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Family engagement: a collaborative, systemic approach for middle school counselors.

Early adolescence is a period of intrapersonal and interpersonal transformation; thus, middle school counselors need to provide services that appropriately match their students' and families' developmental needs. A collaborative, systemic approach is one way that counselors can work with other school-based professionals to support parental/caregiver involvement. In this article, the authors discuss family disengagement in the middle school years and the middle school counselor as a collaborator of systemic change.

Middle school research consistently demonstrates the importance of family involvement as a powerful influence on students' achievement in school (Burkhardt, 2004; Downs, 2001; Epstein, 2004). When families are involved in their children's education, early adolescents attend school more regularly, earn higher grades and receive higher test scores, complete more homework, demonstrate more positive attitudes and behaviors, have higher graduation rates, express higher aspirations, and are more likely to enroll in higher education than students with less involved families (Deslandes & Bertrand, 2005; National Association of School Psychologists, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 1997). Furthermore, it has been suggested that the most influential contributor to students' academic achievement is not socioeconomic status, but rather family involvement in their student's educational development (Hawes & Plourde, 2005; Henderson & Berla, 1994). Thus, increasing family involvement in the education of early adolescents is an important goal for schools and educators.

For this reason, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA, 2003a), in the ASCA National Model[R], advocates that school counselors foster collaborative relationships with caregivers to support early adolescents' academic achievement. Additionally, ASCA (2004a) suggests that professional school counselors collaborate "with other stakeholders to promote student achievement" (p. 1). More specific to middle schools, the National Middle School Association (NMSA, 2003), in This We Believe: Successful Schools for Young Adolescents, a NMSA position statement, advocates that "successful middle schools promote family involvement and take the initiative to develop needed home-school bonds. The involvement of family is linked to higher levels of student achievement and improved student behavior" (p. 2).

If schools and families are to work collaboratively as partners, then schools must provide families with the developmentally appropriate opportunities and support necessary to promote and increase involvement in their students' education. Therefore, developing effective partnerships with families requires that all school personnel (i.e., teachers, administrators, and student support personnel including school counselors) create a school environment that is accessible, inviting, and welcoming to caregivers. Developing these collaborative partnerships also requires that school personnel reach out to and provide caregivers with the information and support they need to become involved in their students' education.

Schools that have been successful in engaging families in their early adolescents' learning have looked beyond the traditional definitions of caregiver involvement (i.e., participation in caregiver teacher organizations, signing report cards, attendance at sporting events) to a broader definition of caregivers as collaborative partners and companions in their early adolescents' education (U.S. Department of Education, 1997). In addition, schools that have developed successful partnerships with families view students' academic, career, and personal/social development as a shared responsibility among all stakeholders--for example, caregivers, family members, administrators, teachers, school support personnel, and the community (ASCA, 2003a). If families are to work with schools as full partners in the education of their early adolescents, schools must provide them with the opportunities and support they need for success.

The provision of these opportunities requires a concerted effort among school-based professionals and staff. The one school-based professional in the best position to coordinate such a collaborative, systemic effort in the middle school is the school counselor. The ASCA National Model (2003a) promotes the themes of school counselors as leaders, advocates, collaborative team members, and supporters of systemic change. Additionally, school counselors are well positioned to support family engagement because of their specialized education in human development, collaborative services, and systems change. Another benefit is that students often have the same school counselor for all 3 years of the early adolescent's middle school experience.

The purpose of this article is to explore the developmental and contextual influences of disengagement (developmental changes during early adolescence, family life-cycle transitions, and potential systemic barriers in schools) of families or caregivers of middle school students. Then, the article will address the role of the middle school counselor as a collaborative, systemic change agent in facilitating and supporting family/caregiver engagement in early adolescents' education.


