Staff Engagement Sparks Family Engagement

Jun 11 2019

Authors: Diane Banks, Manager, Children’s Programs, Toronto Public Library

Diane Banks describes Toronto Public Library’s process for developing a family engagement strategy.

Editor’s Note: This guest blog is part of our ongoing series on capacity building for family engagement.  Workshops are often considered one-off events without lasting impact. But what excites us about the work at Toronto Public Library is that it is an example of how a workshop can spur librarians to go deeper into what libraries can do to improve family engagement. Workshops can offer new ideas and inspire librarians to take action.

With more than 17.3 million visits to our 100 branches, Toronto Public Library (TPL) is one of the world’s busiest library systems. Seventy percent of Torontonians use TPL, so, in theory, there’s no shortage of opportunities for our staff to connect with children and families, and for children and families to connect with each other.

But we know that it can be hard for some children and families—and even library staff —to break the ice when meeting new people. It can also be hard for families to ask staff questions or participate fully in programs and events. Since family engagement is about building relationships, it’s essential that our staff continue to innovate when facilitating connections with children and their families, and the families’ connections to other families and resources in their communities.

At TPL, we are working in consultation with staff to develop a family engagement strategy that builds on the great work they’re already doing. So earlier this year,  a team of frontline children’s services staff helped to develop a workshop that focused on building awareness about family engagement, identifying what services we already offer that could be enhanced further, and brainstorming new opportunities.

Building staff capacity for family engagement

When the workshop was held earlier this year, over 70 children’s services staff and branch supervisors were in attendance. Margaret Caspe, from Global Family Research Project, delivered the keynote address, summarizing recent research on family engagement and sharing examples from other organizations to help us shape our vision. She also led the group in a fun interactive game called the Family Engagement Challenge, which encouraged participants to use the 5 Rs—Reach Out, Raise Up, Reinforce, Relate, and Reimagine— to respond to case studies involving families. Participants received tips and tools to engage parents/caregivers around collections, generating talking points for staff to use with parents to promote literacy and learning, especially beyond the children’s early years.

About the Family Engagement Game for Change  

In recent years, professional learning for educators has begun to incorporate gaming elements. Gamification involves bringing components traditionally associated with video games or board games into the learning environment. Often, this involves concepts like points accrual, competition, and rewards being integrated into activities in a safe space for failure. 

Learn More about Game

We concluded the workshop with a brainstorming session to help shape our family engagement strategy going forward. In groups, participants thought about ways that TPL does or could engage families. We discussed how TPL’s early literacy services, like our Ready for Reading programs and KidsStops, are great examples of services that successfully engage families. We also identified our Mini Makers programs, where parents and caregivers are encouraged to discover, create, and explore alongside their children as an effective means of supporting families in STEM learning. So, we asked, if we apply a family engagement lens, what else can we do to encourage family engagement?

The group made some simple but powerful suggestions for tweaking things, such as:

  • Build family engagement into the program planning process by developing a checklist to proactively and purposefully think about what elements in programs could be enhanced;
  • Invite families to share a song that their family enjoys in story time in order to raise up their voices; and
  • Connect families together by encouraging caregivers to introduce themselves and their children to the family next to them at the beginning of a program.

We also explored how TPL could innovate to co-create with families and communities to support children’s learning and development, using prompts provided by GFRP (See image below). A few suggestions included:

  • Building better cities with families in mind by developing libraries in high-rise buildings and high-density developments, and empowering community voices to tell their history by hosting community walks;
  • Forming a Library Parent Committee to bring families to decision-making tables; and
  • Raising up the youth voice by supporting older siblings who might serve as caregivers to younger siblings but are also looking to engage in services for children as children themselves.
Fanuel Leul_main

Toronto Public Library used GFRP's "What if...." challenge to spur conversation during the day-long training.  Artist: Fanuel Leul, Addis Ababa

What’s next in our strategy building?

What’s next for our family engagement strategy? We heard from participants that they’d love to have a follow-up session to build on what we discussed in the first workshop; we’re now planning this program for the fall. The team that developed the original workshop is also planning to offer the same event for staff who missed it the first time around.

We’re busy looking into the ideas generated in the workshop to help develop a draft framework to bring back the original group of participants for their feedback. Then, in early 2020, we plan to start implementing the strategy so we can continue to empower parents, and on the strength of families, to help develop social capital and resilience.


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