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Parental Involvement and Engagement: What is the Difference?

May 08, 2021
By Jesse Stout, Principal

I think back 20 years to when I was in Elementary school. My school had “classroom moms” who were always at school putting up bulletin boards and grading student papers. Even as a child, I had this perception of these mothers as more involved and more committed to their child’s education than other parents. But what about my mom and dad who worked full-time? They were not in my classroom setting up learning centers and handing out snacks. Were they involved? Were they committed?

There is this misconception about parental involvement floating around our schools today that makes me cringe as a school leader. There is an ill-fitting mindset, at times, that parental involvement (specifically physical presence) at school demonstrates more commitment and care for students and teachers. It is possible that parents may even feel that they are “proving” something to the teachers and school leaders when they volunteer and get involved at the school. They may be seeking to send a message about their desire to partner and support—whether consciously or unconsciously. Although parental involvement at school is a critical and necessary component to any school operation and overall culture, it is important that families do not develop a belief that a lack of opportunity to be involved during the school day demonstrates a lack of engagement in the overall mission and vision of the school. This is a dangerous mindset that I find causes parents to isolate more than participate—which is not the influence that we want to have on our families!

Involvement vs. Engagement Defined

I appreciate the way that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines these words, and I believe that it helps to bring real clarity to the difference between these concepts. The word involve is defined as “to oblige to take part,” “to occupy oneself with,” and “to commit to.” These definitions give us the idea of parental involvement as being done to someone. This carries the connotation that involvement typically leads to some direct improvement, support, or achievement. Practically speaking, parental involvement is when parents participate in organized events, activities, and volunteer opportunities, as well as support children’s learning by utilizing learning resources supplied by the teacher or school. Be careful to not downplay parental involvement as the “minimum” expectation for parents. It is so incredibly important! Parental involvement is critical for student learning and achievement, as well as a teacher’s ability to progress through content, and should be recognized and applauded for the awesome support that it is! Yes, involvement is a responsibility as a parent—nobody would argue with that—but it is also a blessing granted to us by God through the kids that we are called to nurture, support, encourage, and advocate for! Own this, parents! It is your right and privilege!

Parental engagement requires a different perspective—not necessarily another level of time or physical presence, but a mindset that connects with the learning process in a deeper way. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word engage as “to interlock with,” “to mesh with,” and “to attract and hold by influence or power.” These definitions give us the idea of parental engagement as something that is being done with someone. This carries the connotation that engagement is more than just participating, but rather, truly influencing and shaping. Engagement bears the image of interlocking arm in arm to support the same cause. It reflects a reality that communications at home and at school are working to support one another, not destroy or plant doubt about the other. At Northside Christian School, the word that we use to communicate engagement—specifically in our mission—is the word partnership. It is a collective effort in caring for a student, ultimately using academic opportunities as a means of helping students better learn, love, and live Jesus Christ. What happens here at NCS is not to be contrary to what is happening at home, but rather, engaging a child’s heart and mind in a shared way. It is important to note that a parent’s first responsibility to involve and engage is their child, not the school. Of course, schools want and need parental involvement and engagement, but not at the expense of their own children’s support.

These concepts are similar, but their meaning and impact can look very different. You could almost see involvement as a pre-requisite to engagement, as engagement partners with more than just the child. However, I would warn against downplaying the role or connotation of involvement. Both are valuable and necessary in their own ways! Here are some examples of what these concepts could look like practically:


  • Attending your child’s concert/play
  • Doing homework with your child
  • Studying for a test with your child
  • Volunteering in your child’s classroom or school office
  • Chaperoning your child’s field trip
  • Talking to your child about their grades
  • Helping your child organize school materials
  • Communicating with teachers about your child’s grades
  • Bringing food to school for your child’s birthday or class party
  • Volunteering to clean or organize school materials
  • Pursuing tutoring opportunities for your child in areas of struggle
  • Volunteering to organize school/class events
  • Volunteering to write or edit a school/class newsletter


