It took a global pandemic to make it crystal clear: The old way of doing school-home communication just doesn’t work.
Maybe it’s the cumbersome language and acronyms that educators use, or our often authoritative, sometimes dismissive tone, or the overwhelming amount of information that gets sent home in backpacks and via email and apps each day. Before we can get better at how we communicate with families, we need to unpack the many reasons school-home communication misses its mark.
Here are nine reasons why your school-home communication strategy is broken.
Educators are busy
In all the many demands that make up your day, sending home that note, making the positive phone call, working to make sure you’ve come up with the right “partnership” word on that flyer can feel… impossible. Finding the will, and a way, to extend the same high level of effort and communication to every student and family is hard work.
What to do about it: break through all the noise and distractions. Rather than position school-home communication as one more thing your teachers and staff need to do, show them how embedding clear and effective communication into their daily routine can save them time and make their jobs easier.
Educators don’t know how to talk to parents
Very few educators have had classes in communication. Very few have had classes in family engagement. The absence of training and professional knowledge often makes the idea of communicating with parents and others intimidating.
What to do about it: Show teachers and staff that you care about helping them build relationships with parents. Recognize that this particular skill set is not part of most educators’ traditional classroom training. Consider offering programs and incentives to help them acquire the skills and confidence to engage families in positive ways. That includes developing stronger two-way communication skills and learning to navigate the challenges and pitfalls of negative feedback, anger and complaints.
Educators are stressed to the max
It’s hard to find the time to practice self-care. When we don’t take time to take care of ourselves, that stress often comes out in our school-home communication and in our interactions with families. Intellectually, we know that engaging and communicating with families works, we just need to find the physical bandwidth and space to make it happen.
What to do about it: Focus on programs that promote personal well-being and mindfulness. Adult SEL and other initiatives focus on providing teachers and staff with the support, headspace and everyday routines and practices needed to reduce stress, depressurize and bring their A-game to work every day.
We think we are the ‘authorities’
All day long, we find ourselves repeating, “Masks up!” and “Walk on the right side of the hallway.” We are, and have to be, the authorities on these topics. At the very least, we have to keep kids safe. But, when it comes time to communicate with families, it’s often hard for us as educators to shift gears, from that authoritative tone to one that is softer and conveys partnership and empathy with parents and adult guardians.
What to do about it: Work with your team to recognize the context of the situation or situations in which clear and effective communication is required. Model the difference between in-school communication versus school-home communication through role play and provide tactics and strategies for adjusting the approach to the situation.
We’re locked inside our own ‘social bubbles’
Education is a bubble. Everyone knows everyone. It makes sense. We form friendships and fall in love with the people who we work with. That means educators often socialize with educators. In these circles, we continue to use our big education terms and acronyms with each other. This makes communication with our peers easy. But, when we use the same language with people outside of our social bubble — parents and caregivers, for example — those same words and terms cause the conversation to break down.
What to do about it: Consider providing your team with a list of suggested alternative words and/or phrases to use when talking to parents or other community members. Draft a printable resource that they can send to their phone or hang up on their office wall to remind them of the different words and terms to use when talking directly to parents. Coach them on alternative approaches, methods or ways of communicating. Doing so, will make them more accessible to parents and guardians, and lay a foundation that they can nurture and build over time.
We rely on checklists
Who doesn’t love a checklist?!? I’m a huge fan. But when educators take the approach of ‘I sent home the newsletter… I communicated,’ we are not necessarily closing the communication loop. Effective school-home communication needs to be a two-way exchange between the school and the home. In addition to listening and sharing information, we need to always go the extra mile to confirm that a parent or stakeholder has both heard and understood the message.
What to do about it: Don’t assume. Work with teachers and staff. Demonstrate not only what to do physically when talking with parents, but what questions to ask in follow-up to ensure that (1) your message has been received and (2) that a satisfactory response has been issued or next steps and expectations made clear.
We are scared
The prospect of picking up the phone to call someone who doesn’t look like us, or someone we don’t know, is scary. It’s scary to have to facilitate a challenging conversation with a parent or send home a report that’s likely to get a negative reaction. This fear stems from the unknown.
What to do about it: The more we are prepared for these conversations and communications, the more we can go into them with the open heart needed to form relationships with families that result in student success.
We don’t want to change
To truly close the communication loop, we will have to listen to families. That means being open to change. We have to be willing to change our approach, change our policies, change our priorities, change the way we do things, based on new perspectives and what we learn through listening.
What to do about it: Make sure your staff know that change is OK. Give them the space and the agency to make reasonable changes in how they engage and connect with families and other stakeholders. If they aren’t sure about a change, make sure they know who to ask, or where to go for approval. This will reduce the risk and make them more apt to try new things.
We simply don’t ‘believe’
Some educators just don’t believe families have the capacity to support learning at home. Or, they think families don’t care, or don’t have time, or have nothing to contribute, or… There are lots of reasons. The bottom line? These are often just negative assumptions.
What to do about it: When we communicate effectively with families, and close the loop, parents and teachers can work together to contribute to the success of their students. Research shows us this is possible. Time and time again, our everyday practice confirms it.
So, where do we go from here?
In the years ahead, as we look to reinvent education and respond to the effects of a global pandemic, our schools will need families and the intimate knowledge and expertise that only they can provide.
That means taking time to craft our messages, providing effective training in school-home communication and family engagement, and always doing everything we can to close the communication loop.
Interested in ways to close the communication loop between your school or district and families? Want a framework and tools to empower staff and build relationships?
Patricia Weinzapfel is an author and one of the nation’s leading voices of the power of clear and effective school-home communication. Check out her School Communication Masterclass Professional Learning series on RocketPD and sign up or book a 30-minute conversation to learn more about the work.