Back to School: The Importance of Building a Connection with Parents from Day One

“The most accurate predictor of student achievement is the extent to which the family is involved in the student’s education,”  A New Generation of Evidence: The Family is Critical to Student Achievement (Henderson, A. & Berla, N.). So how can families be involved? It starts with parents and teachers forging a relationship.

Communication is the foundation of any relationship, particularly one that has the power to influence academic success, like that of parents and teachers. And while it’s true that frequent and relevant communication can produce positive student outcomes, the simple act of providing information won’t result in engagement.

Parents and teachers have to exchange information. They have to share, listen and respect one another to be fully engaged. They have to build a relationship with student success as the common objective.  This leads to increased motivation for learning, improved behavior, more regular attendance, and a more positive attitude about homework and school in general (American Federation of Teachers, 2007).

Successful relationships are built over time, so parents and teachers must work to forge a relationship early on in the school year. This will help ensure that each party knows how they can be a supportive part of the learning process throughout the year, making the most of the time you have to work together.

Background

Parents and teachers alike begin the year with certain expectations. Parents expect teachers to help their children learn and grow both academically and socially; to recognize aptitude and struggles and address those accordingly; and to keep them informed about what is happening in the classroom. Teachers expect parents to support the learning process at home, reinforce good work habits and attendance, and be receptive to both praise and constructive criticism.

Clearly both parties have a common goal in mind; student success. But having a common goal doesn’t mean you have the same ideas about achieving that goal. Too often parents and teachers assume their expectations are known to one another, and become frustrated and upset when those unknown expectations aren’t met.

Parents and teachers must communicate with one another not just about the role they expect the other to play, but about the role they themselves can play. This doesn’t just help define expectations, it establishes areas of synergy, where parents and teachers can make a connection that forms the basis of their working relationship.

A working relationship, or lack thereof, doesn’t just impact student success, it can impact a teacher’s ability or desire to facilitate student achievement. Consider a recent study by the University of Missouri, which tracked teacher ratings of parental involvement, and how those teacher perceptions could predict academic and social success:

“If a teacher has a good relationship with a student’s parents or perceives that those parents are positively engaged in their child’s education, that teacher may be more likely to give extra attention or go the extra mile for that student,” says Keith Herman, professor in the MU College of Education and co-director of the Missouri Prevention Center. “If the same teacher perceives another child’s parents to be uninvolved or to have a negative influence on the child’s education, it likely will affect how the teacher interacts with both the child and the parent.”

A positive parent/teacher relationship isn’t the only factor that influences student success, but studies like the one above suggests it is a contributing factor, and one that both parents and teachers can encourage simply by opening the lines of communication.

Teacher’s Role

The first step a teacher can take is to tell your story. Help parents understand who you are so they can find synergy with you and begin to trust you. Some things you might share include:

  • Where you’re from and/or where you live currently (you might be neighbors!)
  • What college you attended
  • Marital/family status (parents may feel a bond with you as a fellow parent)
  • Hobbies, favorite sports teams or musicians, favorite books
  • Pets
  • Why you became a teacher
  • Pictures (family and pets are ok, but include a professional picture so it’s easier for parents to identify you in the context of the classroom)
  • What your goals are for the class/school year

Many people find it hard to share information about themselves, but doing so with parents invites them to reciprocate. You may or may not share a connection beyond wanting what’s best for the student, but sharing will promote trust, which is the foundation of any good parent/teacher relationship.

In a perfect world schools would make this information available to parents as soon as classrooms are assigned, so parents and students alike had a sense of who the teacher is before the school year begins. However, passing this information out during meet and greets or on the first day is better than not providing it at all.

Second, establish a connection. This could be simply a common goal to work toward, but it could also be something outside the classroom that enhances your ability to meet that goal or helps parents identify with you.

Connections can be made via email a phone call, or even a personal visit. Welcome families to your classroom, invite them to a “meet the teacher” event, or schedule a time for a brief chat about their student. These simple gestures speak volumes to parents who often want to be engaged but aren’t sure where, or even if, they fit in the class.

The most critical element of a parent/teacher connection is to set clear expectations, so you can avoid misunderstandings as the year goes on. How often will feedback be provided? What is the homework policy? When is discipline required and how will it be carried out? What skills should students have mastered by year end? Don’t forget to ask parents what their expectations are, so they feel comfortable sharing their input.

Discussing expectations sets the tone for communication throughout the year, which in a positive relationship will help parents and teachers support one another in their respective domains. (American Federation of Teachers, 2017). For example, if students are learning about suburban, urban and rural communities a family might identify examples of each as they drive around town. Conversely, if a family is teaching their child appropriate responses to disappointment, a teacher can reinforce that lesson in the classroom.

Third, teachers need to nurture relationships with parents. Develop a process for regular, ongoing communication throughout the year, and share that with parents so they know what to expect. Often times communication will focus on the basics such as daily schedules, homework assignments, upcoming events and in some cases behavioral updates. But individual attention goes a long way as well, especially when it is positive news.

All too often communication is limited to notifications, routine class updates, and the dreaded call from either the principal or the nurse. These are all important points of contact, but they’re either neutral or negative in nature. Make it a point to share the positive; that helps set a positive tone for the parent relationship, one which students will recognize and imitate.

Elena Aguilar, Leadership coach and former teacher, chronicled her experience with positive communication in her article, “The Power of the Positive Phone Call Home,” (Edutopia, 2012). In it she states, “What shocked and saddened me were the parents who would say, ‘I don’t think anyone has ever called me from school with anything positive about my child.’”

