By Leah Carson
After more than a year of remote learning, periods of quarantine, family illnesses, and loss, educators are exploring every avenue of support to help students rebuild their academic skills. Some of these students will need help with their literacy skills, requiring the support of classroom teachers, interventionists, English language learner teachers, and special educators. In addition, there are many families who are eager to partner with educators to provide their children with the extra support needed to build literacy skills.
Developing a strong partnership with caregivers is an essential part of helping students reach their potential, but the reality is that in some cases reaching the families of struggling learners can provide additional challenges. However, by viewing the work we do with families as a cycle of connecting, collaborating, and celebrating, we can shift our mindsets and create a bridge from home to school for learners who need extra support.
The obvious first step in collaborating with families is making a connection. This initial outreach to a family can be as simple as requesting a meeting, or the family may reach out to you first because they want to know how they can help. Also be aware that getting a family to the table to discuss their child’s progress may require some patience and persistence on the part of the educator. But with some ingenuity and flexibility, educators can work to meet families where they are.
While families and cultures may have different views of the home-school relationship, keep in mind that most caregivers want to see their children succeed and truly want to contribute to that positive experience. Educators need to be open and under-stand that there may be many reasons why a family might not feel connected to school, including a lack of fluency in English or of literacy skills or a negative school experience.
Offering multiple access points can be the most successful way to reach a family. For some families, tech-based support may work best: Parents may have access to a phone that will allow their child to access digital materials, or the parent may have the technology to translate a message into their home language. Some families may prefer checking their child’s take-home folder for notes and messages, while other families like face-to-face communication.
Consider leaning on a bilingual colleague or English language learner teacher for support if caregivers are not fluent in English. Using a telephone translation service to reach out to families in their home language is another way to increase your capacity to work with families.
Educators should also consider that a student’s family may have had negative experiences associated with school. For example, we know that there can be a hereditary component to reading difficulties, so it is possible that the parents of struggling readers have also had trouble with literacy skills. This can make it difficult for educators to reach out and connect with those families in some of the more typical ways. These families may not respond to emails, may not read newsletters, and may not attend school events. When working with students who need extra support in literacy, it is essential to bring these families to the table.
Once a connection is made with a family, it is time for everyone to collaborate. Coming together for an in-person meeting is a time-honored way to build a relationship with families, but we may also need to offer other options. Consider taking a page out of the pandemic playbook and set up a virtual meeting using teleconferencing software. This option may be more convenient for all stakeholders than an in- person meeting. Families may be able to participate more easily during a break at work, when they may have the freedom to join from a space that feels more comfortable for them. One tip to make these interactions most effective is to encourage everyone to keep the video cameras on. Seeing everyone’s face can help build connections, encourage empathy, and offer a better read of the situation.
Be sure to enter into the conversation with curiosity. Create space for the caregiver to share about their child. Learning about the child directly from the caregiver immediately sets a tone of respect and collaboration. And, most important, the information we learn can also help us understand the child better. For example, if we learn that a family is passionate about basketball, we may use that information to motivate their child by connecting them to texts that interest them.
Be prepared with open-ended questions. Even a seasoned professional can feel put on the spot during a meeting, and planning a few open-ended questions ahead of time will help prepare you to gather the information you need. For example, you might ask the parent, “What do you notice when Elise is reading at home?” or “How does your child feel about writing?” If you are working with emergent readers, this is also a perfect opportunity to gather more information about the family’s literacy traditions.
Finding out more about how families use literacy skills at home can help us learn more about our students. When you do ask about home literacy, check in with yourself to ensure that you are not viewing these experiences through a deficit lens. As educational professionals, we have often been given the message that the “right” home literacy experiences involve having lots of books and hearing bedtime stories from an adult. While children who have positive home literacy experiences often do come from print-rich environments, we also need to recognize that families may have different literacy traditions. Reading at home with a family member develops oral language, concepts about print, and phonological awareness skills, but we also need to realize that there are other types of literacy experiences. A parent might make a shopping list and ask the child to help check it off while shopping for groceries. Some families might enjoy singing songs in the car or telling stories at dinner. These experiences also have value for young learners.
