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Teacher’s role in home/school communication – everybody wins!

This article by Rick Lavoie was written with the American school system in mind. Despite the cultural differences, he makes some interesting observations about relationships between parents and teachers. Rick talks about the years he has spent working with parents and drawing on this experience, the article does highlight areas where teachers in his view could improve. Learning Links employs many teachers among its staff and appreciates that this article could be interpreted by some as critical of teachers. While articles published on this website are not endorsed or necessarily in agreement with the views of Learning Links, we believe that a wide variety of opinions are nevertheless valuable in the ongoing community dialogue about helping children of all ages and abilities.

Learning Links learns much from parents and our approach to children’s learning is family-centred. We acknowledge the importance of each child’s family in their life experiences and learning and hope that we are meeting not only the needs of the children we help but also those of their families.

For the past 50 years, countless media outlets, governmental agencies and private foundations have been studying and surveying American schools. This intense scrutiny has been conducted in order to analyse and, hopefully, improve public education in the United States.

Generally, this research focuses on failing and struggling schools in an attempt to discover what these programs are doing wrong.

However, researchers have taken a different approach in recent years. Rather than studying what failing schools have done wrong, they now focus their scrutiny on what successful schools are doing right. Implicit in this approach, of course, is the opportunity for inferior schools to replicate the “best practices” of the effective programs. Makes sense.

In study after study, it is found that successful, responsive and productive schools share one common trait; they solicit, encourage, facilitate and promote parental communication.

In these schools…

Parents are not ignored… they are invited.
Parents are not avoided… they are consulted.
Parents are not discouraged from complaining… they are encouraged to communicate.

Effective, consistent and proactive teacher/parent communication is a relatively new phenomenon in our schools. In previous generations, the watchword was “no news is good news” and parents heard from teachers only when a crisis was occurring or the child was struggling mightily.

School/home contacts were stilted and consisted of artificial rituals of Parent Nights and annual ten-minute sit-downs with the child’s elementary teacher. Once the child reached high school, communication between the home and the classroom became virtually non-existent. All parties (the parent, the teacher and the student) felt that the program and the progress of the high school student was simply none of the parent’s business.

Times they are a changing! In most communities today, ongoing home/school communication is expected (and demanded!) by parents. They view themselves as “consumers of educational services” and they anticipate that they will be kept informed of the child’s progress and performance. Further, they expect that their input and opinions will be heard and responded to by the educator.

This phenomenon is new to Regular Education, but home/school communication has been a staple in Special Education for decades. Those of us who deal with kids with disabilities know that the child’s success and progress is heavily dependent upon the quality and frequency of this communication. Our colleagues and friends in the regular classroom have much to learn from us.

As a teacher, you can view this increased communication as a threat or as an opportunity.

Unfortunately, many teachers are “put off” by home/school communication. A special education teacher recently told me that parental interaction is “…the worst part of my job”. Last year, a national newsmagazine in the US featured a cover article with the title, “Why America’s Teachers Hate Parents.”

I have been communicating and corresponding with parents for over 35 years as a teacher and school administrator. Admittedly, it can be challenging, time consuming and frustrating… but it is well worth the effort.

Research conducted and compiled by the National Association of School Psychologists indicates that effective, responsive, well-planned home/school communication has the following results in schools:

Improved test scores
Improved grades
More positive student attitudes
Fewer special education referrals
Lower dropout rates
Less high risk behaviour
Higher staff morale
Enhanced relationships between school and community
Increased parental support for school’s initiatives and programs
Increased donations of goods, materials and services to the school
Improved parental opinion of and regard for the school
Everybody wins!

But there are pitfalls for the teacher who is attempting to increase the intensity and frequency of her contact with parents.

What follows is a list of Do’s and Don’ts that the teacher may find helpful.

• Do create a partnership with parents

A partnership implies that all parties work together — as equals — with specific rights and responsibilities toward a common goal. Each party contributes his own specific skills and knowledge toward meeting the objectives.

Unfortunately, much home/school communication is one-sided and school-directed. Information is shared… but power is not shared. This approach is not conducive to creating a genuine partnership.