Traditionally, family involvement decreases dramatically during the middle school years. Specifically, caregiver engagement tends to decease significantly from the time a student is enrolled at the elementary level to middle school (Allen & Migliore, 2005; Downs, 2001; Elkind, 1998; Johnston, 1998). Downs reported that caregivers of middle school students are only half as likely as the caregivers of elementary school students to attend student conferences with teachers. In addition, Johnston found that less than half of students in middle school report that their caregivers are actively engaged in school programs. Meanwhile, Brough and Irvin (2001) found that elementary schools provide concrete roles for caregivers in students' education as compared to the middle school level. Further, the level of trust at the elementary school level between caregivers and teachers is significantly higher than at the middle school level (Adams & Christenson, 2000). In a review of the middle school literature investigating possible contributors to decreased caregiver involvement during early adolescence, several key themes emerged relating to middle school counselors' roles and responsibilities. These include (a) developmental changes during early adolescence, (b) family life-cycle issues, and (c) potential systemic barriers in schools.

Developmental Changes During Early Adolescence

Early adolescents experience multiple personal changes. Their physical growth is apparent; however, significant changes are occurring in their psychological, cognitive, social, and moral development. The developmental changes experienced during early adolescence may be the most intense transformations in the human life cycle (Lounsbury, 2004). A hallmark of this developmental stage is the struggle for autonomy and independence. During early adolescence, the level of caregiver-adolescent conflict is the highest (Allison & Schultz, 2004), likely influenced by early adolescents' strong drive for autonomy. Further, early adolescents' struggle for independence often makes them "hypersensitive to circumstances where they feel others are asserting power over them" (Lambie, 2004, p. 269) or simply talking about them. For this reason, many early adolescents discourage their caregivers from becoming involved in their school activities and education. Instead, they maintain that everything at school is "fine" or they will "handle" any potential problems.

Family Life-Cycle Development

The development of the family life-cycle is often underestimated as an aspect that may contribute to the lack of family engagement during early adolescence. Carter and McGoldrick (1998) defined family life-cycle as "the natural context within which to frame individual identity and development and to account for the effects of the social system" (p. 1). For families with early adolescents, particularly those entering middle school, this is normally the time of the family life-cycle when caregivers are renegotiating their roles with children in terms of more independence for and from them. In addition, caregivers of early adolescents may be placed in the position of becoming the primary caregivers for their own aging parents, as well as restructuring their careers (Preto, 1999). Thus, it is not only the early adolescent who is experiencing a developmental transition, but rather the entire family.

As a result of these competing forces in the family life-cycle pattern, caregivers may inadvertently become "less available" in helping to meet the educational needs of their middle school children, thinking that their early adolescents' sense of growing independence is sufficient for negotiating middle school challenges on their own. In fact, Downs (2001) noted that caregivers of early adolescents may misinterpret their children's push for greater independence as evidence to become less involved in their schooling. Similarly, Elkind (1998) found that caregivers overestimate the sophistication of early adolescents in making decisions. He stated that "adolescents often have a premature adulthood thrust upon them" (p. 7).

Potential Systemic Barriers in School

Middle schools, being larger systems than elementary schools, hold innate challenges to caregiver involvement. First, the middle school enrollment is larger and students have multiple teachers, complicating communication significantly. As the number of people (teachers, students, family members) increases, so does the challenge of effective communication among all parties. Second, as systems increase in size, so too does the bureaucracy. Thus, pragmatically it is more of a challenge to support family engagement at the middle school level when compared to that at the elementary level. Third, often the most prevalent form of caregiver involvement at the elementary school level (caregivers volunteering in the classroom and on school field trips) may be viewed as inappropriate at the middle school level where early adolescents tend to become embarrassed of their caregivers being at their school (Baker, 2000).

