Communication: The Cornerstone of Family Engagement

“Engagement” is the new buzz. Whether you are a business trying to increase loyalty with customers, an organization trying to increase employee satisfaction or a school trying to increase participation and retention of families, engagement is the goal. Why all the buzz?

Studies show:

  • It costs five times as much to attract a new customer as it does to retain an existing one, yet 44% of all companies have a greater focus on customer acquisition vs. 18% that focus on retention (Saleh, n.d.).
  • Organizations with a high level of employee engagement report 22% more productivity and 65% lower turnover than organizations with low levels of engagement (Baldoni, 2013).
  • Students of engaged parents are more likely to attend school regularly, get good grades, demonstrate positive behavior and graduate/attend a postsecondary education program (Dervarics and O’Brien, 2011).

Engaged individuals tend to be both successful and loyal, so how do you create an effective engagement program? The foundation of engagement success begins with effective communication.

Communication in Schools

According to a report by Bull, Brooking and Campbell (2008), sustained parental participation begins with positive and proactive relationships between parents and teachers. In other words, when parents and teachers build trust through relevant communication student outcomes are enhanced through ongoing parental engagement.

The more parents and teachers share relevant information with each other about a student (engagement), the better equipped both will be to help that student achieve academically (American Federation of Teachers, 2007). Yet as discussed last month in our issue about building inclusive school communities, we noted that ‘For parents to understand and appreciate their continuing role, parents, schools and indeed the general community need to build a mutual understanding of positive parental engagement and strategies to achieve and sustain it.’ Without communication, you can’t build this understanding, and without understanding it’s hard to build trust, a critical element in successful parental engagement.

The Problem

Every year Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators, have conducted the PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. In their 48th annual PDK poll, they found one-third of public school parents assigned their child’s school a C grade or lower because they were dissatisfied with the school’s efforts to keep them informed.

Parents who feel uninformed usually fall into two categories; those who don’t get the information and those who get too much. Even if the amount of communication is just right, the information might not be received if it relies heavily on jargon that is unfamiliar to parents, or doesn’t take into account the linguistic or cultural barriers that might exist in some homes.

A key element of school communication is relationship-building and setting expectations; familiarizing parents with the school and the teachers, introducing them to jargon and concepts associated with the curriculum, and identifying the role they play so they can be engaged. Many schools utilize weekly newsletters to facilitate this relationship-building, but in an effort to be thorough end up overwhelming parents with information which may not be relevant to their child’s program. While regular communication is positive, more communication is not necessarily better.

For example, suppose you have a sixth grader looking forward to their upcoming graduation before embarking on their middle school journey. You receive the weekly school newsletter containing information on the art show, band concert, spirit night, state testing, school play, kindergarten registration, spring break dates, after school care, guitar club, second grade night at the museum and sixth grade graduation updates. With the first half of the newsletter covering topics which aren’t relevant to you, many parents might stop reading before they get to the information they need, especially if they’re receiving information overload like this on a weekly basis.

The disparity in what is communicated, by whom, and how frequently, is the primary culprit for parental dissatisfaction with schools. Schools today need to develop a communication strategy that achieves what we like to call the ‘Goldilocks Effect.’ It’s not too frequent or too content heavy. It’s not too sparse or devoid of detail. It’s timed appropriately and with relevant information, and includes the much-needed invitation for parents to respond in an effort to build the trust that is so critical to facilitating parental engagement.

Building a Solution

Despite all the methods we use to communicate these days, it seems that many schools still struggle with effective communication. School newsletters, email, social media, and old fashioned paper handouts all compete for attention from parents with limited free time. So how should schools work to increase parent engagement and cut through the clutter?

A recent report from the Australian Research Alliance suggests communication has the greatest impact when it is focused on linking behaviors of families, teachers and students to learning and learning outcomes; when there is a clear understanding of the roles of parents and teachers in learning; when family behaviors are conducive to learning; and when there are consistent, positive relationships between the school and parents.

With that in mind, building a communications strategy that promotes engagement requires a school to ask itself the following questions:

  • Who needs to receive information about your school? This includes looking beyond your parent/teacher relationships to prospective families, employees and community members.
  • What information needs to be shared and for what purpose?
  • How often does your recipient want to receive the information?
  • Which staff member has access to this information to share?
  • What delivery method is most effective for each recipient and the type of information they receive?
  • Is a response from your recipient required?