The great majority of home/school crises (and lawsuits!) are a direct result of poor communication.

• Do be positive

In most families, a phone call or note from a teacher automatically indicates bad news related to the child’s behaviour or performance. You can prevent this from occurring by making “sunshine calls” on occasion. Simply drop the parent a note or give them a call when a child pleases (or surprises!) you with positive behaviour or progress.

Mrs. Robbins,

I wanted to let you know how delighted I was with Jeffy’s behaviour today at the Fire Prevention Assembly. He was attentive and responsive to our guest speaker and even asked a few questions and shared some information about his uncle, the fire-fighter.
You would have been very pleased. I certainly was! Way to go, Jeffy!

Best wishes,

Mrs. Crimmings

These brief, positive communiqués will do a great deal to improve your relationship with the parent. You also enhance your credibility with the parent for those times that you must communicate negative information.
• Do use the “communication sandwich”

Always begin and end your communiqué (verbal or written) in a positive way. The problem or difficulty should be covered in the middle.

Mrs. Ernest,

As you know, Jake has been working diligently to improve his spelling skills and even asked for some extra drill activities yesterday. Hopefully, he will have mastered the remaining targeted sight words by the end of the term.

However, the teacher aide and I have been concerned with a noticeable backslide in his math homework performance lately. He has missed eight of the last 12 assignments and the work that he did submit was not very neat or complete. Perhaps he is finding the long division unit to be difficult and we will provide him with some extra assistance in class.

We would appreciate it if you would remind him of the importance of homework… particularly in areas he finds difficult. That daily review and reinforcement will enable him to memorize and master the various processes. A supportive reminder from Mom always seems to help!

Thanks again for your help with our canned food drive. Your extra effort enabled us to surpass our goal.

Best wishes,

Sally McNally

• Do remember

Before they care how much you know, they gotta know how much you care!

Parents want to feel that you know their child and enjoy his company. For a child who struggles in school, this relationship may be the most important ingredient in his success.

Every parent has attended the never-ending, tedious classroom meeting with a teacher who drones on about the curriculum expectations and the educational objectives… but says nothing that indicates any knowledge of (or interest in) the child as an individual.

Always begin your communication with a quick anecdote that reflects your knowledge of the child as an individual.

Hello, Mrs. Granger. I love Sarah’s new coat. The collar is so unique and the colour looks terrific on her. I want to find one like it to send to my niece for her birthday!

Good morning, Mrs. Starkey. Jason is certainly excited about the pennant drive, isn’t he? He told me that your husband is taking him to the game over the weekend. Lucky boy!

Hello, Mr. Drexel. Gwen told the class about the new puppies. She is so excited. I love the names that you chose.

Again, by personalising the communication a bit, you send a very comforting and reassuring message to the parent.

• Don’t use jargon when communicating with parents

Every occupation or profession has its own unique vocabulary that is designed to facilitate communication between and among its members. But this terminology becomes an obstacle to effective communication when used with individuals outside the profession.

The field of education certainly has an impressive list of ever-changing technical terms…but so does every other profession. You may dazzle a parent who is a plumber, veterinarian or accountant by using terms like “cognitively amplicated matrix” or “criterion reference assessment” …but the parent could also overwhelm you with some terms from his professional collection.

Some teachers unintentionally (or intentionally?) confuse parents by using overly technical language. Don’t. If you must use a technical term, define it!

That said, also be very aware of not ‘talking down’ to parents. Many Mums and Dads are very well versed in educational issues, particularly regarding their own child. Be flexible in your parent communication by modifying your language to match the knowledge base of the parent.

• Do encourage dialogue

When you send a note home with the child, put a space at the end for the parent’s signature to indicate that she received it. But also put a small space for the parent to make a comment.

Do start (and continue) a monthly or bi-weekly classroom newsletter for parents

Initially, these may seem overly time consuming… but it is well worth your time and effort. Ultimately, it will save the teacher considerable time because it prevents 32 phone calls asking what time the Monday field trip to the zoo will return or the date of the class picture!