Fragmentation and compartmentalization of services are also potential systemic barriers to school-family connections. They have been documented as problems needing reform and restructuring to support a collaborative school-family connection (Amatea, Daniels, Bringman, & Vandiver, 2004; Ho, 2001; Johnston, 1998). As all example, in the study by Amatea et al., teachers and school personnel were interviewed regarding the process and structure of communication among school-based professionals as well as between the school and home. Based on the results of their interviews, the researchers concluded that there existed no coordinated sharing of student information, a culture of operating independently from one another, and school-home interventions only in the event that student problems and concerns were identified--often resulting in a "polarization" (Amatea et al., p. 50) between home and school. These types of non-coordinated functions among school-based professionals are not uncommon in middle schools (Baker, 2001; Boyer & Bishop, 2004). In contrast, coordination is generally managed more effectively at the elementary school level where students often have only one primary teacher who serves as the facilitator for most school interactions.

Without an identifiable hierarchy or coordinator, it is difficult for caregivers to know who to contact at the school if they want to become involved. Further, logistical constraints such as time, scheduling, transportation, and child care often limit caregiver involvement (Baker, 2001). To address these systemic issues, a school's hierarchy (leadership) needs to be established (e.g., school counselors and administers working collaboratively) that appreciates the barriers to caregiver involvement and works to make organizational accommodations to limit the impact of potential obstacles. Additional systemic barriers to family/caregiver engagement include trivialization of the caregiver role and poor communication between home and school.

Trivialization of the caregiver's role. According to Johnston (1998), the trivialization of caregivers' role in the engagement of early adolescents' education is an often-noted aspect contributing to the disengagement of caregivers at the middle school level. Specifically, Johnston provided an example of caregiver role trivialization:
 Volunteering in the library, or sponsoring
 fund-raising events, or serving on the PTA
 council, while important for the overall functioning
 of the school, may be seen as trivial by
 parents because, while these activities support
 the school and its programs, they do little to
 support, directly, the success of a parent's
 individual child. (p. 195)

It is clear from this statement, as well as from other findings in middle school education, that many caregivers simply do not know exactly how to help their early adolescents with schoolwork and other aspects of their middle level education or are being guided to roles within the school that are not directly related to students' learning (Burkhardt, 2004; Downs, 2001; Waiters, Knowlton, & Weiss, 2003). In fact, Johnston (1998) suggested that as students progress into middle schools, the curriculum becomes more specialized and difficult, resulting in some caregivers feeling unprepared to help. Thus, caregivers underestimate the potential contribution they may have on their early adolescents' education. For caregivers who may have had unsuccessful educational experiences themselves, the increased complexity of the curriculum combined with not knowing how to help their early adolescent with it only further reinforces barriers to middle school engagement.

Poor communication between home and school. Despite cumulative findings that more frequent communication between home and school can contribute to more consistent positive academic achievement for middle school students, there continues to be resistance for doing so (Adams & Christenson, 2000; Baker, 2001; Downs, 2001). Although there are multiple reasons for this resistance, it appears clear that both schools and homes contribute equally to this complex dynamic. Specifically, Downs found that reluctance on the part of teachers to contact home may be influenced by lack of appreciation into the insights that caregivers may have about their early adolescents' learning. Further, many teachers feel exclusively responsible for classroom learning, and that caregivers and other school personnel should only be involved if a teacher cannot resolve a student's difficulties (Amatea et al., 2004). Oftentimes, school personnel only communicate home when there is a problem severe enough to warrant caregiver involvement. Caregivers may avoid contacting the school because their only experiences with the school have been unproductive, frustrating, and hostile, resulting in perceptions of caregiver blame or incompetence (Johnston, 1998).

Additionally and as noted previously, the level of trust between families and schools significantly decreases at the middle school level. In relation to communication between families and schools, Adams and Christenson (2000) found that improving home-school communication was the most effective method of enhancing trust. The better the home-school communication is, the greater the level of trust there will be, supporting increased family engagement and student success.


