Overwhelming research proves that when parents and families are involved in youth’s education and out-of-school time program’s, children see higher achievement rates. However, getting families and parents involved in out-of-school time programs can often be one of the greatest challenges faced by those in the field. Many times, the children we see in our programs come to us because they are from families that need extra support. Site providers often feel as though they seek parental involvement, but come back short. Here we will explore common reasons that families don’t get involved and practical approaches for bridging the gap.

Barriers to Parent Involvement
  1. Family Members are Working Many Hours: Parents may need to work multiple jobs or they may have high demand jobs that do not give them much time off.
  2. Cultural and Language Barriers: Parents and Family members may not speak English or are not confident in their English-speaking skills. Culturally, parent and caregivers could   feel like they don’t connect to the school or staff members or there could be other culture barriers that prevent them from seeking involvement.
  3. Lack of Transportation: Parents and Family members may have no transportation or the cost of transportation is prohibitive.
  4. Negative feelings towards Educational Institutions: Some parents and family members may have had negative experiences with their own education and therefore carry that over to how they view their child’s school or out-of-school program. It could be that they are not educated themselves, so they do not place a high level of value on their child’s education. Other times, parents and caregivers do not feel empowered to be involved. They may feel as though they don’t have the authority because they aren’t experts or didn’t have a high level of education. Or simply, they view their child’s education as the school or community center’s job.
  5. Fear of Institutional Authority: Interacting with school or community centers can be intimidating for some parents and caregivers. Past negative experiences or preconceived notions may lead them to feel as though they are being judged. They could worry about staff turning them into authorities various reasons.
  6. Physical Health, Mental Health or Substance Abuse Issues: Unfortunately, there are cases where parents and caregivers are not engaged due to personal issues such as poor physical health, mental health and substance abuse issues. They may be challenged in meeting their own basic needs, let alone getting involved in their child’s out-of-school program.
Parent Communication

Knowing the issues that face our families, how then as Out-of-School Time providers, do we bridge the gap to get our families involved? The first building block in getting parents, caregivers and families involved in out-of-school programs is communication. Site directors should be in regular communication both formally and informally.

Consider your Audience: In your formal written communications, consider the audience and have your materials reflective of that. You may need to word things in plain English to make it easily understood or printed on brightly colored paper that draws attention. Important information may need to be bolded or made into a larger font. Are materials available in all languages spoken by your families?  Regardless of your audience, materials that are shorter with visuals are typically easier to read. Family Handbooks that can be referenced later or serve to establish a baseline with families are also an important component. 

Spread the Word Different Ways: Sending out the same information through a number of different venues also helps your messages to be heard. One method of communication may be better for one family than another. For example, not all parents have access to technology or are computer literate, so an e-mail or social media message may go unnoticed making regular mail the preferred method. Other parents may only use social media and never see letters in their mailbox or child’s backpack. People often need to see or hear things multiple times before they remember or notice something. Multiple messages increase your chances of having your message heard.

Informal Communication and Relationship Building: Informal communication with parents can be equally important in building relationships with families. As much as possible, make yourself available to parents for friendly chats. You may have heard the quote, often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that says “People don’t care how much you know until you know how much they care.”. A positive relationship of trust opens families up for communication and partnership. Work or office hours in the evening make relationship building accessible to parents. You may need to spend times in parent pick-up and drop off areas and make an effort to learn parent names and faces. In some situations, parents may feel as though they only hear from staff is when something has gone wrong. Staff can contact parents to inform them of a positive story about their child.


Examples of written and formal communications:

  1. Letters and postcards
  2. Flyers
  3. Brochures
  4. Calendars and Schedules
  5. Website or Blog announcements
  6. Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat)
  7. Phone calls and call outs
  8. School or PTA Newsletters
  9. Parent Handbooks


Before you talk, have you listened?