These questions are critical to developing an appropriate communication strategy because teachers and school administrators should both be communicating regularly with parents, but not about the same things and not with the same frequency. The more relevant you can make your message to the recipient, and the fewer tools you use to communicate, the greater the likelihood the message will be received.

Consider what school administrators need to communicate. Activities and important dates would appear to apply to all parents, but the reality is they don’t. Not every parent has a child in band or one who is graduating sixth grade, but spirit night, fundraisers, and even general engagement tips such as what notable school events parents should ask their children about would apply to all parents. School newsletters today combine too many messages for too many audiences and the result is a very low readership rate.

Teachers should also be communicating regularly, not just about what is taking place in the classroom, but to help parents support their child’s learning at home. Key ideas to consider:

  • Specific questions parents can ask about classroom learning activities that week.
  • Dinner conversation tips.
  • Tips on how parents can help with home learning.
  • How to improve executive function skills like time management.
  • An invitation for questions or comments.

Parents want to contribute to their child’s academic success, but unless they know what’s happening at school, and feel comfortable asking questions about the process, they struggle to understand how they can have a positive influence. Keeping parents informed is a critical element to building trust, setting expectations and creating an actively engaged school community.

Tools to Achieve the Solution

The digital age has brought with it an overabundance of new tools and models to facilitate relevant communication, encompassing everything from email correspondence to social media posts. Many schools use email and weekly newsletters to send school-wide information to their families. There are also a number of mobile apps that are specifically designed for the education industry to help keep parents informed about what’s happening in the classroom. But as with any tool, intent and execution are not always aligned. Often times, we see teachers and administrators selecting the tool based on their own preferences, which means parents could end up with half a dozen sources of information they have to monitor for one child.

Effective communication to achieve engagement isn’t challenging because of a lack of ideas or tools; it’s challenging because the same information isn’t relevant to everyone. Any approach to parental engagement must recognize that there aren’t just multiple tools but multiple recipients – parents, teachers, schools, even the wider community and peers – which interact to influence a child’s learning and formal education. Schools need to be intentional about what they communicate, to whom and with what tools. By streamlining messages and tools schools can deliver the right information to the right recipient, achieving the engagement and loyalty they want from their families.

Join the Discussion

According to the Australian Research Alliance, receiving ongoing, respectful, and relevant communications from the teacher contributes to a parent’s level of comfort with the school, perception of their child as a learner, and knowledge about specific school programs. Further, consistent dialogue between parents and schools builds trust, and hence loyalty, between the two parties.

The key to achieving engagement is relevant communication; how does your school get the right message to the right people?

 

Sources

  1. American Federation of Teachers (2007). Building Parent-Teacher Relationships. Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Teachers.
  2. Baldoni, J. (2013). Employee Engagement Does More than Boost Productivity. Retrieved April 2017 from https://hbr.org/2013/07/employee-engagement-does-more
  3. Bull, Brooking and Campbell (2008). Successful Home-School Partnerships. Retrieved April 2017 from http://www.nzcer.org.nz/system/files/884_Successful_Home-School_Partnership-v2.pdf.
  4. Dervarics, C. and O’Brien, E. (2011). Back to school: How parent involvement affects student achievement. Retrieved April 2017 from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Public-education/Parent-Involvement/Parent-Involvement.html
  5. Emerson, Fear, Fox and Sanders (2012). Parental engagement in learning and schooling: Lessons from research. A report by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) for the Family-School and Community Partnerships Bureau: Canberra. Retrieved February 2017 from https://www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/command/download_file/id/7/filename/Parental_engagement_in_learning_and_schooling_Lessons_from_research_BUREAU_ARACY_August_2012.pdf
  6. Phi Delta Kappa International (2016). 48th Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward Public Schools. Retrieved April 2017 from http://pdkpoll2015.pdkintl.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/pdkpoll48_2016.pdf
  7. Saleh, K. (n.d.). Customer Acquisition Vs.Retention Costs – Statistics And Trends. Retrieved April 2017 from http://www.invespcro.com/blog/customer-acquisition-retention/

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