Imagine this classroom scenario. In the sixth week of school, second-grade teacher Mrs. Jones has noticed a sudden and dramatic change in a student’s behavior and participation level. She gives the mom a call and begins the conversation by telling the mom a funny story involving the student, Elizabeth, that happened at recess that day. She then explains her call, that recently Elizabeth has been reluctant to participate in her guided reading group, and has not completed her weekly math homework. Fortunately, Mrs. Jones had already established a positive relationship with the family by reaching out to them early in the school year to express her pleasure at having their child in her class. She also sends a regular weekly update to all families, and often sends a quick email to share small tidbits about the day. Because Elizabeth’s mom feels comfortable with Mrs. Jones, she shares that her oldest child has recently moved out of the house to a city 3 hours away for a new job, and Elizabeth misses her big brother. Mrs. Jones suggests that maybe meeting with the school counselor might help Elizabeth deal with her emotions and provide her with ideas for staying connected to her brother. The mom is grateful for Mrs. Jones’ call and loves the suggestion of involving the counselor. Mrs. Jones lets her know she will check in again in 2 weeks to let her know how Elizabeth is doing.
This scenario had a positive outcome, partially because Mrs. Jones had worked intentionally from the beginning of school to communicate professionally and positively with each family. Clear communication has several benefits. First and most importantly, it builds a sense of trust between the teacher and families. When problems do eventually arise, good communication is necessary to resolve them. Strong communication can often prevent problems from occurring. Furthermore, regular communication encourages family engagement because it keeps families informed about what is going in the classroom and reinforces a strong connection between school and home.
So what needs to be done to communicate effectively with families? Teachers can regularly implement three basic practices to ensure a positive relationship with the families of their students.
1. Back to school communication
2. Weekly updates
3. Personal and positive communications
At the beginning of the year, it’s a great idea to send out a welcome communication in the form of a printed letter or email. This might include information about the teacher’s background, course expectations, and preferred contact information. Of course, the teacher should express her genuine pleasure at meeting her students and starting a great school year! This first contact can set the tone for the entire school year.
Secondly, teachers should have a consistent schedule of regular updates. Typically, this can be sent once a week, such as Friday afternoon Monday morning. This can be sent as an email update or by writing a new post on the classroom website. These updates should include an overview of what students learned that week and what is upcoming for the next week. It is a great time to let families know about assessments or big projects, allowing them the opportunity to help their child as needed. These updates can also include suggestions for how families can engage their students in discussions about their schoolwork, such as general comments like “This week students are learning about living and non-living things. You might consider taking a walk this week and asking your child to point out the different living and non-living things he or she encounters along the way”. Comments like these provide context for the work that students are doing in class and give a clear suggestion for how families can foster their child’s learning at home.
Teachers should regularly reach out to families to share positive news about a student through notes, emails, or phone calls home. This establishes a positive relationship early on so that if later you need to discuss an academic or behavioral issue, the family will be more receptive to that conversation. You can do this through phone calls at the beginning of the year and then sharing regular positive anecdotes throughout the year. Although it will take time, make it a point to reach out to each new family at the beginning of the year with a quick phone call. Making a personal phone call to each family simply to express your joy at having their child in your class will go a long way towards establishing a positive relationship. All too often, families only get calls home when the news is bad, so imagine their pleasant surprise to get a phone call from the teacher with only good things to say! Secondly, address 2-5 postcards to each student during the first week of school (or even have the students do this task for you). You can download a postcard template at the end of this article for use in your classroom if you wish. Then throughout the school year, make it a point to jot down a quick note on the postcards and drop them in the mail. You could share a funny or touching anecdote, compliment a character trait, or reiterate your pleasure at having the student in your class. Or, if you prefer electronic communication over handwritten notes, another quick option is to send an occasional brief email to parents with a similar comment.
Once you have established this positive relationship, as the year progresses and you need to discuss academic or behavioral issues, families will be much more receptive. Even then, however, the language you use is essential. The power of positivity is especially critical when you are sharing some constructive comments. Use the Family Communication Guide resource available for download at the end of this article to help you craft purposeful statements about any behavioral or academic struggles.
The biggest takeaway you should have is to ensure that your first and most often communication is not about behavior or academic issues. Instead, your first contact with the family is focused on what you appreciate and value about the student. Later, if a problem does arise, it will be easier to resolve if you have already established a positive family relationship.
We all recognize the power of positivity. Being positive is a mindset of looking at a glass as half full instead of half empty. We can share that positivity through our communications with families and reap the benefits for the entire school year.