in schools and in afterschool programs work more effectively with families. 


  1. For two examples of this in action see www.bigthought.org/BigThought/SubNavPages/ThrivingMinds and www.citizenschools.org.


After School Corporation. (2006). Increasing parent and family engagement after school. Retrieved from http://www.tascorp.org/content/document/detail/1455/

Bouffard, S., Westmoreland, H., O’Carroll, K., & Little, P. (2011). Engaging families in out-of-school time programs. In H. Kreider & H. Westmoreland (Eds.), Promising practices for engaging families in out-of-school time (pp. 3–19). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Deschenes, S. N., Arbreton, A., Little, P. L., Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., & Weiss, H. B. (with Lee, D.). (2010). Engaging older youth: Program and city-level strategies to support sustained participation in out-of-school time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Little, P. (2011). Family engagement needs inventory. San Antonio, TX: Edvance Research.

Manhattan Strategy Group. (2011). High school promising practices project for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program: Final report, addendum 2. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.