As noted, there are a variety of reasons families disengage from their early adolescents' middle school education. Middle school counselors have an essential role in facilitating and supporting family engagement. ASCA (2004b), in Why Middle School Counselors, has outlined the roles and functions of the middle school counselor. With respect to working with families and school-based personnel, the middle school counselor should take a leadership role in designing and delivering a comprehensive school counseling program that proactively engages all stakeholders (families, teachers, school personnel and staff, and the community) through collaborative and coordinated programs in an effort to promote the academic, career, and personal/social development of middle school students. Further, ASCA stated that "middle school counselors do not work in isolation; rather they are integral to the total educational program" (p. 1), collaborating with caregivers, teachers, administrators, students, and the community. Thus, to address the needs of families to increase engagement in their early adolescents' middle school education, the middle school counselor is the primary school-based professional for supporting a collaborative, systemic approach in restructuring middle schools' response and facilitating systemic change.

While counseling, consultation, and coordination (the three "Cs") are widely known as integral functions of the school counselor (ASCA, 2003a), these functions may best be executed within an underlying model of collaboration (Keys & Green, 2005). The collaborative function is an interactive process and has been defined in various ways, including an emphasis on "teamwork and recognition that each person contributes a unique expertise to the problem-solving process" (Keys & Green, p. 363). ASCA defined systemic change as "change affecting the entire system; transformational; ... focus of the change is upon the dynamic of the environment, not the individual" (p. 131). Further, "school counselors use their leadership and advocacy skills to promote systemic change" (p. 43) in an effort to reduce organizational barriers to students' academic success.

Through a collaborative, systemic approach with school-based professionals, all with their unique expertise, the middle school counselor can begin building the necessary teamwork or partnership within the school to help families become increasingly engaged and connected with their early adolescents' middle school. Based on the literature, it becomes clear that schools and families could benefit from an organization restructuring process within the school in an effort to better communicate how schools can invite caregivers into the middle school process (Allen & Migliore, 2005; Amatea et al., 2004; Baker, 2001).

Amatea et al. (2004) presented a process that can be used as a framework for middle school counselors to apply their expertise in collaboration and systemic change to support stronger home-school relations and family engagement. Amatea et al. assessed the current structure of home-school relations in a comprehensive school, which included middle-level education, identifying barriers within the school that prevented increased positive home-school coordination. They then implemented strategies to promote involvement among school-based professionals and families. They presented four steps that middle school counselors, as collaborators of systemic change, could adapt to promote family engagement and support early adolescents' development and achievement.

Step 1: Initial Assessment

The first step in any effective program implementation involves a needs assessment. ASCA (2003a) advocates that school counselors, as systemic change agents, examine current school policies and procedures to evaluate their impact on students' academic development. Further, because of the organizational changes between elementary and middle schools (i.e., larger enrollment, more teachers, increased bureaucracy, and educating early adolescents), it is important for middle school counselors to conduct an initial assessment of attitudes and practices of the school and its personnel relative to family-school communication. Amatea et al. (2004) found through interviews with teachers and other personnel that there existed a lack of coordination among school-based staff regarding home-school connections. Teachers merely contacted home to inform parents "of the nature of the instructional program and the child's progress in that program" (p. 50). As a result, there was no meaningful two-way dialogue between the school and families, but merely a reporting of information and progress.

Middle school counselors should conduct an initial assessment of the current practice of communication between school personnel and families. The following are examples of questions to include in the assessment: (a) "What are the main reasons that school personnel contact early adolescents' families?" (b) "What are the school's policies regarding early adolescents' familial contact?" (c) "What are school personnel's current feelings and thoughts about interacting with early adolescents' caregivers?" and (d) "When are the middle school's family-school meetings scheduled?" The data collected from this assessment of the current attitudes, practices, and policies of school-family interactions should guide middle school counselors in supporting systemic change.

Step 2: Educating School Personnel

The second step involves education for all school personnel relating to school-family communication and working with early adolescents. Middle school counselors' expertise in interpersonal communications, systemic change, and child development makes them an excellent resource to help other educators learn about family engagement (Davis & Adams, 1998; Lambie & Sias, 2005). Amatea et al. (2004) began by educating school personnel concerning the importance of collaboration among the various school-based professionals with a focus on how teacher-family relationships needed to change. To begin this process, it is important for middle school counselors to model collaboration by seeking teacher input in a manner that purposively blocks "the blaming that undermines many family-school problem-solving routines and engage in joint problem solving" (Amatea et al., pp. 50-51).