  • Reaching out to teachers to understand supplemental ways to support your child academically
  • Demonstrate a positive view of education at home
  • Encourage and support active learning processes for your child
  • Ask about opportunities to lead initiatives or support learning opportunities at school
  • Communicate individual concerns for your child to the teacher so that they can address non-academic concerns in conjunction with the home
  • Seek to understand a teacher’s perspective when issues arise in the classroom
  • Pursue positive relationships with school leaders and staff
  • Encourage positive speech in school-related conversations at home
  • Actively seek out opportunities for your own skills and abilities to be used to support other students’ learning and achievement
  • Help your child pursue a resolution/solution mindset when conflicts arise at school (socially, academically, interpersonally, etc.)—this may mean helping them to take the next steps to pursue conflict resolution or advocate for their concerns

A Shared Responsibility

Of course, effective parental involvement and engagement is a two-way street. Parents should not have to carry this responsibility alone. The school has a responsibility to foster an environment where parental involvement and engagement can thrive. I appreciate the way that Larry Ferlazzo (2011), characterized the role of school leadership models that support effective engagement. He stated:

A school striving for family involvement often leads with its mouth—identifying projects, needs, and goals and then telling parents how they can contribute. A school striving for parent engagement, on the other hand, tends to lead with its ears—listening to what parents think, dream, and worry about. The goal of family engagement is not to serve clients but to gain partners.

This perspective of leading with my ears instead of my mouth is a critical one for me as a school leader in an effort to ensure that I am actively pursuing a culture of inclusiveness and shared goals. This is an aspect of mission for which leadership should develop accountability and nurture growth and regular improvement. Likewise, the mindset of partnership requires commitment and participation from parents as well. Shared vision, practices, and perspectives help to equalize the playing field in education—thus creating an ideal environment for growth, achievement, and success. The concept of genuine partnership and shared loyalty between the school and family is one that will provide rewarding outcomes for all involved.

The Impact of Engagement

Some of you may be asking, are we unnecessarily picking apart what parental involvement really is? Are we making parental involvement more (or less) than what it really is? I would argue that we (both parents and school) probably do not spend the necessary time understanding and addressing parental involvement and engagement at the school level. Often times, it is easy to neglect, from both the school and home perspective, assuming that the other is fully aware and attentive to specific needs and concerns. However, if engagement speaks to a sense of partnership, then shared understanding and action is what is necessary in order to make learning optimally growth-oriented.

Much research supports the belief that parental involvement and engagement have a significant positive impact on student learning processes and achievement. Parental engagement affects academic areas of a student’s life, but even more practically speaking, it influences overall student social skills, behavior control, and school attendance (Epstein, 2004). From an academic perspective, research has revealed that parental involvement has a significant influence over a student’s disciplinary grades and test scores (Hill, 2009), graduation projection and annual promotion (Sheldon, 2015), as well as personal confidence and academic motivation in the classroom setting (Wairimu, 2016).

More than simply student achievement, the reality is that parental engagement solidifies and empowers the relationship between the family and the school as well. When both the school and the family are participating in an engaging relationship, then the communication between home and school is improved and has a defined purpose and value. Communication has the opportunity to have significant social-emotional effect on students, and the overall relationship between the parents and teachers is strengthened and invested, leading to greater staff and family morale. When the authorities in the educational picture (parents, teachers, administration, etc.) can come together to serve a common cause under a common strategy, then students will only benefit from the mutual respect, focus, and attention to a broad scope of needs—academic, social, and emotional (Henderson, 1995).

Involvement vs. Engagement in the Context of the Gospel

As a Christian School, we have a mission that extends past an academic focus. At Northside Christian School, we understand our call to wisdom that is eternal, helping others better understand and walk in it. Education is a means to accomplishing our mission. Although we seek to have strong and engaging academics, our disciplinary efforts are emboldened by a desire to partner with Christian families to help their kids better learn, love, and live Jesus Christ! This mission shapes our understanding and philosophy regarding involvement and engagement in the lives of students.

