We all want to see our children thrive, both academically and emotionally. Parents are eager to understand how to support their children’s learning and nurture their relationships with their children, yet many do not receive the guidance and support they need to do so effectively. This is especially true for parents from historically underserved communities.

There is a great opportunity and need for resources that equitably build parents’ capacity to support their children’s success, while also fostering key relationships between parents and teachers and parents and their children. This is the goal of FASTalk (Families and Schools Talk), an innovative, text message–based family engagement tool from Family Engagement Lab, where I am a cofounder and chief impact officer.

FASTalk promotes equity and builds partnerships between teachers and historically underserved families by sharing engaging, at-home learning activities via text messages in each family’s home language. Families receive fun and easy weekly activities that caregivers can do with their children to reinforce classroom learning and boost achievement. Text messages automatically translate into over 100 languages to overcome language barriers and bridge two-way communication between teachers and families.

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Research suggests that FASTalk improves students’ literacy achievement, especially when parents do not share a language with their child’s teacher. Throughout the process of creating and implementing FASTalk, we have learned lessons that educators, parents, and other programs can draw on to help all students learn while aiming to foster a supportive community around students’ education.

Promoting literacy and prosociality with FASTalk

With support from the GGSC, Family Engagement Lab recently had the opportunity to expand FASTalk’s focus to include developing skills in both literacy and prosocial behavior. Using the latest research, our team translated key insights into text-sized, parent-friendly content to be delivered via FASTalk. Weekly messages focused on both developing literacy and nurturing the prosocial skills and character strengths of forgiveness, generosity, gratitude, honesty, love, and reliability.

For example, FASTalk included insights from a 2017 Developmental Science study that explored how storybooks promote prosocial behavior in young children. Specifically, the authors found that younger children were more likely to be generous after reading a story with human characters sharing (in contrast to a story with animal characters sharing or a story without sharing). Our team took that insight—that younger children find human stories relatable and can more readily apply the lessons they’ve learned from a realistic story—and incorporated it into FASTalk text messages:

Monday: Talk about book characters to help kids understand what they read. Ask: What did the characters do & feel? Have you ever felt that way?

Wednesday: Next, explore how a character’s actions affect other characters. Try to find books with generous human characters (vs. animal characters). Kids make more connections to their real life from realistic stories!

To inform our new work in this area, our team conducted focus groups with parents to learn more about their experiences and needs, and to get feedback on the new content. We found that parents were really eager for information to support a broad range of skills in their children, including these prosocial skills.

Here’s another FASTalk example that demonstrates how the text messages integrate a focus on developing both vocabulary and prosocial skills:

Monday: Help your child expand their vocabulary! Talk about the word GRATEFUL (feeling thankful). Together, name 3 things you’re thankful for.

Wednesday: Gratitude is powerful! Research shows that children are more generous (& more likely to do nice things for others) when they feel grateful!

Friday: I’m grateful for your support at home! Did you & your child talk about the word GRATEFUL this week? Reply: 1 for yes, 2 for not yet.

FASTalk was designed to facilitate information sharing between teachers and parents, while recognizing the needs of busy, often under-resourced teachers. The program makes it easy for teachers to deliver key information to families about children’s learning, given that the weekly text messages are written and pre-scheduled to be sent out on their behalf. A FASTalk teacher shared her feedback on the program, noting, “All the activities and messages sent to parents were aligned to our kindergarten curriculum and were very supportive of my instruction and helpful to parents.”

To understand the impact of the new FASTalk content, we surveyed parents who had been receiving weekly messages over the course of the school year. We found that in addition to building parents’ confidence in supporting their child’s learning and their knowledge of ways to help children develop literacy and prosocial skills, the messages were also helping build strong relationships.

One parent noted that what she liked best were “the suggested questions to help converse with my child—I can have more meaningful conversations with her.” Other families have echoed this sentiment, noting that FASTalk helped them feel connected to their child, the school, and the teacher, in addition to providing guidance for how to support their child’s learning at home.

  • Raising Caring, Courageous Kids

    Family Engagement Lab is one of the GGSC’s 16 grantees under the Raising Caring, Courageous Kids initiative, which was supported by the John Templeton Foundation. The GGSC partnered with these community-based organizations that provide services to families.

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Our team benefited from a close collaboration with Natasha Cabrera, a professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Family Involvement Laboratory. Armed with insights from her own research on family processes in a social and cultural context, Cabrera reviewed our new FASTalk messages and made recommendations to help ensure the tips and activities included in the text messages were actionable, accessible, and met the needs of diverse families. She noted, “FASTalk is an innovative, exciting, and easy-to-implement model that has the potential to reduce inequities in schools by engaging parents with teachers in real time to support children’s learning.”

Designed for parents, for impact, and for equity

FASTalk was designed and refined through cycles of research with parents, as well as reviews of existing research spanning multiple fields, from family engagement to technology-based education programs. A number of key insights informed FASTalk’s features and functionality, and these insights can be helpful for other programs that seek to help parents and teachers collaborate to support children’s learning. 

Parents want and need information to support at-home learning. Building parents’ capacity to support at-home learning is an essential strategy for advancing equitable education and is a critical goal of FASTalk.

Research underscores the power of home-based family engagement, demonstrating that children whose parents or caregivers are more involved in learning have higher academic achievement. Parental involvement may be even more important than school-based involvement efforts. Importantly, research suggests that parents’ involvement in their children’s at-home learning has more than twice the effect on student test scores as parents’ education levels or a family’s socioeconomic status.

These findings are particularly important because, as the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students is increasing, a driving factor is parental investment in their child’s development. In many families, especially low-income and immigrant families, parents want to help their children but do not know how. Furthermore, families of color are less likely to receive key information from teachers. This underscores the social justice imperative for programs that help build parents’ capacity to support at-home learning. 

Teachers are powerful, trusted messengers of key information for parents. Listening sessions with parents revealed to our Family Engagement Lab team that parents are looking for key information about their child’s learning from their child’s teacher—including what they are learning, whether they are on track, and how parents can help.

National research underscores how uniquely influential teachers are in shaping parents’ engagement; parents see teachers as the most trusted source of information about learning. However, while 99% of the U.S. teachers surveyed report that families’ involvement in their children’s learning is important to student success, 84% in high-poverty schools say they need help engaging their students’ families.

Leverage the power of technology to extend reach and impact. Given its ubiquity, mobile technology shows meaningful promise for reaching and engaging today’s families. Pew research in 2018 revealed that 99% of adults ages 18–49 owned or used a cell phone. Furthermore, leveraging text messages for “nudge” interventions with parents has been found to be highly impactful, cost-effective, and scalable.

Indeed, a Stanford study found that preschoolers improved their literacy skills when their parents received weekly early literacy activities by text message. Additionally, employing automatic language translation (as we do with FASTalk) can help make sure high-impact information reaches families equitably.

FASTalk provides one powerful example of how a technology-based solution can help build children’s academic, social, and emotional skills while also building key parent-child and parent-teacher relationships. Our model sheds light on broader, critical considerations that parent-focused interventions and programs should take into account:

  • Are the specific needs of parents centered in the design?
  • Are high-impact, evidence-based strategies for supporting children’s skill development made accessible?
  • Is information being shared with parents equitably?
  • Are we strengthening critical relationships between parents and their children and parents and teachers?

When the answer is yes to these questions, children, their parents, and the larger community benefit greatly.

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