Back to School – Tips and Tricks to Start the Year Off Right

The end of summer can be an emotional time for parents, students and teachers alike. There may be disappointment about returning to a structured schedule, excitement about seeing friends and apprehension or optimism about adjusting to new schools, students or parents.

All these feelings can be overwhelming, but managing these emotions can help everyone navigate the back to school transition. By setting expectations for students, parents and teachers, and clearly communicating those expectations with one another, adjusting to new people, classes and schedules will seem less daunting.

There is a level of comfort that comes from knowing what to expect. How much homework will there be? What’s the best way to contact the teacher or the parent? What does the parent expect their child to learn? The ability to identify and communicate the answers to questions such as these will ease the transition back to school and set the tone for the duration of the year.

The School’s Role

The start of the school year brings with it a seemingly endless list of correspondence. Enrollment paperwork, bus stop schedules, lunch accounts, driveline procedures and teacher assignments are just a few of the communications before school even starts, but they hardly comprise the full list of what parents need to know.

Prior to the first day parents are eager for and and expecting detailed information, making email an effective form of communication. However, emails should be sent strategically.

Lumping all the necessary information in one email risks testing the attention span of parents, while sending a multitude of emails is like crying wolf, diminishing the sense of urgency with each additional email sent. Timing is also a factor, as parents will need sufficient lead time to act on the information they receive.   

Try grouping communication by subject matter, grade level or school (e.g. ES, MS, etc.), and using headers to help the reader quickly scan content. For example, an enrollment procedures notice might include an overview of the process with links to all required forms. Open house notices could include a link to find your assigned teacher and a list of required supplies. Transportation notices might have a bold header for driveline, bus schedules and carpool options, with additional details grouped by topic.

Email is an effective way to share a lot of content at a time when parents are hungry for information, but it’s not the only way to get parents’ engaged.

Notices on Facebook or Twitter can serve as a quick reminder to check emails or visit the school website. Back to school images on Instagram can be posted with a quick note to make sure parents know where to find more information. Even a text message with a link to the proper resource can be utilized (if parents opt to receive them). The key is to manage each of these mediums correctly.

Text messages and tweets should be no more than a sentence. Facebook and Instagram messages no more than two. Use these mediums to direct people to their email or a web page where they can get additional information. Most importantly, parents don’t want their feeds or inboxes to be full of the same message from the same sender, so it’s important to leave some distance between messages.  

The Teacher’s Role

Positive outcomes are based in part on the relationship between teachers and parents. Relationships are built over time through communication and collaboration. When teachers and parents have a relationship they are able to work together to see past test scores to identify learning patterns and nurture a child’s strengths, interests and talents (Magsamen, 2016).

Relationships start with an introduction. Tell parents and students who you are, both professionally and personally. Talk about your educational background and share some of your hobbies and interests. The simple act of sharing information can bring comfort to new families, set a positive tone and lay the foundation for a relationship.

As part of your introduction welcome parents and students into the classroom and walk them through the daily schedule. Help them understand how you will communicate with them, where they can find information and the best way to voice their opinions or concerns.

Ask parents how they prefer to communicate. Remember, different school communities may have different communication needs. Some may need translation services, home visits or hard copies if they lack a computer or smartphone, so you may need to make adjustments to accommodate.

Students’ ability to learn depends not just on the quality of their textbooks and teachers, but also on the comfort and safety they feel at school and the strength of their relationships with adults and peers there (Sparks, 2013). Tell parents what you do to make students feel safe including disciplinary procedures, bullying policies and establishing workspaces they can call their own like a desk or reading corner.

Setting expectations for communication and classroom operations at the outset of the school year will help facilitate the exchange of information throughout the year, laying the foundation for a positive and productive relationship that benefits students.

Teachers can build on that foundation through ongoing dialogue. Parents want to be part of their child’s education, but they often don’t know where to begin. By inviting them to contribute, and helping them identify specific tasks that would benefit their child, teachers can help parents become an active participant in the education process.

Provide tips on what parents can do at home to reinforce classroom exercises, such as reading aloud or setting a designated time or place for homework. Send parents a brief note about what was covered in class so they can ask specific questions at dinner. Get all parents involved, not just those who are class volunteers, by having children take a concept they learned in class and teach it to their parents at home.

Simple steps such as these improve the student’s success while promoting a relationship between parents and teachers. However, the best measure of any relationship is the ability to exchange information.