The idea and positive impact of involvement and engagement is not a concept that was developed by man. In all reality, we were involved and engaged long before we had the opportunity and responsibility to do so to others. All of us were born into sin—there was no escaping it (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:23; 5:12). Because of our natural sinful identities and despite our best efforts, our sins have doomed us to separation from God’s presence and love, as God cannot be a part of sin (Deut. 32:4; Is. 59:2; Gal. 5:19-21). Left to ourselves, we would have no hope of restoring our relationship with God. The only hope that we could have is if God involved himself into our dark reality to redeem us back—and the good news of the Gospel tells us, HE DID! In a perfect plan of salvation, God involved Himself in our sinful reality, sending His own Jesus to live the perfect life that we could not (2 Cor. 5:21), and to destine Him to die in our place (Acts 4:12), paying the ultimate price of our sin (1 Pet. 2:24). In dying for our sins, in our place, we were stripped of our sinful identities before God and given a new identity that we could never attain on our own—Jesus’ own perfect righteousness (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 5:17). Those who trust Jesus Christ for a righteous standing before God are no longer seen as sinners before God, deserving hell, but are seen as pure, blameless, and holy children of God because of the work done for them (Ps. 103:12; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5: 12; Col. 1:22). Even before God’s redemptive plan through the person and work of Jesus, we see God’s sovereign involvement in our daily lives and environments through his creation and upholding of all things, including us (Job 33:4; Is. 42:5; Eph. 1:11; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:3)! God’s perfect involvement in our lives, what was done to us, is what has allowed us to call ourselves God’s own children and have a hope of eternal redemption and forgiveness of our sins.

More than just involving Himself in our lives (as if that wasn’t enough), God took it a step further and fully engaged and empowered us in the mission of the Gospel. In engaging us in His work, He invited us into what was being done with (and through) us! As children of God by grace, through faith, we can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18) for God’s glory. We have the right to go directly to God in prayer, through the interceding of the risen Jesus, to offer requests and supplications (Phil. 4:6-7), knowing that we are heard and received because of Christ (Rom. 8:34; 1 Jn. 5:14-15)! God also calls us to be actively engaged in Gospel-work, through the proclamation of His word (Mrk. 16:15) and the making of disciples among all people (Rom. 10:14-15; Acts 1:8; 2 Tim. 2:2). What a privilege it is for sinners like us to be accepted and received into a work that we have not earned the right to do—it is all because of the involvement of God in our lives and His engagement with us in the present time! Likewise, as we have seen in the character and person of God Himself, we should dedicate ourselves to the involvement and engagement of those around us as well!

Bringing It All Together

Involvement and engagement are critical aspects of both academic and personal enrichment and support. Although, in the school setting, involvement and engagement typically take the form of academic support and intervention, these concepts can span the scope of a student’s academic, personal, and spiritual lives. The opportunities that the school (especially the Christian School) and families have to partner together in pursuit of holistic growth for the whole child, is motivating and limitless. Involvement and engagement are a ‘two-way street’ that requires effort and participation from multiple parties. How can you grow in your ability to be involved and engaged in your child’s life through NCS? How can NCS grow in our ability to better create opportunities for the involvement and engagement of our families? I value your insight and dialogue on this—I know that we have many areas of improvement! I am thankful for the opportunity to partner with you in this mission, for the good of your child, and for the glory of God!


English Standard Version Bible. (2001). ESV Online.

Epstein, J.L., & Sheldon, S.B. (2004) Getting students to school: Using family and community involvement to reduce chronic absenteeism. School Community Journal, 14(3), 9-56.

Ferlazzo, L. (2011). Involvement or engagement? Educational Leadership. 68(8), 10-14.

Henderson, A., & Berla, N. (1995). A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement. Center for Law and Education, 14-16.

Hill, N. E., & Tyson, D. F. (2009). Parental involvement in middle school: a meta-analytic assessment of the strategies that promote achievement. Developmental psychology, 45(3), 740-63.

Sheldon, S. B., & Jung, S. B. (2015). The family engagement partnership student outcome evaluation. Johns Hopkins University, School of Education.

Wairimu, M.J., Macharia, S.M., Muiru, A. (2016) Analysis of parental involvement and self-esteem on secondary school students in Kieni West Sub-County, Nyeri County, Kenya. Journal of Education and Practice, 22(7), 82-98

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5/8/21 - By Jesse Stout, Principal