Before communicating with families, make sure that you have listened to them first by surveying their needs.
Messaging & Tone

Knowing that some parents may have one or more barriers to engaging in their children’s out-of-school time program, it’s important to be aware of the tone of your messages. Consider the following:

  • Parent-Program Partnership: Communicate to your parents that you view their child’s success as a partnership between the family and the out-of-school program. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. The out-of-school program and parents/caregivers are on the same team in seeing youth achievement.
  • Parents are encouraged to be involved: Parents are solicited for feedback on the program. They are actively encouraged to volunteer or attend programing, not just generally, but also with specific invitations. Hold parent advisory boards or parent leadership opportunities.
  • Family Centered Events and Programs: Opportunities made specifically for families and parents to engage are critical to building a trusting relationship and supporting student success.
    • Parent Orientation/Program Kick-Off Events: Held in the beginning of your program, these events invite parents to learn how their child’s out-of-school time program works, what programs and activities are planned and provide opportunity to meet staff.
    • Meet and Greets: Meet and greets with no agenda other than getting to know staff and the program are a warm and accessible way for families to get comfortable. Events with food such as family dinners or a parent coffees are popular.
    • Fun Family Nights: Fun family activities, such as an International Night, Carnival or Sports Day encourage parents and families to get involved.
    • Family and Parent Programing: Lastly, you could offer family or parental programing such as GED, English language classes, parenting classes and family nutrition. Workshops on subjects such as helping students with homework or understanding social media are also popular options. Find out from your families, which type of activities they would like to see offered not just for their children, but for themselves and the whole family.
  • Diverse staff with cultural competency: The staff in the program are reflective of the population served and are culturally competent and sensitive. Staff are able to communicate with parents in non-English languages, if needed. Are you and your staff familiar with the whole community, such as the different neighborhoods your families are coming from? If necessary, make partnerships with community groups to bridge any gaps you may have in this area.


  • Afterschool Alliance Issue Brief, March 2008: This issue brief from Afterschool Alliance discusses parent and afterschool staff challenges with parental involvement and suggests techniques, along with descriptions of programs with parental involvement successes. http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/issue_briefs/issue_parent_involvement_32.pdf
  • After-School Programs Parent Involvement Plan: A publication from The Department of Agricultural and Extension Education and The Pennsylvania State University outlining recommendations to involve students in afterschool programs. http://www.nysan.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ParentInvolvementPlan.pdf
  • Bringing it All Together: Family and Community Engagement Policies in Action: An archived webinar developed in joint collaboration with The U.S. Department of Education and its partners United Way Worldwide, National PTA, SEDL, and Harvard Family Research Project. This webinar focuses on how family, school, and community engagement can bring value to education reform initiatives.They examine the different roles of federal, state, and local entities in promoting policy, highlighting innovative examples of systemic, integrated, and sustained practices and different opportunities for providers. http://www.nationalpirc.org/engagement_webinars/webinar-engagement-policies-in-action.html
  • Engaging Families in Out-of-School Time Programs Toolkit: From the Build the Out-of-School Time Network, this toolkit was developed as a result of a four-year Family Engagement Initiative. It takes Out-of-School Time providers through assessment, planning, and communication as it pertains to Family Engagement in programs. https://bostnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Handout-B-Engaging-Families-Toolkit.pdf
  • Increasing Family and Parental Engagement in Afterschool Programs: The Afterschool Corporation examines how sites can successfully engage parents in afterschool programs. This guide explains why engaging parents is important, provides tips and outreach materials on effective ways to involve parents and illustrates examples of programs that have successfully engaged parents. http://www.expandedschools.org/sites/default/files/increasing_parent_family_engagement_in_after_school.pdf
  • Improving Student Achievement and Outcomes through Parent and Family Involvement: This publication was developed in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Education and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Family Involvement, after surveying parents and school staff across Virginia. The booklet provides tips and strategies for parental involvement in schools. The information is easily applicable to afterschool and community settings. http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/virginia_tiered_system_supports/training/cohort/2012/apr/tips_and_strategies.pdf