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Virginia Journal of Education


Point of Contact

Some positive ways to keep information flowing between teachers and parents.


by Carol Davis and Alice Yang

Step out of your teacher shoes for a moment and imagine yourself as the parent of a child you teach. The home phone rings. You pick it up and the voice on the other end says, “Hello, this is Ms. Norris, Emily’s teacher.” If you’re like most parents, two words spring immediately to mind: “Uh oh.”

For most parents, a phone call home from a teacher means trouble: Our son is doing something he shouldn’t; our daughter hasn’t done something she should; the teacher has noticed a serious problem with our child’s academic or social skills. The result? When a teacher gets in touch, parents’ anxiety levels and defensive barriers go up, and the potential for them to participate with us as partners in their children’s education can go way down.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can regularly contact parents when nothing’s wrong, just to share what their child is doing well and what’s going on in the classroom. In our very hectic school days, finding the time to reach out to parents like this can seem daunting. It’s tempting to consider it a frill. Yet it’s the core of effective communication with parents.


REASONS FOR STAYING IN TOUCH
Regular, positive communication with parents yields many benefits. Here are a few of the key ones:

Gives parents the information they need to be partners in their child’s education. To be able to best support their children’s learning, parents need to know what their child is studying and what else is going on in the classroom. Brief, regular communication from us gives them a window into their child’s daily school life.

Fosters positive working relationships with families. Given teachers’ packed days in the classroom, it’s understandable that our communication with families is often of the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” variety. Trouble is, sporadic communications focused on problems do little if anything to foster positive school–home relationships. If, on the other hand, we get in the habit of communicating small bits of good news about each child all year long, families feel encouraged and supported, and they’re more apt to encourage and support us, as well.

Makes collaborative problem-solving easier. Frequent positive communication helps parents trust that you believe in their child’s ability to learn and to be a productive member of a classroom community. With that trust in place, it’s much easier for teachers and parents to work collaboratively on difficult issues that might come up during the year.

WAYS TO KEEP IN TOUCH
What are some ways to make “things are good” connections with families, and how can we find the time to do this for each of our students throughout the year? Here are just a few ideas that will be manageable for most teachers while giving parents information that will help them stay connected to their child’s school life:

Positive news phone calls. Consider picking up the phone when you notice something positive in a child, even if it’s small—for example, the child says something helpful, works hard on a project, or makes progress on a skill. Atsuko Imanishi, who teaches music in Winchester, New Hampshire, often calls parents simply to say, “I noticed your child kept the beat for a long time today,” or “Your child really enjoyed singing today.”

In Minneapolis, K–1 teacher Jeremy Nellis sets up phone calls at specific, scheduled times. At the beginning of the year, he asks parents to name a day of the week that’s convenient for them to take a brief early morning or evening call from him. He then calls them every other week on the chosen day to report something positive about their child, update them on the class’s learning and upcoming events, and invite their questions. “It’s created a very open form of communication with families,” says Jeremy.

If you decide to phone parents, remember that whether you call every few weeks or every few months, spontaneously or according to a schedule, what matters most is the positive nature of the contact.

Periodic postcards. Postcards can work much the same way as phone calls. At the start of school, buy or make enough postcards for the year, depending on how often you plan to send them out. Students can write their addresses on the cards. Then, when you have something positive to share with a family, jot your news on a postcard and drop it in the mail.

Occasional e-mails. In general, serious or confidential matters are best discussed in person, by phone, or in a paper-and-envelope letter. But e-mail can be a quick and easy way to communicate brief notes about day-to-day classroom life. A few things to consider:

   • Know if parents can—and want to—use e-mail. Many families have no computer or Internet access or simply don’t like using e-mail. Try offering an e-mail sign-up sheet at your fall open house. Keep the stakes low for everyone by casually inviting parents to sign up if they’d like to, noting that e-mail is just an option—you’ll be communicating regularly with them in several ways. Judge by the number of signups whether to use e-mail.

   • Keep the volume of messages manageable. If you communicate with parents mainly by e-mail, you may receive an overwhelming number of return messages. Control the flow by mixing e-mail and other ways of communicating. Most parents rely less on e-mail once they know you’ll be sharing news about their child in various ways throughout the year.

   • Follow the guidelines. Check whether your school, district or parent organization has guidelines you need to follow when e-mailing families.

Weekly or biweekly newsletter. Traditional paper newsletters about classroom happenings remain an effective way to keep in positive touch with families. Annette Tirado, mother of a fourth grader, puts it this way: “I work full-time, so I often miss school meetings and events. That newsletter is important to me.”