This should be followed by opportunities for teachers to meet with families and students. With the recognition that both caregivers and students should be influential and active participants in school-based meetings, emphasis needs to be placed on them becoming no-fault co-decision-makers in the educational process. The inclusion of middle school students in their educational decision-making supports the increasing responsibility and autonomy characteristic of early adolescents. With the understanding, too, that it might not be possible for all caregivers to come to the school, collaboration in the decision-making process with families needs to be promoted by affirming families' caring for their child and finding alternative ways to communicate with them (i.e., e-mail, telephone, and personal letters).

Additionally, adults working with early adolescents (i.e., caregivers, teachers, school counselors, and administrators) need to make accommodations to their style of interacting with these students. When an adult approaches an early adolescent in a confrontational style, the adolescent will likely respond with "resistance" in an attempt to maintain his or her feeling of personal freedom (autonomy). Thus, the more an adult directly confronts, the more the early adolescent will react with a defense mechanism (i.e., anger, resistance, denial, and minimization). Therefore, adults need to adapt their communication style to the developmental needs of the early adolescents and provide them with a "voice" within their decision-making (Lambie, 2004), while providing them with consistent and stable boundaries. The second step concludes with the development of strategies to increase opportunities for "non-problematic family-school interactions ... to maximize student learning" (Amatea et al., 2004, p. 51).

Step 3: Restructuring Family-School Interactional Patterns

The third step involves restructuring or revising the manner in which family-school meetings are traditionally conducted. Scheduling time for school-based professionals to meet together and to meet with families and students is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks (Davis & Garrett, 1998). Amatea et al. (2004) worked collaboratively with teachers and counselors to develop grade-level instructional teams, which met biweekly. This format allowed for more time-efficient and consistent contact among teachers and counselors. Regular grade-level instructional team meetings allowed for caregivers and students to participate in educational decisions, using the co-decision and no-fault approach to facilitate more positive interactions. Additionally, at the middle school level, interdisciplinary collaborative teaming is a common practice (Boyer & Bishop, 2004).

Equally important for these meetings, Amatea et al. employed two methods: (a) Meetings that were scheduled used a nonproblematic approach, and (b) student-led conferences were held in which students participated in the decision-making process related to their own education along with caregivers and school-based staff (supporting the early adolescent's drive for autonomy). Lambie (2004) stated, "When students feel that they are choosing to do something for their own self-interest, their motivation can be intense" (p. 269). Thus, providing early adolescents with a "voice" in their own educational process supports their feelings of self-efficacy and their intrinsic motivation to be successful. As a result, schools discontinue the pattern of teacher-led conferences in which caregivers are passive recipients of information, and students and/or any other school-based professionals do not attend.

Another consideration in reconfiguring family-school interaction patterns is to make caregiver involvement more convenient. According to Baker (2001), caregivers spoke positively about school engagement when it was "made easier for them to be involved" (p. 139). For this reason, it is important for school personnel to be flexible in their scheduling of meetings to better match caregivers' schedules. However, it is worth noting that middle school personnel should be supported in this effort and not simply be required to work more hours to meet with caregivers during the evening. For example, the second author when working as a school counselor would be awarded "release time" for the evening hours he allotted for meeting with families.

Transitioning is another factor to consider in reconfiguring family-school interaction patterns. Although many elementary and middle schools do have some type of transition program, there is still room to strengthen school, student, and family connections through the transition process (Rotchford, 2002). This process from elementary to middle school is a valuable opportunity for elementary and middle school counselors to coordinate and collaborate. For example, as opposed to this being the typical one-day event squeezed into the school day, school counselors at the elementary and middle levels, along with other school personnel and teachers from both schools, can organize this process around a Saturday afternoon event (e.g., barbeque, field day) for students and their caregivers. It could include informational sessions for caregivers regarding the transition process and what they might expect for themselves, their families, and their children over the middle school experience. Because middle school counselors have a background in human and family development, they can help families understand the middle school transition as a family life-cycle transition, meaning there will be change for the entire family including their roles and expectations for one another.