When we know the experiences students are having at home, we can help families strengthen this learning. For example, let families know that singing at home can develop fluency skills and that telling stories can help students internalize the structure of a story. This opportunity can also be used to share connections to community resources, such as a school subscription to a reading website or information about the public library. New resources can broaden the experiences families offer their children. To help struggling readers be successful in school, we need to bridge the diverse literacy cultures at home to the academic literacy culture at school.
After providing time and space to learn about the family, share the student’s progress. As educators, talking to families about reading, writing, and spelling can be complicated. It is important to find and share the strengths of each student, but noting the positives is especially important with students who are struggling. With that said, though, it is also important to strike a balance between being positive and being realistic. Sugarcoating the academic challenges a student faces can undermine the building of trust between school and the family. Providing the family with a clear picture of what the student is able to do and what they need to be able to do next is the crux of this conversation.
Avoid the use of jargon and acronyms, which can confuse parents or make them feel like outsiders, and explain the skills with some specificity. One suggestion is to have some go-to examples prepared when talking with families. For example, if a student needs to work on inferencing, have a passage ready to illustrate what it means to use this skill in reading. A couple of carefully chosen student work samples can also help you illustrate the skill. Having examples ready will make it easier to explain things in a clear and concise way to caregivers.
End the meeting by welcoming any questions that parents may have about their child’s reading skills. A common question families often ask is, “How can we help at home?” Be prepared to answer this question concretely. For example, share a list of books or have a couple of books with you that can be loaned that would be appropriate for their child when parents ask how to help at home.
There may be a caregiver attending the meeting who is not able to help the child at home. I recently worked with an emergent reader in first grade who was struggling to learn her letters and sounds. Because the mother did not speak fluent English, we had to expand our ideas of who could help this student at home. In many families, older siblings, aunts, uncles, and family friends are part of the system of support that helps a child with schoolwork. I connected with the first grader’s family through a phone call with her older sister to discuss family support for her. A few weeks later, I noticed an improvement in my emergent reader. When I complimented her success, she said, “My brother teach me!” Her high school brother was the family member supporting her by teaching her the letters and sounds. A week later, I saw the family in the supermarket. I told her brother how much his tutoring was helping, and this teenage boy beamed proudly. The real lesson, though, was for me. When you let families know their child has a need, they will find a way to meet that need.
As part of wrapping up that initial meeting, set a time frame for when you will talk again. If you can, agree on a date before ending the meeting. Keep in mind that it generally takes at least six to eight weeks to see any gains after implementing something new, so getting together again in about two months may be a good place to start.
In subsequent meetings with families, it is essential to start the conversation by celebrating a success. With struggling learners it can take a little bit of extra effort to identify something to celebrate, but this is an essential part of the follow-up conversation. Identifying how the student has grown based on the work of family and staff is so important to setting up next steps. When working with a struggling reader, there will be some success, but it is also likely that there will be more skills to work on and more strategies to try. This is the reality of working with students who need extra support. However, it is much easier to tackle a problem when everyone takes a moment to pause and acknowledge the growth that has occurred.
A Final Thought
Educators are more successful connecting with families when they are aware of their own mindsets. Family participation may look different from student to student, but educators need to have faith that families want to be part of this partnership. When educators enter into family interactions with good faith and optimism, they will be more effective in helping families support their children. Finding positive ways for all families to be part of their child’s education will allow educators to connect the work done in school to the literacy learning that is happening at home. This is challenging work, so give yourself the same grace and patience that you extend to families.
Leah Carson started her career as a second grade public school teacher sixteen years ago. Since then, she has taught students in kindergarten through fourth grade as both a classroom teacher and a special educator. Leah has been a proud Responsive Classroom consulting teacher for over 10 years. Leah lives and works in South Brunswick, New Jersey.