By Jackson Sims, CEI Intern, and Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
Students who pass through the doors of every school have thoughts, feelings, and experiences that distinguish them from their peers. Their families are also unique, with their own history in education playing a role in their child’s perspective of school. With such a wide variety of expectations, goals, and concerns involved in any given school environment, it is important that all members of the community both feel heard and are heard.
Obstacles to Communication
A diverse community is one of many factors that can make a school stronger, but it can also lead to a number of challenges that limit communication between students, parents, and educators. Depending on their own experiences as a student, some parents may feel let down, ignored, or even traumatized (Plevyak, 2003). Those expectations may be passed down to their children, intentionally or otherwise. This can make it difficult to establish a rapport between the family and educators. Although schools may not be able to confront these problems at the source, these concerns can be eased through careful and intentional listening.
Alternatively, a family may want to participate in the school environment, but may be unsure of how to do so. Immigrant families experience this quite often, especially when communicating outside of their native language (Garcia-Carmona, Evangelou, & Fuentes-Mayorga, 2019). Families of all backgrounds may face challenges regarding their time, employment, or other responsibilities that prevent them from being active in their child’s education.
In short, there are at least two kinds of “hard-to-reach” families: Those who are apprehensive about working with the school, and those that are willing but unable or unsure of how to participate. There are methods of communication that can include and benefit both of them.
Creating Opportunities to Listen Productively
When students, parents, or families share a problem, educators may feel compelled to give advice and try to solve the issue immediately. The educators’ intentions are good, but they may be thinking too much about what to say next as opposed to listening carefully and conscientiously. The tenets of active and reflective listening are key to ensuring that families’ voices are heard.
Make eye contact.
Listen without judgment.
Don’t formulate your response before the other person has finished talking.
Resist the urge to interrupt.
Actively listen, as described above.
Reflect what you believe the person has said without assigning assumptions, especially about emotions.
Get confirmation that you understood the person
When these techniques are used properly, the listener makes it clear that they are concerned about the issue at hand and the individuals sharing it with them. This facilitates problem-solving while also building a connection between the educators and the families, setting the stage for further conversation down the line.
For conversations that involve multiple families or the community at large, educators may need to communicate in a different way. Some options for widespread, inclusive communication—that can be done virtually or in-person—are:
Social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter)
Informal social events (e.g. “pizza nights”)
“Town halls” and discussion-focused meetings
Relationships within parent-teacher organizations
Regardless of the family “types” that make up a school, there is a method of communication here that will work for each of them. Parents who are hesitant may start small, attending their child’s concert or volleyball match. A busier parent can still take the time to complete a survey during their lunch break; it may be even easier if they can complete it in their native language! Ultimately, the goal of any line of communication is to ensure that families feel heard, and that they are made aware of new information or discoveries by the school. For example, make sure to share any survey outcomes with families and students. The specific details can vary as long as that requirement is met.
Developing Relationships and Supporting Families
These dialogues are important, but it can be difficult to continually be in contact with families who are occupied with their own set of needs and challenges. The relationship(s) between educators and families can and should be maintained even in the absence of regular communication.
Educators might consider utilizing weekly updates or “check-ins” on students’ progress. This serves as an opportunity to praise students for their work (“Your presentation was excellent!”) while also informing parents where their child is excelling or struggling.
This line of communication can go both ways. Parents can share at-home concerns, and even discuss strategies or practices that have benefited their child academically, socially, and emotionally. The relationship between parents and educators is mutually beneficial: If an aspect of one area influences an aspect of the other, having that line of communication can make a significant difference.
Students who are facing trauma or challenges with their mental health often receive instruction on social emotional learning (SEL) skills in both one-on-one and group contexts. These practices make a significant difference for students, and exchanging these resources with families allows for the learning to continue at home. One easy way to introduce and improve social emotional learning skills, is to share tips on how to develop mindfulness through habits at home and in school, like our Five Mindful Habits series.
Families can utilize these techniques even without a teacher present, creating an excellent way to “bridge the gap” between learning at school and at home. The development of social emotional skills allows for clearer, more productive conversations between students, families, and teachers alike.
Communication between schools and families can be challenging, especially with the recent shift to online and hybrid classes. It is more important than ever to amplify and clarify these perspectives by creating varied settings for discussion, adapting to families’ unique needs, and encouraging the development of social emotional skills both in and out of the classroom. Using these practices, schools can create platforms for honest and productive communication, ensuring that students and their families’ voices are heard.
Asby, D. (2020). Part I: Five mindful habits for families and schools to increase happiness and connection – Presence and calm. Center for Educational Improvement.
García-Carmona, M., Evangelou, M., & Fuentes-Mayorga, N. (2019). ‘Hard-to-reach’ parents: Immigrant families’ participation in schools and the views of parent association leaders in Spain and the United States. Research Papers in Education, 35(3), 337–358.
Plevyak, L. H. (2003). Parent involvement in education: Who decides? The Education Digest, 69(2), 32–38.
Spencer, J. (2020). The power of student check-ins during distant learning and hybrid courses.
Yates, J. A. (2010). Active listening and reflective responses. MIT Sloan Communication Program.