DYCD programs engage families by creating opportunities for participation in a range of services, events and programs. For example, in the school year 2014/15, SONYC programs served 58,745 youth in 459 programs. Of those, 316 programs were new, meaning that 40,043 new youth and their families who may have not been previously engaged in afterschool programs learned about the programs, enrolled their children, and were clear on program policies and procedures. Likewise, the Fatherhood Initiative dramatically increased noncustodial fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives in 2014–15. Among fathers who had had less-than-weekly contact with their child over the 3 months prior to intake, at follow-up more than two-thirds of young fathers (67 percent) reported at least weekly contact, as did 55 percent of older fathers and 40 percent of justice-involved fathers.
Although enrollment is a very basic measure of participation, it is an important first step, particularly in engaging families that are hard to reach or traditionally underserved in the community. We acknowledge that some family engagement may not be face-to-face or involve presence at an activity. At times, the engagement of the family may not be tangible, such as transporting the participant to an event, providing child care that enables another supporter to attend an activity, helping a program participant rehearse for a performance, providing an alarm clock so that a youth employee can get to work on time or participating by Skype in a senior intervention conference. These acts support and provide benefits to the participant, the family, the provider and the community.
Family engagement is based on the values of shared leadership, space, cultural competence, advocacy, and trust. This creates the environment and shared understanding for families to feel valued by the program, while working with staff to support the programmatic goals of both their young people and the families. This goes well beyond offering events to engage families in what their young person is learning. It extends to empowering and partnering with families as critical stakeholders in programmatic gains.
Family engagement occurs on different levels and deepens as families develop skills, increase confidence, and build capacity to share leadership with program staff. Families who are new to this kind of relationship can be thought of as Level 1 or “emerging partners” and can be asked to begin with low intensity responsibilities. The level of responsibility can be gradually increased as families feel more comfortable and able to take on more tasks. Tasks for Level 1 families include:
- Greet other families as they come through your doors
- Conduct outreach– call families to invite them to events, post flyers and brochures in schools and around the community
- Welcome and introduce new families at workshops, classes, or events
- Provide new families with information about programs and agency events
- Help staff with event logistics– set up a meeting room or training space, make copies
- Take photos at events and during programs for websites and newsletters
- Cook/bake food for events
- Decorate or clean up at events and workshops
Families who have more experience with your program may be eager to take on larger roles such as spearheading committees, for example, and can be thought of as Level 2 or “engaged partners.”
Below are examples of leadership roles suited for families at Level 2.
- Co-create/participate in a family advisory committee to improve programs, policies, and procedures
- Develop and facilitate activities alongside staff
- Organize and maintain a family phone tree to support communication among families
- Assist with drafting and reviewing, program materials
- Co-organize a fundraiser (e.g., silent /online auction) event for your program
- Design and run family focus groups to gather feedback
- Take part in training family leaders and volunteers
- Serve as a translator
- Serve as a spokesperson to share their experiences and aspirations with funders
Families profoundly shape the lives of our participants. Yet, too often they are left on the sidelines in efforts to improve program outcomes. According to the Search Institute, one reason for the underinvestment in families may be the widespread perception that many families are dysfunctional and even hopeless. One way to shift this thinking is to build positive relationships with families. By building positive relationships with families, we in turn help them connect to other participants, staff and one another.
These connections have positive effects on the social and emotional well-being of our families. True engagement is achieved when families are motivated by their own desires and interests. It’s important to take time to get to know all of your families, their interests and what matters most to them. Use the Family Interest Survey found in the Communication Section of this toolkit. The information gathered should be used to design program activities and events that intrinsically engage families to partner with programs as learners, leaders and advocates. Activities and events should be designed to be developmentally appropriate and support the physical and cognitive abilities of all family members. If the activities are too easy or too challenging, families may become frustrated or disinterested.