As my first grader bounds off the school bus and we start the walk back to our house, I'll commonly ask, “What did you learn today?” And “nothing” is the response I get most often. The conversation I was hoping to have about learning stopped before it even really started. He has moved on to sharing something funny that happened at recess or talking about what he wants to eat as a snack when he gets home.

But I know that learning-focused parent-child conversations don’t have to play out this way. What if, instead of student learning ending upon walking out of the school building, it continued outside school with a student’s parent or caregiver - a powerful influence who is uniquely positioned to make key connection points between classroom learning and life beyond the classroom?

I am a co-founder and the chief impact officer of Family Engagement Lab, a national technology nonprofit that empowers families with the knowledge and tools to support their children’s academic success. By facilitating ongoing communication and collaboration about learning, Family Engagement lab builds partnerships between teachers and historically underserved families. To date, Family Engagement Lab has supported more than 55,000 students and families, including 63 percent students of color, 70 percent that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 35 percent that receive materials in a language other than English.

Family Engagement Lab’s signature tool FASTalk (Families and Schools Talk) helps teachers send engaging, home learning activities via text messages in each family’s home language that directly relate to classroom learning, and it supports two-way communication about learning. FASTalk’s learning activities are written by subject matter experts, professionally translated into each family’s home language, and scheduled in advance to save teachers time. To reach everyone, the messages are sent automatically as SMS text messages on behalf of teachers to students’ family members. An opt-out enrollment process facilitates FASTalk’s ability to deliver learning information to 90-100% of families in partner schools, while leveraging a ubiquitous technology used by families across demographic groups. The price for FASTalk averages $11 per student, with districts commonly leveraging Title 1 and Title 4 funding sources.

The accessible tips, activities, and conversation starters that families receive with FASTalk can be used to prompt a very different response than “nothing” when they initiate a conversation about learning with their children. For example, with FASTalk, a 1st grade parent may receive an ELA- or math-focused text message that might say:

Your child is learning to express their opinions in writing. Ask them to review their 1st grade year so far: what do they like best? Worst? Why?


Find 3-5 objects around the house that are different lengths. Discuss how to compare the objects. Which one is shorter or longer? How do you know?

FASTalk is currently used across PK-8th grade to help direct families to specific entry points for supporting their child’s learning. Below is an example of FASTalk messages that were sent to 6th grade families and prompted a powerful conversation between a father and his daughter about his personal experience immigrating to the United States:

Your child is studying immigration. Ask: what are some of the challenges immigrants face in coming to a new & unfamiliar place?

Ask your child to share more about what they have learned. Ask: how do U.S. immigrants cope with the challenges of starting a life in a new place?

In addition to feeling more connected to their child, the teacher, and the school, 93 percent of families shared in a 2023 survey that FASTalk taught them new ways to support their child’s learning. Families also report that a key benefit of FASTalk is that it helps keep them informed and “in the loop” about topics covered in class. Uniquely, 85 percent of FASTalk families report that FASTalk is the only place that they receive learning-focused information and activities to support their child. And this is despite their schools using up to seven other tools to communicate with families.

Importantly, the small shifts in parent-child interactions that FASTalk prompts add up in a meaningful way when it comes to student achievement. Family Engagement Lab has engaged in several formal research partnerships to conduct quasi-experimental research studies of FASTalk, yielding encouraging findings about the impact of FASTalk usage on student literacy performance as measured by both test scores and report card grades. Indeed, studies of FASTalk have shown that regularly sending quick, easy, accessible learning-focused prompts to families accelerates student learning, with the biggest impact on learning gains for students who start the year behind their peers academically, and students whose families do not share a common language with their child’s teacher.

Decades of research highlight the positive impact of families’ engagement in their child’s education, with benefits extending beyond academic gains to include improved behavior, increased motivation, social and emotional gains, and higher graduation rates. Additionally, as families are uniquely positioned to highlight the real-world relevance of what students are learning in school, they can be a powerful lever that can help increase student engagement, motivation, and persistence in the classroom. Recent data also uncover a meaningful connection between high levels of family engagement and lower levels of chronic absenteeism. The benefits exist for teachers as well. By engaging families as partners, teachers collaborate with other adults to support student success. Family engagement is a critical - and impactful - strategy that should not be overlooked as district and school leaders grapple with pandemic-related learning loss, meeting students’ social and emotional needs, addressing chronic absenteeism, and supporting teacher retention.

About the author

Dr. Elisabeth O’Bryon is the Chief Impact Officer and Co-Founder of Family Engagement Lab (FEL), a national nonprofit and leader in the advancement of learning-centered family engagement serving PreK-12 school systems. Prior to launching FEL, Elisabeth served as the Director of Research and Evaluation at GreatSchools, and a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence where she contributed to the development and evaluation of school-based social and emotional learning programming for children, teachers, and families. Elisabeth has a doctorate in psychology and experience providing school psychological services to preschool through high school-age students in both English and Spanish. Elisabeth recently co-authored 45 Strategies that Support Young Dual Language Learners, a resource that provides practical, developmentally appropriate strategies for supporting children and families from diverse backgrounds and creating inclusive early childhood classrooms that foster the success of young DLLs. Elisabeth is enjoying the many adventures of parenthood with her husband and sons.