There are times parents call our schools because they are upset. The parents who call are passionate about their children. From time to time, we all find ourselves talking about and generating a great deal of concern about parents who do not care about their children and have no passion for their children’s futures. You know, these parents do not exist. All parents love their children the best they know how and are passionate about their children’s education and futures. All parents express this passion and love a little differently. As educators, we need to continually remind ourselves of this, and we need to be cautious that we do not pass judgment because we choose to view parenting through the lens of our own experiences.
We need to actively listen to parents and remember that every parent we interact with is at least half right in their argument, no matter what the circumstances are. As educators we do not know and understand students as well as their parents do. Because of this, we need to partner with our parents in every aspect of their children’s education. It is difficult to partner with our parents if we do not work to build positive relationships. Relationship building requires that we extend a hand more than halfway. It means we call home, visit home, write notes, email, text, tweet, blog, and stick our head in the car window. It means that our first interactions with parents have to be positive.
As professional educators, we need to be current and stay cognizant of the substantial body of research that demonstrates a direct correlation between student success and parental involvement. John Hatte (2009) articulates one such example when he reminds school leaders of the claim made by Sweet and Applebuam (2004) that the most effective parental involvement strategy is home visits. Sweet’s and Applebuam’s meta-analytic review of home visiting programs for families with young children proved to both reduce abuse and increase school achievement. Dr. Barbara Link, Principal of Jefferson Elementary School in the Beaver Dam Unified School District, sponsors a school community meal once a month where she opens her building to the families of the Jefferson Elementary School community where volunteers serve an evening meal. A majority of Jefferson school families participate in this school connection activity. The success of the program is dependent on Dr. Link’s intimate involvement calling families, sending invitations and visiting homes to transport families to school. The advent of Jefferson school’s community meal program correlates with the school’s ongoing success as a Wisconsin School of Recognition.
We all understand it is a much less anxious endeavor to invite families to our schools for community meals or call home to talk about a student’s success than it is to deliver news that is less than positive. How we handle very delicate parent interactions that involve delivering bad news will often determine the quality of our long-term relationships with these families. Begin these conversations with an apology: “I am truly sorry for having to contact you today to discuss a difficult situation involving your daughter. I know you didn’t start your day thinking I was going to be calling you.”
Establish a partnership by letting the parent know you are looking to work together to find a resolution to the problem at hand. Listen for and find common ground. When having to explain discipline, work to articulate how you have created the best outcome for the student given the situation and provide a resource for help: “I am really sorry we find ourselves in a situation where Jane has to be suspended out of school for three days. We are going to take advantage of this situation by talking with each of her teachers to find where her time can be best spent over the coming days working at home. Within the next hour, Jane’s school counselor will call you to talk through the support we will provide Jane while she is out.” Following the phone call, we have to deliver on what we promise. It is of paramount importance that we develop and nurture trusting relationships with all parents in our learning communities. We cannot do this if we do not deliver on the promises we make within the timelines we articulate. Here are some additional strategies that may be helpful in building positive relationships with our parents.
- Send a postcard home to every student in your class/building each semester explaining something positive.
- Track your positive interactions with parents and ensure you reach every parent twice a year.
- Start all parent meetings by sharing something positive.
- For parent meetings that require multiple professionals to attend, have one staff member meet with the parent and have others arrive later. Never bring a parent into a room full of people.
- Strive to return every phone call or email within 24 hours.
- Apologize often.
We all have to work to demonstrate our commitment to do what is best for the students we serve. The responsibility to create positive relationships with our parents falls squarely on our shoulders. Embrace the responsibility.
Hattie , J. (2009). Visible learning. (p. 70). New York: Routledge.
Sweet, M.A., & Appelbaum, M. I. (2004). Is home visiting an effective strategy? A meta-analytic review of home visiting programs for families with young children. Child Development, 75 (5), 1435-1456.
I adopted many of the strategies listed above from the works of Todd Whitacker (http://toddwhitaker.com). If you are interested in additional strategies and information about working with parents (sometimes in difficult situations) you may find his books helpful.