• Do send weekly work folders home

Teachers who consistently compile work folders and send them home (via the student) each Friday, report a significant improvement in home/school communication and cooperation. Many families use the folders as a weekly ritual where they review the work with their child and reinforce the child’s effort and progress.

• Don’t let situations fester

Communicate with parents during the initial phases of a brewing crisis. Contact them to discuss the child if you observe a significant change in his behaviour performance or attitude. Don’t wait until a full-blown crisis occurs before consulting with the home-front.

• Do handle conflicts effectively

These conflicts and disagreements are, unfortunately, inevitable because of the critical nature of the parent/school relationship. When a conflict arises and has been resolved, wipe the slate clean. Let it go. Move on and try to rebuild the partnership and trust that you had previously shared with the parent.

During a conflict, the professional must be sure to focus on the best interest of the child. Separate the person from the problem. Don’t allow “adult agendas” or clashing egos to impact on your decisions.

Never let a parent/teacher disagreement modify your treatment of the child.

Never hesitate to use “trial periods”. If you will be trying a new approach, inform the parent that you will be evaluating the child’s response on an ongoing basis to determine the effectiveness and viability of the strategy.

• Don’t be overly judgmental

You may find yourself dealing with a family whose attitudes, values and dynamics that are at variance with yours. As a professional, you should respect that family’s “culture” even if you are not in agreement with it.

A young teacher was conferencing with a set of parents. The father was quite domineering and tended to “cut off” his wife whenever she attempted to make a comment. The teacher scolded the Dad and told him to “allow your wife to get a word in.”

The teacher was quite proud of her actions. She shouldn’t have been. As a professional, you may not like the dynamic within a child’s family …but you must respect it.

In my opinion, the teacher was unprofessional. Further, I would imagine that this interaction had a negative, long-term impact upon her relationship and collaboration with that family.

Special educators must be particularly aware of cultural differences and traditions. For example, families of Asian and Hispanic origin are often “ashamed” of their child’s disability and may blame themselves for the problem.

Parents who are not English speaking may have difficulty recognizing the severity of a child’s academic problems because — relative to other family members — the child may seem quite facile at language.

• Do recognise that every teacher/parent relationship has three stages

John Cheng Gorman wisely reminds professionals that each home/school relationship has a beginning stage, a maintenance stage and an ending stage. Each of these stages has unique opportunities, strategies, responsibilities… and pitfalls.

The Beginning Stage requires the teacher to establish her credibility as a competent and confident professional. She must set the tone for ongoing collaboration and outline the specific goals, roles and responsibilities of each member of the new partnership.

The Maintenance Stage requires the teacher to use ongoing conferencing and communication to continue and enhance the partnership.

The Ending Stage brings appropriate closure to the partnership by creative, effective and well-planned transition to the next step in the child’s academic progression. The teacher must provide the family with encouragement as they face this new step.

The final stage is a particular difficulty for special educators. Parents often develop a dependency on a teacher and are reluctant to end the relationship. You must communicate to the parent that you will communicate closely with the child’s next teacher and that you will be involved in the transition. Assure her that the child will be “in good hands.”

• Don’t attempt to defend the indefensible

There may come a situation where you, a colleague or “the system” makes a mistake. Considering the myriad responsibilities that we all have, such situations are pretty much inevitable.

Do not become defensive or argumentative when faced with such a situation. Do not attempt to construct a defence with a series of excuses or rationales. This approach only serves to anger the parent and weakens the partnership.

Merely apologise for the error and express your regret for the situation. Outline steps that will be taken to prevent a re-occurrence. Even the most upset parent will generally respond well to this approach. Sincere apologies are not a reflection of weakness or incompetence. Rather, they reflect strength and confidence.

• Don’t view the parent too narrowly…or judgmentally

Suppose that you have a special education student, Jessica, in your class. Her mum is named Amanda. Therefore, your relationship with Amanda is based solely on her role as Jessica’s mom.

But Amanda has other roles in her life beyond being Jessica’s mum. She’s also a wife, a daughter, a sister, an in-law, a neighbour, a friend, an employee, etc., etc., etc. Each of these roles requires Amanda’s time and attention.