Keep newsletters brief, and stay focused on the students’ current learning. The “Ask me about . . .” format works well for many teachers. As part of the class routine at the end of the day, gather the students for a few minutes to share aloud that day’s academic or social learning. Record their reflections, and once weekly, choose the most interesting to type up in the form of questions for parents to ask their children. At the bottom of the page, you can jot brief reminders or notes for parents.

Daily or weekly “exit pass.” Like an “Ask me about . . .” newsletter, an exit pass helps parents stay informed about classroom life while having productive conversations with their children. Sometime each day or week, each student receives an exit pass to fill out before leaving for the day. The pass, perhaps a brightly colored half sheet of paper, contains a list of conversation prompts. The child chooses one prompt to complete and takes the sheet home to share. Attach a note if you have something else you need to communicate to parents.

Weekly work folders. Each Thursday, students take the schoolwork they’ve been gathering in a folder home for their parent to see. Inside the folder is a bright slip of paper with spaces for you to write a note about something positive the child did that week and for the parents to write a comment as well. “Hayden has been using friendly words when asking to borrow something from a classmate,” you might write, or “Cristal worked hard on her chapter book this week.”

After the child and parents review the papers, the parents write a comment, if they wish, and sign the slip. “I can see that John is really taking his time to write neatly on all of this work,” a parent might write. Often, parents respond with a question, such as “Can you suggest some fun ways to practice multiplication with Jesse at home?”

On Friday, the child brings the folder back to school. You read the parents’ comments and keep the slips as part of the documentation of the child’s progress throughout the year.

Pluses and a Wish. In this variation of weekly work folders, you include with each child’s folder a “Pluses and Wish” form, on which the child offers a quick reflection of the week’s work by writing two “pluses” (things he or she did well) and one wish (an area to improve on). You also write two pluses and one wish about the child’s work. After the parents look through the folder with the child, they add their two pluses and one wish.

When the folder comes back to school, you read the parents’ pluses and wish and keep the slips as documentation of the child’s progress.

There are many other ways to communicate with parents. You can develop an approach that works for you and your particular group of families. Experiment, and keep the goals in mind: to let parents know what their child is learning in school, to set a positive tone for home-school communication, and to build a trusting relationship with parents.

Tips for Making Keeping in Touch Easier

•Make it a habit to spend some time each day just watching and listening to your students. Then begin jotting down your observations. You can draw from your notes in your communications with parents.

•Start small. If communicating about every child every week feels overwhelming, schedule yourself to observe and comment on just one or two children at a time. You’ll cover the whole class in just a couple of weeks.

•Acknowledge to yourself that it’s harder to find complimentary things to say about some children than others. Then focus on finding something good, something positive, in those “harder” children. Their parents, and the children themselves, probably benefit most from positive feedback because they’re so used to hearing all the negative things.

•Remember that a child doesn’t need to be perfect at something for you to have positive news to share with a family. “Robbie is continuing to work on using friendly words when he disagrees with a classmate,” you might say, or “Takako is showing progress in doing independent research.”

•Make communicating a two-way street: No matter how or how often you contact parents, always invite them to get back to you with comments, questions and observations about their child’s school learning.

Davis is a consulting teacher for Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC), and developer of the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching and learning. Yang is a senior editor in the publications department at NEFC. This article is an adapted excerpt from the book they co-authored, Parents & Teachers Working Together (NEFC 2005). For more information, visit www.responsiveclassroom.org.

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How Parents Help

Here are some of the positive outcomes of parental involvement in education, from research compiled by the National Middle School Association:

• Parent involvement leads to improved educational performance.

• Parent involvement fosters better student classroom behavior.

• Parents who participate in decision-making experience greater feelings of ownership and are more committed to supporting the school's mission.

• Parent involvement increases support of schools.

• Parent involvement improves school attendance.

• Parent involvement creates a better understanding of roles and relationships between and among the parent-student-school triad.

• Parent involvement improves student emotional well-being.

• Types of parent involvement and quality of parent involvement affect results for students, parents and teachers.

Parent involvement is defined as having an awareness of and involvement in schoolwork, understanding of the interaction between parenting skills and student success in schooling, and a commitment to consistent communication with educators about student progress. The term "parents" refers to biological parents, adoptive parents and stepparents, and primary caregivers (such as a grandmother, aunt, brother).


To Go Further
For more information on the importance of involving the parents of your students, check out the NEA’s Teaching Research Spotlight on the topic by visiting www.nea.org/teachexperience/trsparents08.html. Also, don’t miss the “Parent Resources” section of the VEA website at www.veanea.org.


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