By Amanda Gray ..... Copyright Amanda Gray 2010
In talking to parents about their relationships with schools one of the key ingredients that make it a success... or not... is communication.
For parents who enjoy a good relationship with their school, positive, two-way communication is something they often talk about. For example, parents who feel their school is supportive often mention things like:
- Their child's teacher is always available for a chat.
- If they tell the teacher about an issue, the teacher will react in a supportive and prompt way.
- The teacher acts on what has been discussed with the parent.
- Even if they have different opinions, they can work out a solution based on mutual respect and an understanding that both the school and family have the child's best interest at heart.
- It is hard to find anyone to talk to...
- The principal/teacher is not really listening because they don't do anything about issues discussed, don't tell the family what is being done, or don't take the family's wishes into consideration.
- They feel overwhelmed by "professional-speak", and come out of meetings confused or stupid.
Roffey (2002) reports on research exploring the relationship between schools and families who have children with behavioural difficulties. One of the things they found was the value that families placed on informal interactions. For example, they report one parent saying,
"If he wanted to talk to you, he'd say: 'Can I have a word?'. you know, privately. He was really good at that, I liked him." (p33)So being able to catch a teacher, or visa versa, at times during the day is important. But the ability to do this changes as children get older.
In the pre-school years, this informal contact is regular and relatively easy as families pick up and drop off their children. In the early primary school years, this may also be true. But, as children learn to catch the bus and attend school independently, this informal, face to face contact is more difficult.
Using phone contact is perhaps the next best thing. Or using the phone to set up an informal face-to-face chat, especially in the middle and high school years. However, for working parents there is the added difficulty of making appointments during the school day. Taking time off work, or dashing down during the lunch hour, is not always an option.
One of the factors that make informal, face-to-face communication valuable is time. If it is planned appropriately, then it can be done in a calm way.
Further, it is important that difficult issues be addressed privately (Roffey, 2002). For example, it is important not to talk about a child in front of them or their peers. This can have an impact on a child's self-esteem, and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies or teasing. The only exception would be if you wanted to involve the child in the discussion, but care would need to be taken that they didn't feel disempowered by having two adults "against" them.
Communicating regularly, and not just when there is a problem to solve, is important (Coleman, 1998). If communication between home and school starts on a positive note, and continues to be dotted with positives, then this can help build trust and a feeling of partnership rather than an "us versus them" feeling. It helps parents see that teachers know their child's strengths, not just their difficulties. And positive feedback from parents helps teachers further understand the child's strengths and build a positive, mutual understanding with families.
Regular communication becomes even more important for children who have a disability that affects their ability to telling their parents about their school day. This can mean that parents feel quite isolated from the education environment if there is no regular, day-to-day feedback from teachers or if the parents are unable to visit or volunteer at the school.
In these cases, one of the most effective tools to use is a communication book. Follow this link to read about some great ideas for home-school communication books. If you don't want to read the whole article, skip down to page 5 for some great examples.
Regular feedback is also important to ensure that families and teachers become aware of issues before they escalate (Coleman, 1998). For example, parents may see a change in their child's behaviour at home that could indicate that difficulties such as bullying is happening at school. Passing this on to teachers could help the teacher be more vigilant, observing the child closely for what might be happening.
Or a teacher may be finding a child is beginning to show some behavioural difficulties. By letting a parent know before it becomes a big issue, they may find out that there are some changes happening at home (such as a new baby, moving house, a change in routine) that could be contributing to the difficulties at school.
But ultimately, communicating regularly is an essential tool in preventing social and behavioural issues from escalating. Further, it is important for positive and collaborative problem-solving.
The other side of this is that regular feedback will ensure the family knows what is being done to address an issue at school. Being informed means that they don't feel the problem is being ignored, and that they can help with reinforcing the solution through discussion and strategies at home. This continuity is very important for lasting behaviour change or academic progress.
Openness, honesty and respect
In the previous post, I discussed the importance of open and honest communication to the development of trust.
It is also important that if there is a problem, the discussion be focused on the issue not on the child or the teacher/school (Boult, 2006).
For example, if a teacher is concerned about a child who is hitting, kicking or pushing on the playground, the conversation may go like this (after the usual greetings and a comment about what Sam has achieved lately)....
"Well, I did want to talk to you about some concerns I have about what is happening on the playground for Sam. I was just wondering if he had mentioned anything to you, or if you have noticed anything different at home?..."This opens up the conversation to be about what is happening, and what may be contributing to the issue. This is more likely to bring about a positive partnership in problem-solving than a phone call home to request a suspension meeting, or to tell the parent about the negative behaviours and the disciplinary measures to be implemented. This is because the parent is seeing the teacher/school's concern for the child and a desire to change what is happening.
On the other side of the story, if a parent has a concern about something that is happening in the classroom, a good way to open the conversation may be...
"Sam is really loving the games she gets to play at music time. I was just wondering if you were aware of any problems she might be having with the other children saying things about her in that class?...."This can then open up the conversation about what the teacher may/may not have noticed, what the parent's concerns are, the basis for these concerns, and what might be done about it.
Speaking with respect, empathy and a willingness to take on board both sides of the story is important to the problem-solving process.
The balance of power
"I sometimes feel a bit sidelined in meetings, I just feel they use all their terms that I don's understand and they know the system more than I do anyway - that's probably why I feel an outsider." (Roffey, 2002, p37)It is important to consider the context of communication in meetings. A parent can be intimidated and disempowered in their role of advocate for their child if they attend a meeting with a number of school representatives using educational jargon. They can feel disempowered if they don't have all the information they need about policies and procedures before they come to a meeting.
It is important that any meeting occur on the basis of:
- common goals
- a willingness to negotiate and value each other's input equally
- shared information
- shared responsibility, this way avoiding blaming each other
- apartnership, rather than a school being the decision-maker and parents the "supporters". (Rose and Howley, 2007)
"Parents want to know what is going on for their child in school. They prefer informal contact that is positive, regular, private, planned, non-intrusive, two-way and early enough to make a difference." (Roffey, 2002 p 33)
Boult, B. (2006). 176 Ways to Involve Parents: Practical Strategies for Partnering with Families. Corwin Press: California.
Coleman, P. (1998). Parent, Student and Teacher Collaboration: The Power of Three. Corwin Press: California.
Roffey, S. (2002). School Behaviour and Families: Frameworks for Working Together. David Fulton Publishers: London.
Rose, R., and Howley, M. (2007). The Practical Guide to Special Educational Needs in Inclusive Primary Classrooms. Paul Chapman Publishing: London.