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Waiting for It to Dry

January 29, 2024
Kelly Henderson, Ph.D. and Rachel Hamilton, M.Ed., Formed Families Forward

James Charlton coined the phrase, “Nothing about us without us,” in the ‘90s, and it quickly became the rallying cry of disability rights activists. No policy, practice, or change should be done in the absence of those most impacted by that change. Extending beyond that specific community, it is imperative that any effort to affect systems evolution (and revolution!) involves as partners the communities and families whose experiences might be influenced by that change. Successful implementation requires the voices of those who can teach us the most about what is needed and potential solutions. Those who support implementation know that, for implementation to go well, we need to leverage core competencies and coach those competencies in agency staff – building relationships with families and communities, brokering their expertise, developing strong communication loops, co-learning, and co-creation. With this blog, Sophia Farmer of SISEP is excited to introduce you to one of her learning partners who has challenged her to think creatively, demand the voices of families in implementation, and therefore made her a better implementation specialist – Formed Families Forward.

“Push the ends together and seal it tight, then wait for it to dry”, was our mantra as we helped children at a holiday party create sensory bean bags to use for calming. Our family-led nonprofit organization supports families formed through foster care, adoption, and extended family kinship care. We work side-by-side with parents and caregivers, helping them to navigate systems to obtain resources and connected services, boosting their outcomes at home and school. At the event, we guided families through bagging up small portions of beans into colorful textured rectangular cloth pockets, then finally sealed the last edge with craft glue. We entreated them to ”let it dry” before tossing or squeezing them.

Waiting is the hardest part. Choosing the fabrics, running hands through the rice, and funneling the material into the pockets are all more immediate and compelling. While waiting for the glue to dry, we can admire our plumped and pretty product. But if we grab the bag too quickly, without letting it set, our efforts spill out, leaving us with a sticky, empty shell.

“Letting it dry” can also be a challenge when a school strives to implement change with families as authentic partners in the work. Authentic family engagement requires building positive relationships and establishing strong two-way communication. They are fundamental and foundational to authentic family engagement. While these steps can be slow and require hard work, they are huge accomplishments. Scooping beans into a bag results in a beautiful product in the beanbag analogy. While it displays nicely, it is not functional. Similarly, positive relationships and effective communications alone will not ensure partner-driven collaboration and meaningful co-creation.

Improving student attendance is a great example. Powerful evidence shows that two-way communication and positive relationships with families result in increased student attendance. This is especially well-demonstrated for elementary and middle school-age children (Jordan, 2023). However, these efforts stop short if educators don’t partner with families to make clear connections to the school’s goals for attendance and what is gained when their students are in school.

Building these partnerships requires a sea change in the way schools go about their work. Asking families for an opinion after the decisions are already made and implemented is insufficient and counterproductive. Schools need to engage with families to identify the root causes of problems and develop solutions. This approach is critical, but it can be difficult.

This shift was illustrated in a small way in one school. Concerned about student tardiness, school leaders sent formal, dense, and scolding letters to families whose children were late more than three times in the school year. The letters came without any call or effort to meet and discuss the problems. Concerns about the large number of students arriving between 9:15 and 9:30 were brought up at a school leadership meeting. It became clear that more information was needed to understand the problem.

The assistant principal responsible for the letters, a school social worker, and a special education teacher met with several families to discuss the issue. The family members eagerly shared information about how they were using the early morning hours. The 4:30 PM afternoon dismissal created challenges for families seeking outside support for their children. To reduce demands during the short after-school hours, many families used the early morning to schedule appointments for speech-language, applied behavior, counseling, occupational therapy, and other medical and therapeutic services. Some families did their grocery shopping early in the mornings to avoid crowds and lessen evening demands after school and work. Others set early appointments to prioritize homework completion at home in the evenings. Finally, many parents, caregivers, and even students believed that the first 15 minutes of school was wasted on chatting and “goofing around” with friends. 

Staff assumptions about lazy parents and families’ disinterest in their children’s schooling faded away. The issue was referred to a problem solving team, which included two family members. They held respectful conversations about entry procedures and messaging. An ad-hoc workgroup of administrators and family members took a deeper look at tardiness data and the type and tone of communications with families before the 3rd offense. The workgroup also consulted with staff responsible for arrival routines. The resulting action plan included targeted messaging to families about how critical the first 15 minutes of the school day are to academic and social emotional success. New procedures for student drop-off between 9:00 and 9:10 made it easier for children to get into classrooms before the bell. Finally, the workgroup recommended new practices for teachers to contact families after the 2nd tardy, reinforcing with parents the great value of their student’s presence in the classroom.

Three months after the changes, tardies had dropped significantly. Family members on the team reported they and other families now worked harder to get their students to school before 9:15. The changes were effective because they addressed real issues faced by families. They engaged with families not only through data collection and careful review but also by leveraging deep conversations, collaborative problem-solving, and co-creation of action steps. This engagement took conscious effort and considerable time.

Steps towards authentic long-term partnerships with families that result in successful implementation outcomes:

  • Design equitable and trauma-sensitive collaboration opportunities. This is especially critical for families with rocky connections to formal education. Recognize the diversity of their circumstances and contributions as you design family engagement activities. Welcome their unique perspectives, treating them as valuable resources.
  • With each family, identify the areas of needed learning that serve as barriers to implementing solutions. Foster opportunities for families and school staff to learn together and co-construct effective responses.
  • Many students may benefit from more intensive behavioral, mental health, and academic support. Work with their family members to solve problems. Collect data across different settings, review the data together, and craft an action plan. Talk with families about the data, using backward mapping to ask for context. Incorporate their input about what is feasible before implementing the plan. Include families in monitoring progress and revising the action steps.

SISEP’s Guidance for Engaging Critical Perspectives proposes 4 steps and culminates in a Plan for Engaging Critical Perspectives spreadsheet tool. This is a powerful tool for schools or districts to move towards authentic collaboration and co-creation with families. Deliberate identification of perspectives, mapping, analysis, and planning for engagement offers an effective path to improve outcomes. “Waiting for the glue to dry” takes time and conscious effort, but the payoff for schools, families, and students can be significant and enduring.


Jordan, P. (2023). Attendance playbook: Smart strategies for reducing student absenteeism post-pandemic. Washington, SC: FutureEd. https://www.future-ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Attendance-Playbook.5.23.pdf