Step 4: Evaluation and Accommodation

As with any implemented intervention and/or program to support systemic change, it is important to receive feedback. Therefore, the final step is to elicit feedback from students, caregivers, teachers, and other middle school personnel regarding the effectiveness of this collaborative, systemic approach. According to ASCA (2003a), evaluation of the services provided as part of a comprehensive school counseling program is a necessity. A reading of Amatea et al. (2004) is suggested for a more comprehensive discussion regarding the home-school collaborative effort that was designed by a school counseling team.


The collaborative, systemic approach presented demonstrates a process that may be implemented to support families' increased engagement in the educational process of their middle school early adolescents. Although not a single solution, it begins a process of going beyond traditional means by increasing contact with families and responding to the needs identified relative to the potential reasons some families may feel disengaged in the middle school years. Specifically, for families that feel there is poor communication between the school and themselves, or feel their caregiver role is trivialized, as Johnston (1998) identified, this type of systemic restructuring to increase family engagement may bring a more consistent and nonproblematic interface between home and school.

Futhermore, more consistent and meaningful contact between home and school allows dialogue to address ways that caregivers can help their early adolescents at the middle school level (Burkhardt, 2004; Downs, 2001; Waiters et al., 2003). One resource developed by school media specialists to help caregivers is a series of videos that demonstrate how specific assignments are to be completed, strategies for helping students think more critically about their schoolwork and skill development, information about the school, and general information on early adolescent development (Downs; Waiters et al.). The videos have been translated into several languages, and families can borrow them along with a VCR from the school's library to watch at home. School counselors as part of their collaborative, systemic approach can easily collaborate with teachers and media specialists to prepare resources like these and make them available.

As noted, one potential reason for family disengagement during the middle school years is the influence of the family life-cycle. ASCA (2003a, 2003b, 2004b) supports middle school counselors providing school-sponsored family and caregiver educational opportunities that emphasize the integration of home and school life. While evidence exists that middle school counselors can and do provide some time-limited, school-based educational and counseling programs to engage caregivers (Davis, 2001; Whiston & Bouwkamp, 2005), it is still recognized that school counselors need to have knowledge of and make referrals to community agencies for families.

Further, to help support families that may be experiencing difficult developmental changes in the early adolescent and family life-cycle, middle school counselors can use their collaborative and systems change expertise to help families connect with appropriate community services. It is important to remember that it is normal and developmentally appropriate for early adolescents to work to differentiate themselves from their caregivers, often "pushing them out." Nevertheless, it is important that caregivers stay engaged in their early adolescents' lives.

Although there is overwhelming evidence in the middle school literature to support family engagement as an important positive contributor to early adolescents' holistic development, there are a variety of reasons that caregiver involvement sharply declines. Schools that have been successful in engaging families in their early adolescents' middle school learning have looked beyond the traditional definitions of caregiver involvement. Through a collaborative, systemic process of restructuring how a school includes caregivers of middle school students into the educational process, as well as using expertise in community-based resources, middle school counselors have an opportunity to model collaboration to other school-based personnel. Collaboration and advocacy for systems change are established and integral aspects of the role of middle school counselors. Using their expertise, middle school counselors have a key role in helping their schools and staff to enhance caregivers' engagement in early adolescents' education and to facilitate home-school interactions.


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Keith M. Davis, Ph.D., is with the Department of Human Development & Psychological Counseling, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC. E-mail:

Glenn W. Lambie, Ph.D., is with the Department of Child, Family, & Community Sciences, University of Central Florida, Orlando. E-mail.
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Title Annotation:intrapersonal and interpersonal transformation
Author:Lambie, Glenn W.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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