Perhaps her mum is chronically ill, her job is at peak season, she is re-doing her kitchen and her dog died this morning. These situations impact significantly on her. Being Jessica’s mom is not her solitary responsibility… albeit it is a very important one.

Be mindful of this when Amanda fails to immediately return your phone call, forget to come to the scheduled classroom conference or is not able to make brownies for the Bake Sale. Give her a break!

• Do keep the “balance of power” equitable

In any effective, functioning partnerships, the power is shared equally and appropriately.

In the teacher/parent partnership it is important to remain mindful that both parties have areas of unique knowledge and skill. The parents are well versed in their child’s long-term developmental history (physical, medical and social), his interests and affinities and his lifestyle.

The teacher has knowledge of teaching and assessment strategies, school policies and procedures and the child’s school performance.

Share this knowledge and perspective in a collaborative manner. According to Special Education Law, this partnership is mandated.

• Do create a parent-friendly and welcoming environment in your classroom and throughout the school building

Ask the principal to post “Welcome to our School” signs, as well as maps and clear instructions and directions. Some schools have even created “Parent Waiting Rooms” for parent visitors with coffee, soft drinks and a parent lending library.

Schools have initiated bi-monthly “Family Nights” where student families and staff families gather for a potluck supper, entertainment or a movie.

Other creative ideas include school-wide mural projects, community gardens, family litter patrols, playground construction projects and family talent shows. Faculty attendance at such events should be strongly encouraged.

Many teachers publish their classroom newsletter via email. Beware, however, that a “digital divide” exists in many communities and some parents may not have access to electronic mail or the Internet.

An effective classroom newsletter could include:

Announcements of upcoming events
Reminders
Homework tips
Featured student of the week
Acknowledgements and “thank-yous” for families who have assisted in some way.
“Wish Lists” that solicits items and services that parents could donate (We need 50 glass jars for our upcoming science unit.)
Suggestions to supplement curriculum content at home (e.g. PBS is broadcasting a program on the Civil War next Sunday. It will emphasis the role that young Southern recruits played in the war. The class read a book related to that topic in October. You may want to encourage your child to watch it… or even watch it with him.)
Reprints of timely articles
Samples of student writing or artwork
Outline of plans for the upcoming week
Profile of a featured family of the week

• Do assist the special educational parent to develop a realistic understanding and appreciation of the assessment process

They should not view “testing” as the etched-in-stone determining factor in the child’s future. Neither should they feel that testing is unimportant an inconsequential. They should come to view testing as an integral part of the problem-solving process.

• Don’t hesitate to provide special education parents with occasional guidance and advice on home issues… if they request it

Your knowledge and understanding of the child’s disabilities would be very useful to Mum and Dad as they work with the child at home.

Encourage the parent to read books when the child is watching… to speak positively about school and teachers… to show an interest in the child’s schoolwork… to review school assignments… to praise the child’s efforts… to encourage independence… to establish a specific time and place to do homework… and to provide occasional learning games and activities at home… to provide the child with a warm, supportive home environment… to minimise the use of disappointment and punishment at home… to encourage and nurture the child’s peer relationships… to speak slowly and clearly to the child, avoiding multi-concept phrases.

• Do understand that special education parents often have great difficulty accepting the fact that their child has a disability

Provide them with advice and reading material that may assist them in this process.

• Do encourage the special education parent to understand the role of “coach”

There are times when the parent needs to “step aside” and allow the child to attempt a task independently. Remind them that a good coach never goes on the playing field, rather he stays on the sidelines and provides the “player” with encouragement, praise, suggestions, praise and guidance.

• Do remember that special education parents often go through a series of unpredictable “stages” as they attempt to accept and understand their child’s disability

Among these stages are anger, guilt, denial, depression, envy, isolation and flight. As a result, these parents may be difficult to deal with and may treat you in an inappropriate manner.

It is important to remember that these folks are on a difficult and challenging journey… a journey that they did not ask for. In the history of mankind, no pregnant woman has ever got on her knees and asked to be given a child with a disability.

REMEMBER… take their behaviour seriously, but don’t take it personally.

By Rick Lavoie
Reprinted with permission.

Lavoie, R. (2008).