8 Tips for a Great Parent Communication Plan

by Nikkie Zanevsky on November 21, 2011

in Blog

Settign up a parent communication plan is crucial to getting families involved in education.

Photo credit: ordisway (CC)

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.

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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.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Caty McMahon November 21, 2011 at 10:55 am

I wish I was able to be on site, in person, in my child’s first grade classroom on a regular basis, but as a working parent, this isn’t always possible. Social media, applied in appropriate ways, has so much promise to help connect parents and classrooms, as well as facilitate a sense of classroom community between families. That being said, even a weekly or bi-weekly ‘class newsletter’ photocopied and going home in backpack mail can fit this need. I’ve also appreciated having e-mail exchanges with my child’s teacher to feel looped into upcoming field trip information and class projects.

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Coleen Collette November 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Creating a distribution list of all of your parents makes it very easy to shoot out one e-mail to everyone. A teacher could send out e-mails with reminders about permission slips needing to be returned, projects that are going on, special events, and general classroom news. For the ambitious teacher, this could be done every day.

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Cam Walker November 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Communication with families is very important in my class. I send a weekly newsletter to parents and post it on our class website. I also have a dry erase board at my information wall to convey reminders or inform parents of important info. At the beginning of the year, I asked each family to draw or print a picture collage of family members. These pictures are posted at the child’s eye level to show the importance of family and school working together. I periodically ask families to do family projects that involve everyone to encourage participation. Parents are invited frequently to volunteer within the classroom. If they can see firsthand what we are doing, they are more likely to be involved. One final strategy that I use daily is verbal communication at arrival/departure time. A few words spoken daily can give parents a comfortable rapport with the educator and create a relationship that focuses on the child’s education as a priority.

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Ruth Hanson November 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm

At our private school, we have a moodle site called Dashboard. There are 3, one for each level – Lower, Middle and Upper. In the Lower School, our Dashboard is our primary parent communication. Each grade level has their own “course” and the teachers keep them updated with class information, assignments, and even videos of field trips, projects and other fun items. The front page that parents log into contains general Lower School news, calendars, all school projects and picture essays from school events such as Book Fair, Halloween and Christmas plays. Parents also know that they can e-mail their teachers at any time during the day and the teachers will get back to them quickly. Parents are also given opportunities throughout the year to volunteer at special events and the library.

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Margaret Mondanaro November 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm

In our school district each teacher maintains a website that parents can access. It must be updated every week. Parents are given a code to enter the portal where they can view homework and other important notices. In my class I also send home notes with important information. Parents are encouraged to e-mail teachers so the lines of communication are always open.

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Christine Ferranti November 21, 2011 at 7:24 pm

For any child to be successful in school, a line of communication needs to be open between teacher and families. In my classroom, there are a few ways I communicate with families. First, I am always available to talk before or/and after school as well as “quick” chats during drop off and dismissal. In my classroom, I have a class website where families can find information about school happenings, class itinerant schedules, lunch menus, curriculum, and educational games and can be contacted by school email to ask questions or set up appointments. I also send home a Family Times paper which informs the families what we are working on for the week. My school sends home a monthly newsletter and our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) has a website with information about what is going on in the school. Meeting with families to discuss their child’s education is a crucial component in the success of any child’s education.

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Debbie daSilva November 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I get email addresses from all parents from the Emergency card or Back to School night. This way I am able to create a “Group Address” to send home information. I still send home a hard copy with students because some parents do not have an email address and then others do not look at their emails, regulary. I send emails for Scholastic Books, field trips or other important information; but, at the same time, I try not to bombard parents with emails. Another way I communicated with parents is with a Twitter Account. I would “tweet” important information, such as “Math Test tomorrow’, “Field trip today- Don’t forget a bag lunch” or “Book orders due on Wednesday”. I liked the Tweeting idea except that I only had about 2 or 3 out of 30 parents interested. Eventually, I plan to try this again.

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Sheri Burkeen November 22, 2011 at 9:30 am

I work in the Early Childhood division of an all girls school where we teach 3 to 6 year olds. Over the past three years we have made a green effort to send home less paper. It starts from the very beginning of the school year when all back to school documents are posted on the school’s website as Forms or PDFs. This allows our parents to get used to electronic communication from the school. Each week during the year, classroom teachers create an informative (and cute!) newsletter that is sent by email as a PDF and posted on grade level webpages. This newsletter not only shares curricular topics, skills and important reminders, but also updates from each special class. Our parents now know what’s going on in music, art, Spanish, Bible and PE classes. As the technology coordinator, I can share educational websites and cool iPad apps with the parents. As an email attachment, parents can see the newsletters right from their desk at the office or on their phone waiting in the grocery line. We feel that this consistent and easily accessible communication allows families to reinforce what is taught during school hours and have meaningful conversations with their little girls about their day.

