Sharing the WOW! Tips for Engaging Families

What’s Wow! about your school?

Effective middle level leaders rarely miss an opportunity to connect with families of current and potential students to tell the story of how their middle school positively affects the social, emotional, and academic needs of young adolescents.

Successful middle level leaders also know that every interaction with families and community members by anyone on the school staff is a moment of truth. Those encounters must be positive.

Here are some tips for sharing the Wow! with the parents in your community.

Tip #1: Take the initiative. Reach out to the families in your community. Taking the initiative to communicate with parents and encourage their participation in the school can positively affect student learning and increase support for the school.

Tip #2: Be nice. Being pleasant and polite costs nothing and reaps great rewards in establishing productive relationships with families and the community. Ensure all members of the staff greet everyone in a warm, friendly, and courteous way on the phone, through electronic communications, and especially in face-to-face contacts.

If your school serves a multi-lingual community, having staff members who are able to communicate with families in their home language conveys that your school is a caring school. Strive to be known as the friendliest school in the district.

Tip #3: Provide information and support. Families are their children’s first teachers, but they can benefit from shared knowledge about the social, emotional, developmental, and learning characteristics of young adolescents.

Website information, back-to-school nights, brown bag lunches with guidance staff, evening meetings, and parent-teacher conferences are just a few of the points of entry for helping families better understand the tremendous changes their children are experiencing during the wonder years.

Draw upon AMLE resources by going to and utilizing the wide range of tools and information to get smarter about school–home communication and partnerships.

Tip #4: Solicit feedback from families and the community. Every middle grades principal and staff should assess their attitudes about establishing positive relationships with families and the community.

Establishing a partnership is different from asking parents and community members to underwrite school activities. A variety of tools are available to gather data to start building those partnerships.

Develop your own survey or utilize a service such as Survey Monkey to gather feedback from families, staff, and the community regarding the quality of your school’s efforts to reach out to the public. These surveys should be simple and focused on obtaining relevant data to guide your family engagement strategies. (See the box below for sample questions.)

Survey Sample Items

Create a scale
[example Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree]

  1. Our middle school makes me feel welcome.
  2. The teachers at our school know my child.
  3. The staff at our school listens to parents.
  4. Our middle school is a safe place for my child.
  5. My child enjoys going to school.
  6. Our middle school communicates effectively.
  7. My child is really learning at school.
  8. Parents have an opportunity to help at school.
  9. I know what is happening at school.
  10. The school helps me to understand my child.

Focus on what you really want to know about how the school is doing. For example, at Lake Shore Middle School in Wisconsin, our survey results revealed that families considered the school newsletter to be the most reliable source of information about what was happening at the school. Over time, we transformed a printed newsletter into online tools to keep families informed about upcoming events, curriculum, and transition strategies.

Tip #5: Deliver positive messages about students and the school. Schools have a legal and moral obligation to communicate with parents about student misbehavior and poor academic performance. However, taking the initiative to send home upbeat messages about students reinforces positive behavior and increases the likelihood of family support. Research indicates that middle schools that send positive messages home have higher rates of parent participation.

Tip #6: Enhance your school’s presence in the electronic media. What is the status of your school website? Does every teacher have an active, up-to-date web page complete with contact information? Is the school website interactive and engaging? Does your school invite two-way communication?

Consider ways to use tools such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and podcasting to share what’s happening at school and to invite feedback from the broader school community. For example, if your students are involved in a service-learning project in the community, get the story out via your website and social networks as well as through the usual news media.

Tip #7: Think outside the box. Find ways to offer community services through the school. Consider developing partnerships with clinics and professionals who can assist with medical, dental, mental health, and adult education programs.

Tip #8: Repair broken relationships. When I was a new principal, it took me several years to improve broken relationships between our school and the families of our students. I held brown bag lunches, attended every event, went on home visits with staff, and solicited feedback. Eventually we became a school with tremendous support and strong ties to the community.

Daily Commitment

Truly engaging families of young adolescents can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Building WOW! service takes time, energy, and repeated effort. The strategies must be ongoing in the limited time the students are with us.

Middle grades educators focused on continuous improvement demonstrate an everyday commitment to make a difference for kids. Remember, families want us to succeed—we teach their kids!

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2010

Mike Dietz is director of curriculum at Concordia University-Wisconsin. A member and past president of AMLE, he served as a middle school administrator for 26 years. E-mail: