Making Connections With Parents to Ensure Student Success
An excerpt from Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership
Jane Cofie, director of curriculum and instruction for Responsive Classroom, shares here excerpts from her upcoming book, Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership. This new resource offers insights into how effective relationships between home and school benefit student success and guides teachers in building meaningful connections with families. This book will be released in September and is available for pre-order now.
On my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, her new teacher happily greeted my daughter and me at the classroom door and allowed me to take a quick photo or two. Then she welcomed my daughter into the classroom and wished me a good first day. Walking away from the classroom that morning, I found myself wondering how the school year would evolve. My mind was filled with so many questions. Thus, it was comforting to get an email update at the end of my daughter’s first day along with a conference reminder for the upcoming week.
Not only did the early conference reassure me that my daughter was in caring hands, it also allowed her teacher to get a good sense of how often I wanted to hear about my daughter’s progress, accomplishments, and needs. Sometimes her teacher would email or write a quick note on my daughter’s work. Other times, she was willing to chat with me briefly before or after school. She always found time to connect with me to answer my questions and hear my concerns.
Just as we cultivate rewarding relationships with our students through taking the time to connect with and communicate with them, we need to do the same with their parents. Communicating effectively with parents and fostering parent involvement in students’ education are crucial elements in supporting student success.
The greater the involvement of parents in the educational lives of their children, the greater the positive impact on student learning. Years of research attest to the positive impact of parent involvement on student success in school regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnic background (Edutopia, 2000). The National Education Association (NEA) reaffirms several of these benefits (NEA, 2020), including:
- Higher grades and test scores
- Higher self-esteem
- Better acclimation to the school environment
- Improved social skills and behavior
- Regular school attendance
When parents feel seen and heard, they are more likely to be involved in their child’s learning, which has many significant benefits such as greater student achievement, a more positive attitude toward school, and improved student behavior (Epstein & Salinas, 2004).
Early and Consistent Communication
Whether schools host a back-to-school night, an open house, home visits, or another beginning-of-the-year tradition, we want our focus to be creating an environment in which parents feel welcome, seen, and heard. When parents feel seen and heard from the start, they are more likely to feel that we have the same goal in mind: doing what is best for their child to ensure success. Simply telling parents we have the same goal is not as effective as showing them, from our first encounter, that their child’s safety and success are our priorities.
Start with an informal connection. Initially connecting with parents in an informal way such as a school picnic, barbeque, parent coffee, or ice cream social allows for a more relaxed feeling for both parents and teachers. Most likely, parents know that we know our content or the curriculum well. They also want to know that we know their child well and that we are open to the knowledge that they have about their child. When our forms of communication are more personal and specific, parents feel more at ease and welcome to share their thoughts and concerns. When I connected with parents frequently through more specific and personal types of communication, my relationships with these parents evolved and became stronger. For example, I emailed the parents of one of my fourth grade students every week. They were concerned about her progress and we all felt that weekly updates would allow us to more quickly identify areas that needed attention. In each email exchange, they shared what they were noticing at home and I shared what I was noticing at school. I learned more about them and their hopes for their child, and they learned more about me and the ways in which I was supporting their child. They felt more valued and empowered to share their thoughts, questions, and concerns.
Early interactions should begin with positive messages. Positive notes to parents at the start of the year, as well as throughout the year, let them know that we notice and appreciate their child’s progress, positive qualities, and accomplishments (Anderson, 2011). Parents need to hear from us when their child is doing well, not just when they are experiencing difficulties or presenting a challenge. When parents receive feedback that highlights what their child is doing well, they are more likely to reach out with questions and be open to difficult topics of discussion (Anderson, 2011). And sharing positive feedback is just as valuable for us as it is for parents. It encourages us to observe and look for the strengths and talents that are in every child. It gives us the opportunity to focus on what is working and celebrate successes.
Parent-teacher meetings offer the opportunity to establish strong, collaborative partnerships with parents. They give teachers a chance to further develop a cooperative bond with parents that began with phone calls, emails, or texts about positive observations such as a student’s strengths and talents (Johnson, 2015). They provide a platform for parents and teachers to come together and to meet a common goal: supporting the social, emotional, and academic success of the student. In order for a partnership to be truly successful, both parent and teacher should play an active role in supporting student progress and success. This means that each sees the other as a valuable asset and knowledgeable resource.
Whether formal or informal, the initial connection can become a springboard to positive and consistent communication with parents before the first parent-teacher conference. Connecting early helps establish a relationship and partnership that can be strengthened during a conference. A conference should allow for a deeper conversation and the sharing of ideas about a topic or situation of which parents are already well aware, and should not be the first time a parent hears about failing grades or other serious concerns.
In doing the important work of building relationships and establishing communication with parents, we will inevitably run into challenging situations. Communication can be difficult for any number of reasons. Busy or incompatible schedules, language barriers, previous negative encounters, or differing perceptions about school can all present obstacles to effective communication. Though establishing effective, meaningful, and consistent communication can be stressful at times, it is important to remain optimistic and persistent. Parents care about their children’s success and want to be informed when there are circumstances that affect success. Challenging situations provide feedback and opportunities to build our repertoire of solutions and ideas when similar situations arise.
From Involvement to Engagement
Once we get parents involved in available classroom and school opportunities, we can make the shift to listening to and embedding their ideas, thoughts, and concerns in those activities and tasks in order to create more of a collaborative partnership. Parent engagement allows parents and teachers to share responsibilities in order to support student success. Parents are able to use involvement opportunities to support student goals, and teachers listen and provide opportunities for collaboration to reach these goals. The goal of engagement is to create a partnership, and we want to strengthen connections to have parents as collaborative partners in their child’s learning (Ferlazzo, 2011).
- Anderson, M. (2011). What every 3rd grade teacher needs to know about setting up and running a classroom. Northeast Foundation for Children.
- Edutopia. (2000, October 1). Parental involvement reaps big benefits: The National PTA shares findings about the benefits of involving parents in education. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/parent-involvement-reaps-big-benefits#:~:text=schools%20that%20work%20well%20with,without%20parent%20and%20family%20involvement.
- Epstein, J. L., & Salinas, K. C. (May 2004). Partnering with families and communities. Educational Leadership, 61(8): 2–18. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may04/vol61/num08/Partnering-with-Families-and-Communities.aspx
- Ferlazzo, L. (May 2011). Involvement or engagement. Educational Leadership, 68(8): 10–14. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may11/vol68/num08/Involvement-or-Engagement%C2%A2.aspx
- Johnson, B. (2015, October 5). Two kinds of parent-teacher conferences. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/two-kinds-parent-teacherconferences-ben-johnson
- National Education Association (2020, July 14). Attending school events: What you need to know. NEA. https://www.nea.org/professional-excellence/student-engagement/tools-tips/attending-school-events-what-you-need-know