Branching Minds seeks to provide top-notch service to all our partner educators. And that includes bringing the skills and talents of our amazing Branching Minds employees, AKA “Branchers,” to the table! Whitley Dozier, Customer Success Manager, has extensive experience and knowledge as a former Multi-Tiered System of Supports Coordinator. In her former role, she acted as a liaison between the district, schools, and community members, and learned about state policy and MTSS best practices to help her district continually improve in meeting the needs of all students.
As an MTSS Coordinator, Whitley prioritized strong relationships with families. Recently, we asked her to provide insight into how schools can better engage families in the MTSS process.
1. When did you begin understanding family engagement as an essential aspect of student success?
While studying human development and families in graduate school, I learned what services are offered for children before the age of three and the benefits of early intervention. I also learned about women's health and wellness and prenatal resources that families should have access to, specifically families living in poverty. This experience drove me to advocate for families even more. We need to step out early before kindergarten. Make sure we inform families that these services even exist. At the time, my principal asked, “Hey, we need a community outreach coordinator. Do you want to do that?” I said, “Sure, give me all the titles I want to experience and a chance to hear those stories of what families need and how to advocate for them.”
2. At what point do you find that families should be involved in the MTSS process, or should they be involved in the beginning, and what's your experience in getting them involved?
Like a Multi-Tiered System of Supports, I see family engagement as a framework. At Tier 1, we can easily engage families with writing workshops or events we host at the school, such as Meet the Teacher Night. I created a father involvement group to get them to come to a monthly breakfast with character lessons. We can do some basic things to get the families to the building and into the fold. Depending on the population, you might have to go to the community to create those relationships.
For example, I held events at our local housing authority just to talk about report cards or look at the calendar. We were a year-round Magnet school, and our school calendar was different, so I hosted an event, rented out their facility, and they even provided food. They'll always come for food! During this event, we broke down how you read the school calendar. It comes with that intentionality of how we are trying to help our families be advocates for their students at every level.
At Tier 2, every quarter, at least four times a year, I sent a mass email with all parent letters that would be sent home to families. These letters informed the families what level their students needed support at, what type of instruction they would receive, and some accountability of a date when we're going to review progress. We intentionally added those dates because we want families to know and plan for that. Some of them needed two months' notice to take time off.
For Tier 3, I was big on inviting families to that initial meeting. Before that meeting, I would send home a questionnaire to ask them preliminary questions with an agenda so they know where they fit in. They are experts on their child. They are a key component of this conversation. Once trust is developed at the meet-the-teacher nights or math night at the grocery store, families are willing to come in and engage in problem-solving.
3. When providing access for families at these different levels, how do you communicate and ensure they understand the access they have?
Visibility is important. Being in the community and utilizing those small interactions to build relationships with parents. Being present at the bus and car rider lot are great places to build rapport and dialogue about their student outside of picking up the phone.
Another example of an intervention I would have for some of my teachers is to call and provide two positive updates a month. This follows the 2 x 10 idea, 2 minutes a day for ten days. They can call to simply highlight something positive about the student and positively communicate with the family.
Students need to have three positive interactions per negative interaction, and for students receiving special education services, its six positives. It is about beginning with strength-based conversations. It's got to go both ways at every tier of family engagement.
4. What are some other barriers to families getting involved within a school community?
From honest, candid conversations I've had with families, with those who are very happy and those who are less happy, I have learned that they also have an educational experience they bring to their relationships with the school. Sometimes it's not always positive. For example, I've had families say, “I dropped out at 16, and I was in special in classes. So if you're telling me my kids gonna be special ED, or even considered for that, or there's even reading challenges that could allude to a reading disability, I'm gonna already be frustrated. I don't want this to be their life.”
It is then necessary to lean into the discomfort of that conversation and provide an alternative narrative for them. “Hey, let's just look at it this way. We're not saying that there's anything wrong with your student. We just need you here to help process the things that we are seeing right now and discuss what you might see at home, too, during reading time.” We need to try to break down that silo of “education is bad” or “school is bad,” and be a partner to them in the work.
It is important to lead the conversation with the assurance that we are here to partner with them and that there is a whole team of teachers behind their students. We want to figure out how to support them best and let them know how much we need them in the conversation.
5. What other ways helped in your communication with parents about the MTSS process? Maybe even specifically the SEL portion?
We had this Tier 2 and Tier 3 letter that the district created, but I felt the need to send our own cover letter along with our school logo with the district-required letter to break down what's happening, especially SEL behavior. A basic letter often doesn’t make sense to parents; we need to go beyond, “Your kid is getting social skills pull-out twice a week.” Sometimes, we need to explain what it means; our letter would say, “Your child was nominated for a social skills group,” and explain why it's needed.Then lay out our plan for what we're going to do, and provide that strength-based approach. It sets a better tone for how we are trying to help.
Also, we had to educate our families. On Meet the Teacher Night, we hosted a session for families to learn about MTSS because they will get a letter about it. Being proactive and providing that educational information early on can do wonders for families who are hesitant about what we're offering or teaching in school. We even provided Facebook live just in case they couldn't access it. Innovation, creativity, and intentionality are so important in engaging families.
6. What advice would you give those MTSS Coordinators or school leaders struggling to get families involved?
It's so simple. It sounds crazy, even just naming it. But talk to your families, ask questions to your families. Ask what they need at different points in the year. Ask what you can do for their child or their family.
Families are willing to share that information once they know someone they trust in the school building. It only takes one person, one adult. Each family just needs one adult. It might be the kindergarten teacher they had, but now they are in fifth grade. But if they trust that kindergarten teacher, that strong connection can tether the family to the school. It's keeping them connected to the culture of the school, which matters.
Supporting Families With Innovative Leadership
Families are important stakeholders in the MTSS work. With the help of innovation, creativity, and intentionality, leaders can move the roadblocks for families to get involved and better understand how important they are to educators' work to support their students.
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