Communication to parents shouldn’t always be about schedules, notices or problems, or parents might start to dread hearing from teachers. Throw in some positives where you can; it helps change the overall tone of your interactions, and makes it easier to work together. This ensures that a student’s learning opportunities aren’t confined to either the classroom or the home, which helps increase student success.

Lastly, it’s important to note that while a positive working relationship between parents and teachers has benefits for the students, it has benefits for the  teachers as well. Regular contact with parents helps teachers understand the student’s needs and home environment, and how the classroom instruction can help meet those needs. Further, when parents are engaged with the teacher they often have a more positive view about both the teacher and the school, which increases morale.

Parent’s Role

Parents typically take their engagement cues from the teacher, waiting for the teacher to tell them what, where, when and how they should be involved. But this wait and see approach assumes all teachers are skilled at initiating relationships with parents. The reality is teachers sometimes take their cues from the parent, and if neither party initiates dialogue it’s the student that suffers.

Recall the University of Missouri study that found teacher perceptions can predict academic and social success. Parents who wait for an invitation to engage can appear disinterested, particularly if they don’t volunteer, attend class functions, or work with the PTO. The parent may have work or family obligations that make attending school functions difficult, but if the teacher doesn’t know that they may interpret a lack of communication as a lack of interest.

Parents need to take ownership of their role in the parent/teacher relationship. Don’t wait for the teacher to initiate dialogue; encourage him or her to share some information about themselves by asking questions. Just as teachers can inspire synergy and trust by sharing something about themselves, parents can do so by letting teachers know they’re interested. Some examples:

  • Where did you get your teaching degree?
  • What is your favorite subject to teach?
  • Why did you choose to teach (X) grade?
  • How long have you been at this school?

Once introductions have been made, parents should share information about the student that will help contribute to his/her success. The more knowledge a teacher has about how a student learns, their strengths and weaknesses, and how life outside school may impact classroom behavior, the better equipped the teacher is to meet that student’s needs. Examples include:

  • Learning style
  • Skills that need nurturing and/or improvement
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Changes or challenges in home life

Proactively sharing information builds a foundation for parent/teacher interaction throughout the year, and sets the tone for a positive classroom experience for the student. However, to truly build a relationship with the teacher parents need to do more than share information. They need to listen.

What does the teacher expect of you? How you can reinforce classroom lessons at home? What positive examples can you set for the student about working together? Students’ personal investment in and interest for learning are influenced by parental messages so parents and teachers working together as a team sets a positive example for students to follow (Bempechat, 1998; Coleman, 1987).

Lastly, parents have a responsibility to nurture the parent/teacher relationship as well. If a teacher makes an effort to define and carry out a process for communication, a weekly email for example, parents need to respect it. It’s frustrating for teachers to see that emails go unread, only to spend hours fielding calls and emails addressing questions about the very items they pushed out in their letter.

Recommendations

School leaders need to make a statement that parent engagement and sharing information with families is a priority at their school. They need to set the expectation that education is a partnership between teachers, students and families. One way to accomplish this is through teacher training.

Looking back at the MU study, researchers randomly assigned teachers to receive a professional development program designed, part of which focused on how to develop more effective relationships with parents and students. They found parents were more likely to develop positive behaviors, including higher involvement and bonding with the teacher, if that teacher had completed the training. Therefore, schools may want to consider implementing a program that helps coach teachers on building parental relationships.

Another way for schools to support parent/teacher partnerships is through group communication. There are a number of tools available to facilitate simple group communication, from newsletters to push alerts and reminders to positive updates for parents. Take advantage of these. This is a simple way to keep parents in the loop. Define up front what the process is for sharing information and make sure your parents know what this process is. Keep in mind parents today are busy – kids, jobs, life challenges. Many parents don’t have computers in their homes. They spend the majority of their time on mobile devices. Keep communications short. Think ‘tweet.’

Finally, schools may want to consider promoting personal communication, especially for positive news, at the start of the school year. This could involve anything from phone calls or personal visits to texts or emails. Technology is an efficient form of communication, and should be used for those regular updates.  Phone calls and visits are more time consuming, but have a significant impact. Teachers need to decide which is the best method for them, but utilizing the available tools to open and maintain dialogue can help get parents, teachers and students on the same page.

Join the Conversation

Parents and teachers both want to see students succeed, and they each have a role to play to help children grow both academically and socially. Their roles should compliment one another, but assumptions and perceptions, which are often inaccurate, can make it feel like parents and teachers are on opposite sides.

Leave the assumptions and perceptions at the door. Talk about the expectations you each have. Think of each other as partners or teammates, working together for a common goal. Working as partners creates constructive connections between parents and teachers, and develops an intentional and ongoing relationship between teachers and parents that is designed to enhance children’s learning, and to address the obstacles that impede it (Shagun, L. 2015).

How do parents and teachers form connections at your school? How could you improve those connections?

References

American Federation of Teachers, (2007). Building Parent-Teacher Relationships. (http://www.readingrockets.org/article/building-parent-teacher-relationships)

Hurst, N. (2017); Students more likely to succeed if teachers have positive perceptions of parents (https://phys.org/news/2017-02-students-teachers-positive-perceptions-parents.html#jCp)  

Sahagun, L. (2015) The Importance of Building Parent-Teacher Relationships (http://www.readinghorizons.com/blog-roll/the-importance-of-building-parent-teacher-relationships)

Bempechat, J. & Shernoff, D. (2012) Parental Influences on Achievement, Motivation and Student Engagement (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236685628_Parental_Influences_on_Achievement_Motivation_and_Student_Engagement)

Aguilar, E. (2012) The Power of the Positive Phone Call Home (https://www.edutopia.org/blog/power-positive-phone-call-home-elena-aguilar)

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