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Donna November 22, 2011 at 12:36 pm

We communicate with parents in many ways. On Mondays we send home a large white envelope with any important papers from the office. on Sundays our school sends out an enews which is updated weekly with news for our lower, middle, and upper school. It also contains fun photos. Weekly I send home an email to my parents detailing class activities and what we will be doing the following week in each subject. I also have a daily behaior chart which my students (2nd grade) fill in. Their parents are to look at it daily and sign and return it each Monday. I also send home a weekly homework sheet with homework and reminders about weekly events. Each Monday I send home a reading record. I ask my parents to record the name of the book and minutes read daily. At the beginning of each new week we read the minutes read and celebrate! I try to write little notes to each child at least once per quarter. I love emailing the weekly letter. I get much more feedback than when Iuse to send it home as a hard copy. I have also begun using signup genius for class sign ups. Parents respond more quickly and are more involved!

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Nikkie Zanevsky November 22, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Just wanted to say that I’m LOVING everyone’s comments. What wonderful and diverse ideas for communicating with parents both on- and off-line.

Thank you for sharing. Choosing a winner will be difficult!!

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Teri Barnett November 22, 2011 at 3:45 pm

We communicate with parents in a variety of ways as indicated above (e.g., weekly web-based newsletters, email distribution lists, teacher websites, fliers for urgent information etc.), but one of our most powerful tools is our goal setting conference format in the fall. Parents and teachers independently complete a worksheet outlining a student’s strengths, affinities, and challenges in areas ranging from social-emotional skills to the 3 R’s. The teacher and the parents then sit down in at a conference to share their mutual insights about a child and outline a plan to guide the child’s year. It is a powerful time to dialogue about a child and emphasizes the fact that raising a child is a team effort involving home and school. It also provides a springboard for discussions that may be difficult in the future as it has opened up, in a non-threatening way, a conversation about what a child may be working on.

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Bryan Scheff November 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Although we communicate with our parents in a number of ways, the most effective is our automated phone messaging system. We are able to maintain multiple calling lists, including lists by each individual class, the entire student body, as well as faculty. This gives us the ability to communicate directly and specifically with whichever group is appropriate. We simply record a message, enter the calling list we need, and the message is delivered directly to each parent or staff member as needed. This ensures that the message is heard, and is much more effective than any means of written communication.

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Kathy Rodriguez November 26, 2011 at 5:18 am

I communicate with my parents in my classroom in a variety of ways (automated phone messaging system, email, classroom website, weekly newsletters, fliers regarding field trips & important information, conferences, parent surveys) but, the most effective form of communication that I use is sending home weekly progress reports on Fridays. I staple this to their graded papers I am sending home at the end of the week. The top of the form indicates what their child’s behavior was like for the week. For example: ___I had a Fantastic Week! ____I had trouble follow directions. ____I had trouble finishing my work in class this week. Please help me finish over the weekend and return on Monday, etc. At the bottom of the form is a place for my teacher comments, parent comments and teacher’s response to parent comments. Each week I write a comment to the parent regarding something that their child is doing well in and I also indicate one thing that they need to work on. I will recommend a suggestion of something they could do at home to help their child. It is time consuming to write these notes but it is well worth it. I do them throughout the week as I see trouble areas arise or accomplishments being made. My parents love this form of communication! It keeps them informed about how their child is doing in school each week and gives them a way of responding with questions if they have any. There are no surprises at conference time as well. I have seen tremendous growth in my students and it is one way I know I am impacting student learning in my classroom.

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Jakata November 26, 2011 at 11:42 am

There were many great tips mentioned in this article. My school tries to take a three-pronged approach to communicating with parents (verbal communication, written communication and electronic communication). Verbal is always the preferred method because communication can be misread in the other two approaches. Parent teacher conferences are usually held at least two times per school year and additional conferences are offered as needed or requested by parents. However, there are times when teachers and adminsitrators cannot immediately sit and speak with the families. When that happens, use of written notes (i.e. emails sent by teachers or administrators to parent accounts, daily sheets with notes about “memorable moments,” progress reports, and school newsletters), work well to deliver information. I include in this communication my email address, in hopes that I can respond to parents concerns and questions – even during off hours. I have found the electronic type of communication to be invaluable in reaching out to parents regarding class events. The school also has a Twitter account, a school sponsored blog and a mass communication site.
It is my hope that we are doing all that we can as educators to reach out to all of our parents so that we build a united community.

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Allison Napoli November 29, 2011 at 9:34 am

This year we are starting a “Parent University” at our school. We will be offering many courses for parents to take during the day and at night. These courses will be geared to educatiing parents on the CCLS, state benchmarks, use of educational wed sites and our school’s curriculum. We want to educate the parents so that they can make informed decisions to help their children in this educational journey!

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Cathryn Mellon November 30, 2011 at 2:58 pm

I like to have the kids write notes to their parents if there is a field trip coming up or if they want to invite their parents to school for a special event. Kids are more likely to remember to give their parents a hand written note, and parents are more likely to actually read it.

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Nikkie Zanevsky November 30, 2011 at 5:52 pm

What a wealth of great ideas!

Thank you all so much for contributing. As I mentioned above, choosing a winner was truly a challenge. We’ll be holding additional contests throughout the year, so keep your eyes peeled. To make sure you don’t miss them, sign up at the top of the left sidebar to get blog updates by email.

And the winner is… Teri Barnett! We’ll be in touch by email to find out where to send your prize.

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