4 Successful Strategies for Family-Teacher Partnerships

Our New White Paper focuses on Getting on the Same Page at the Elementary Level

Even though the new year falls in the middle of the school year, the time leading up to February break is often a time for reflection, prioritizing, and fresh starts. At Highlander Institute, we have found compelling reasons to redesign parent engagement strategies with the schools we support. Research shows that strong family-school partnerships positively impact student grades, test scores, student perceptions of their own competence, and student motivation to learn, while lowering drop-out rates (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). However, many parent engagement approaches fall short of a “partnership” — where student learning and school improvement are viewed as a shared responsibility between parents and teachers. 

Our Culturally Responsive School Change model explores the conditions that help produce strong partnerships between families and schools. Within our elementary school projects, we have found that getting on the same page around four key elements sets the stage for success.

1. Help students manage difficult emotions

Child meltdowns are never fun to manage, whether they happen at school or home. The pandemic has exacerbated a host of negative behaviors and decreased the capacity of our kids to successfully regulate their feelings (Lebrun-Harris et al., 2022). When students, teachers, and parents can name, respond, and reflect on behaviors in a similar manner, students benefit. One helpful frame — The Zones of Regulation™— was created by Leah Kuypers in 2011. 

Studies show that helping students develop self-regulation skills leads to increased focus, classroom participation, academic performance, conflict resolution skills, and overall well-being; as well as decreased levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and disruptive behavior (Zenner et al., 2014). When children practice using the zones at home and in the classroom, they become more adept at naming their emotions and understanding what they need in order to self-regulate. 

Note: Based on the original work, The Zones of Regulation™ Curriculum by Leah Kuypers (2011)
Note: Based on the original work, The Zones of Regulation™ Curriculum by Leah Kuypers (2011)

2. Develop persistence in students 

When student feelings of frustration and stress are connected to academic work, the Learning Challenge (created by James Nottingham in 2017) visualizes how it may feel to persist through challenging work. When students realize that a task is hard, they may slide into “the pit”, where frustrated and anxious emotions can stimulate a fight or flight response. 

Adult instincts often prevent children from building their academic endurance in the pit. Both families and teachers can provide too much support, essentially building a bridge over the pit and allowing a child to experience success without the struggle. The key is to provide the appropriate amount of support to help students find their own way through a challenge. Teachers and parents within our elementary partner schools have shared that the Learning Pit fundamentally improved how children navigate challenging work.

Note: Based on the Learning Pit by James Nottingham (2007, 2010, 2017).
Note: Based on the Learning Pit by James Nottingham (2007, 2010, 2017).

3. Focus on core learning objectives

Elementary teachers have dozens — if not hundreds — of grade level skills to teach students during a school year. Boiling down these lists to the 5-10 most important skills that students are expected to master within a subject helps focus parents. When parents and teachers are on the same page about key academic concepts, conversations about student progress can become more specific and nuanced; parents can play a more active role in the learning process; and adults at home and at school can share the learning strategies that are making a difference. 

Districts that adhere to the Common Core State Standards can access helpful documents that identify core skills. For instance, Parent Roadmaps (Council of the Great City Schools) provide English and Spanish descriptions of the core skills across grades K-8, show how these core skills progress from year to year, and offer specific examples of how parents can help their children outside of school.

4. Communicate as a partner

Successful partnerships require parents and teachers to communicate effectively with high levels of mutual respect and trust. They must hold each other accountable for sharing strategies that work, elevating challenges that require a team approach, and providing information that prepares parents to be better learning coaches and teachers to be better educators. 

To support empowering information exchanges, we leverage Academic Parent-Teacher Teams, a concept established by the Flamboyan Foundation. Parents are welcomed into classrooms to share information about their child, discuss core grade-level skills, review student progress, model activities that support mastery, and set progress goals. This model is a powerful way to promote meaningful home-school partnerships.

Next Steps

When parents and teachers take action together through the four strategies presented here, elementary schools can set the stage for — and reap the benefits of — true home-school partnerships. Our Highlander Institute team has found that when families can access the language and learning processes used in the classroom, parents become more knowledgeable and engaged stakeholders within school communities. We are now working to integrate more parents and family members into school improvement teams, elevating their voices as leaders of change. 

For more information, please see our full white paper: Getting on the Same Page: 4 Ways to Promote Successful Family-Teacher Partnerships at the Elementary Level (February 2023).


Council of the Great City Schools. (2012, June). Parent roadmap: Supporting your child in grade three mathematics. https://www.cgcs.org/cms/lib/DC00001581/Centricity/Domain/36/ParentGuide_Math_3.pdf

Flamboyan Foundation. Academic Parent-Teacher Teams. http://test.flamboyanfoundation.org/focus/family-engagement/academic-parent-teacher-teams/

Flamboyan Foundation. (2021, July 29). What kinds of family engagement are most effective? https://flamboyanfoundation.org/resource/what-kinds-of-family-engagement-are-most-effective/

Henderson, A.T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family and community connections on student learning. SEDL. https://sedl.org/connections/resources/evidence.pdf

Kuypers, L. (2011). The Zones of regulation: A curriculum designed to foster self-regulation and emotional control. Think Social Publishing, Inc. 

Lebrun-Harris, L.A., Ghandour, R.M., Kogan, M.D., & Warren, M.D. (2022). Five-Year trends in US children’s health and well-being, 2016-2020. JAMA Pediatrics. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0056 

Nottingham, J. (2017). The learning challenge: How to guide your students through the learning pit to achieve deeper understanding. Corwin. 

Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools — a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00603

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