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  2. System Level: Engaging Families As Partners In System Improvement

System Level: Engaging Families as Partners in System Improvement

Description of Family Engagement and Collaboration at the System Level

Family engagement is most likely to gain traction at the system level when top leadership values and promotes family partnership, and develops policies to support family engagement as a core strategy that’s essential to the organization’s mission and goals. Family engagement is effective when families that represent the diversity of the community participate in authentic collaboration with agency partners in planning, designing, and monitoring system improvements that impact children, youth, families and their community. Whereas agency leaders and staff bring professional experience to the planning table, family members bring “lived experience.” Lived experience represents the direct encounters that families have had with services, programs, policies, and systems as well as critical knowledge families have about their children and neighborhoods.

Value of Lived Experience

Lived experience embodies a family member’s actual experience with the system(s) and real time perspective on what is needed and working for their teen and family, as well as what is not working. A family-driven approach advocates that every family should have a primary decision-making role in the care of their own children as well as policy decisions that impact all children and families.1 Over the past decade, mental health, child welfare, juvenile justice and education have adopted family-driven principles in tailoring their approaches to increase family engagement in decision-making at the direct service level and at the local and state system level.2

The Networked Community Approach to system improvement similarly values those who face the problems daily and who best understand the effects on children, families, and community.3 This user-centered system improvement approach is unique in that it relies on the perspectives of the people for whom the solution, system or service is intended.

A user-centered approach engages youth, and family members, along with administrators and front-line workers throughout the system improvement process that begins with an analysis of the problem, then planning, development, evaluation and tracking improvement. The six core principles of improvement guide the collaborative in developing strategies that address equity, meaningful engagement and according to research, increase attainment of targeted goals in classrooms, schools and districts.4 Engaged leaders and broad family representation that reflect the diversity of the community are essential in co-creating solutions that work for children and families.

Family Engagement Structure

Building family engagement in your school or agency requires the resources needed to establish a viable structure focused on building family capacity. Family stakeholders that represent the diversity of the community must be engaged in tailoring the agency’s family engagement approach and in developing an action plan to ensure it reflects the needs and interests of all families served by the agency, district or school. Establishing strong family engagement in your school or agency takes time and requires the support and commitment of leadership and professional allies.

The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships

SEDL released Partners in Education: A Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships that states that to have effective and respectful family partnerships, schools or any child serving system must create opportunities for family and staff capacity building in key areas referred to as the four “Cs” — capabilities, connections, cognition, and confidence.5 In addition, a fifth fundamental component in building strong partnership is establishing two-way communication and relationships between leadership, families and system partners. The four Cs and open communication lay the foundation for family engagement in collective action.

As families build communication skills and capacities in the four Cs, they also strengthen their role as their child’s primary advocate by developing transferable skills. The skills and abilities acquired through family engagement training, planning, collaborative workgroups and other activities equips families with knowledge and skills to navigate and collaborate in other service and community settings.

Family Roles at the System Level

Family roles have evolved beyond serving as volunteers in random activities. Families are now performing meaningful roles in various systems. Over the past decade, family members with lived experience and specialized training have worked as family support providers (FSP), also referred to as parent support providers (PSP). The concept of family-to-family support began in the children’s mental health systems of care, but has since been adopted by child welfare, juvenile justice and education.6

Some states now include FSP mental health services in their Medicaid plan and service array for medically eligible children and youth, provided FSP staff complete training and attain certification. Certified FSPs work directly with families providing individualized supports such as access to care, skills building, mentoring, advocacy, and training.7 FSPs with hands-on experience in navigating service systems have been highly effective in bridging service gaps between families and schools or agencies.

Family Engagement Policy

Family engagement policies are becoming more precise regarding standards, methods, expectations and strategic goals. Although family engagement policies and practices are being implemented at the state and national level, considerable efforts are still needed to meaningfully engage and prepare families to take on new roles in their states and communities. Youth-serving organizations, districts, and schools need the support of federal, state, tribal, and local policymakers to build and sustain strong family engagement. Examples include:

  1. Engaging parents and families in policy development, implementation, and assessment to ensure programs and policies meet their needs and their expertise helps guide the work.
  2. Creating infrastructure for leadership. Ensure the appropriate systems are in place to develop, implement, and coordinate key components of family engagement. Provide adequate staffing to support these systems. Strategically allocate funds to ensure sufficient oversight, capacity building, and quality control to support effective policies and practices.
  3. Building capacity through collaboration: Seek the support of other organizations to facilitate sharing research and best practices, to coordinate family and community engagement with other initiatives, and to reduce duplication and maximize efficiency.
  4. Ensuring reporting, learning, and accountability: Increase the use of proactive monitoring and evaluation to ensure compliance with family and community engagement policies across the organization and to continuously improve policy and practices in the field.



Fostering Family Engagement through Shared Leadership in the District, Schools, and Community
This case study of a U.S. Department of Education, Investing in Innovation grantee (i3), addresses how district leaders and community partners worked at building connections between school and home to create opportunities for parents to learn, provide input, and engage as active participants in their child’s school. The work of true family engagement was found to be slow but rewarding and resulted in the hiring of parents into permanent positions in the district as teacher assistants, lunch aides, or childcare providers during school functions.

Parent Engagement: Strategies for Involving Parents in School Health
This resource from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was developed for school administrators, educators, support staff and families. It describes parent engagement and identifies specific strategies and actions that schools can take to increase parent engagement in schools’ health promotion activities.

Mental Health

Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do
Each year, children experience violence and disaster and face other traumas. Young people are injured, they see others harmed by violence, they suffer sexual abuse, and they lose loved ones or witness other tragic and shocking events. Parents and caregivers can help children overcome these experiences and start the process of recovery. This resource provides an overview of child and youth trauma, do’s and don’ts for parents and recommendations in accessing direct supports.

Child Welfare

Family Engagement: Partnering with Families to Improve Child Welfare Outcomes
This bulletin provides an overview of the foundational elements of the family engagement approach in child welfare, followed by strategies—including state and local examples—and promising practices for implementing this approach at the case level, peer level, and systems level.

The Family Engagement Inventory: A Brief Cross-Disciplinary Synthesis
The Family Engagement Inventory is designed to familiarize professionals in child welfare, juvenile justice, behavioral health, education, and early childhood education with how family engagement is defined and implemented across these fields of practice. Understanding the commonalities and differences in family engagement across disciplines can support cross-system collaboration among systems often working with the same children, youth, and families.

Juvenile Justice

Families Come First: A Workbook to Transform the Justice System by Partnering with Families – Executive Summary
This summary provides an overview of the Families Come First workbook and the family model framework designed to guide efforts to create and sustain meaningful family-system partnerships by providing a clear and intentional guide to transforming the justice system by taking a family-driven approach.

An Advocate’s Guide to Meaningful Family Partnerships: Tips from the Field
This guide provides concrete suggestions on how to be more intentional in building sustainable partnerships with families so the movement towards creating fair, equitable and developmentally appropriate juvenile justice systems can proceed with the inclusion of these integral voices for change.


1 National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, 2008
2 Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2017
3 Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow, 2010
4 The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
5 SEDL, 2013
6 Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, 2016
7 Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016

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