It’s no secret that students whose parents are more involved in their education do better in school. For that reason, schools and districts nationwide work hard to establish parent communication plans to engage busy parents, share information about their children’s progress and provide involvement opportunities.
But parent involvement is a broad term. According to findings from two recent studies mentioned in this Sunday’s New York Times, not all involvement is created equal in terms of providing lasting benefits for student achievement.
The NYT article features a quote from Patte Barth, director of the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education: “Parent involvement can take many forms, but only a few of them relate to higher student performance… parental actions that support children’s learning at home are most likely to have an impact on academic achievement at school.”
So what are the best ways for educators to provide parents with the information they need in order to truly support learning at home? And what kinds of tools can help disseminate that information?
Read on for eight tips that will help you evaluate your parent involvement and communication plan, find areas in need of improvement and identify practical solutions.
1. Start with the End in Mind
Throughout the year, schools send home a slew of important information, including calendars, grades and approval forms… but let’s take a step back for a second.
Why are we communicating with parents in the first place? Helping them understand exactly how they can support classroom learning at home (e.g. what activities they can do with their child) should be at the heart of a sound parental communication policy.
Think about your school or district plan. Is this the case? Keeping this in mind can help guide all of your communications. You can support this end goal by sharing with parents:
- How their child is doing/ what he or she is learning (diagnostic information, not just final scores)
- What’s happening in class (major projects, skills covered)
- What’s happening in school (events, parent workshops)
- What specific next steps parents can take to help their child excel and/or help in the classroom or school
2. Make it a Conversation
Who’s doing the talking? Do the communication mediums you use allow you to simply broadcast information or do they also give you the opportunity to get input from parents?
We often hear that communication between parents and educators should be bidirectional in order to provide the most value. We agree. But how about tri-directional? After all, there’s value not just in information flowing from teachers to parents and parents to teachers, but also between parents.
Imagine creating a classroom blog, using Facebook or Edmodo to set up a secure classroom group or Twitter to create a school hashtag. In all of these cases, teachers and students have the ability to share meaningful information with parents, and parents also have the opportunity to comment, responding not just directly to the teacher but also to one another. Tons of possibilities for community building!
3. Support the Plan at the School & District Level
From the district to the school, we all need to support the parental communication plan in order for it to be truly successful. At the district level, administrators must make sure policies are not restrictive and that educators have access to the tools they need to communicate with families. At the school level, administrators must support teachers in their individual communication efforts and also offer school-wide communications to keep parents in the loop about events, workshops and other opportunities.
Restrictive media policies can stifle teachers’ abilities to communicate with parents and reduce opportunities for parental involvement. Consider this example of a kindergarten teacher who was forced to shut down a facebook page he was successfully using to communicate with parents.
4. Make Sure the Frequency is Sustainable
An overly ambitious communication plan is doomed if it’s impossible to keep it up. Before you decide to set up a blog, send a monthly newsletter and plan several parent nights, pick one or two activities to start. Manage expectations by sticking to a consistent schedule.
Not sure you’ll have enough material for regular communications? You’ll be surprised! Material you already have on hand can go a long way. If you already send several flyers home to parents regularly, why not combine the information into a single newsletter or blog post? Or why not tweet some of the same information or post it on Facebook?
Always be thinking of what you’re already doing that you can share with parents to help them start a discussion with their child. For example, do you have a long-term project parents would appreciate knowing about (e.g. a class garden or play)? How about sharing some quick updates? In the garden example, take photos every few weeks to share progress. In the play example, post photos and short descriptions of sets, costumes and rehearsals.
5. Share Diagnostic Information & Specific Next Steps
Thinking back to the main goal of our parent communication efforts, make sure some of the information you’re sharing with parents allows them to understand:
- Their child’s strengths and weaknesses
- What they can do to support classroom learning at home with specific activities
If you’re using diagnostic or interim assessment tools, you may already have the data you need. Sharing diagnostic information throughout the year (during parent conferences, by email, or as a take-home) is a great way to keep parents informed about their child’s progress. Better yet, share specific activity ideas.
6. Identify Must-Have Communication Features
We find it helpful to start with a list of must have features to figure out the mediums that best support our goals.
Here are a few key features to consider:
- Access for all. Some families will not have internet at home, so you’ll likely need to use multiple mediums that allow you to reach all parents. For example, if you send a regular newsletter, you can ask parents at the beginning of the year whether they prefer the paper or email version. Provide the paper version to those who request it but use email for everyone else. You can use the same content for both.
- Security. Whether we use popular social media networks like Facebook and Twitter or education-specific options like Edmodo or Mudpies and Butterflies, we must always use appropriate security settings to ensure that student information is not visible to anyone who is not a parent.
- Ability to showcase student work. Communication mediums that will allow us to showcase student work will be critical for getting parents engaged. For example, a classroom blog updated by students or a classroom Twitter feed that includes student posts can be great ways to keep parents engaged.
- Easy to update. The easier it is to put together and disseminate information, the more likely it’ll be that we’ll actually do it. Choose mediums that are easy to use and update.
7. Ask for Input & Offer Options
As we communicate with parents, we should be mindful of what they want to know and what information they find most useful for planning teachable moments and supporting classroom learning at home. The easiest way to find out? Make a quick survey using Survey Monkey (under 10 questions is free) or simply ask parents for feedback during events or by email.
Many parents genuinely want to help but are dealing with several obstacles.
- They may not be sure what exactly they can do or if the teacher even wants their help
- They may not have much time
- They may not think they have the right skillset
Let’s tailor our communications to help parents understand that:
- Their help is valued (whether it comes in the form of reading with their child or volunteering during a classroom event)
- Small time commitments (reading just a few minutes a day together) can make a big difference for their child
- The most important thing they can do is be a positive role model for their child and reinforce the value of education
8. Don’t Forget…
When we talk about parent communication, we’re really talking about family communication. Let’s not forget about other key family members and keep in mind how we can help them understand how they can get involved. For example, grandparents might sometimes have more time than parents to read with a child or help with homework. Let’s be thinking about opportunities to bring them into the communication loop.
Another consideration is home language. Providing translators for parent teacher conferences, sending home resources about workshops for learning English and making sure key materials are available in other languages are just some of the things we can do to help parents who are speakers of other languages understand how their children are doing and what they can do to help their children excel.
What about YOU? How does your school or district handle parent communication and involvement? Do you have any tips to share? We’re excited to see your ideas!
SPECIAL THANKSGIVING GIVEAWAY: The educator who shares the best parent communication tip in the comments will receive an iPod shuffle! Post your comment by Wednesday, Nov 30th to be in the running. We’ll announce a winner next week.