Much of the interaction between parents and teachers is rooted in what the teacher communicates to the parent, but for parents to trust in their child’s teacher they need the opportunity to speak, and to feel like they are being heard. Make sure parents know you are available to listen and are interested in what they have to say by inviting them to communicate with you.

This invitation needs to be more than simply providing your contact details. Ask parents what they want for their child, such as any technical, social or emotional skills they hope to see improvement in. Encourage parents to talk about the talents they see in their children so those can be nurtured, and any areas of concern they have that you can help address through instruction. Explain what your role will be throughout the school year, and ask what role they are able to play.

Parents and teachers can share information about expectations, roles and responsibilities over email, on phone calls or even during open house night. However, home visits are garnering attention as an efficient means of establishing a parent-teacher relationship.

A three-year study of home visits by the California State University at Sacramento found that home visits can increase student performance, jumpstart parent involvement, reduce discipline problems and increase positive attitudes toward school (Project Appleseed, 2018). Home visits provide insight into the student’s life outside of school, and demonstrate to parents and students alike that there is a network of resources available to support their educational needs.

The Parent’s/Caregiver’s Role

The start of the school year is characterized by expectations. Parents have expectations for the teacher, the classroom, the curriculum and their child, all of which they believe should be met. However, teachers, students and the school itself won’t be successful in this if they don’t know what those expectations are.

Parents should pick 3-5 ‘goals’ that are most critical to their child’s success and communicate those to the teacher, keeping in mind that the more specific you are the better the outcome is likely to be.

For example, if you indicate you’d like to see your child’s writing improve you may see the number of paragraphs increase or the sentences in each paragraph get longer. However, if you say your child seems to write down thoughts as they come and papers don’t flow well, then the teacher knows exactly which aspect of the writing process needs work.

If you indicate you’d like to see improved social skills your child may be encouraged to share or to look at the person they are speaking to, but if you say your child struggles to make friends the teacher might be able to pair him or her with other students that share the same interests or speak the same language at home.

By challenging yourself to be specific in your expectations you can better communicate those to the teacher. As a result, you can work together to identify realistic results, and what can be done in the class and at home to achieve those results.

Remember, expectations don’t have to be focused on areas of improvement. They can include talents to be nurtured or learning habits that influence the type of instruction students receive.

Perhaps your child is an accelerated reader and you want them to have access to more challenging books. Or perhaps he or she is a great listener when not forced to sit still at a desk, and they do best with a special chair that allows them to move. Understanding these aspects of a student’s learning style can help teachers make reasonable adjustments that accommodate specific needs.

By clearly communicating what you want for your child, and helping teachers to understand the strengths and weaknesses they have that may impact learning, parents are more likely to see their expectations met in the classroom. However, classroom success isn’t solely dependent on the teacher.

Parental support outside the classroom has a significant impact on student success. Simple things like setting a time and place for homework, getting to school on time and even speaking positively about school or the importance of getting an education can lead to positive perceptions and form strong work habits.

Teachers may also make specific requests of you at home, such as practicing reading or time management, to reinforce skills and behavior that is taught in the classroom. When parents are receptive to these requests they play an active role in their child’s success, working in concert with the teacher to achieve the best possible results.

Join the Conversation

Teachers and parents alike have preconceived notions about what the school year will bring. Meeting those expectations for all is a daunting task, made all the more difficult if the parties don’t communicate those desires.

Often times parents look for teacher cues before they speak up about what they want for their child, while teachers are waiting for parents to speak up. An invitation makes it easier to begin the conversation, but don’t rely on that to speak up. You only get one opportunity to start the year off right, and you don’t want to miss it because of a formality.

Don’t forget, while you have your own expectations, other people will have expectations for you. When communicating what you want to see during the year be sure to ask what you can do in return to help make the year a positive one for all.

What expectations do you have for the school year? Do you know what others expect of you? How do you get the year off to a good start?

References

Magsamen, S. (2016) – Working Mother. The Parent-Teacher Relationship: Why It’s More Important Than Ever (https://www.workingmother.com/parent-teacher-relationship-why-its-more-important-than-ever)

 

Project Appleseed Staff (2018) – Project Appleseed. The Positive Effects of Teacher Home Visits. (http://www.projectappleseed.org/teacher-home-visits)

 

Sparks, D. (2013) – Education Week. Research and Schoolroom Practice Show A Supportive Environment Can Promote Achievement—And Stress Can Be A Hindrance (https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/01/10/16environment.h32.html)

 

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