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Closing the loop between student performance, mental health and school-home communication

When it comes to school-home communication, schools are on the cusp of change.

Pre-pandemic, closing the communication loop with families — aka seeking out that rich information that helps students succeed — had often been last on a long list of “to dos.”

Now, as I travel the nation working with schools and school districts, I’m seeing many educators move communicating with families to the top of their task lists. 

And it isn’t just me.

In one national Brookings study, 41% of parents polled during the pandemic said they wanted their child’s school or teachers to communicate more.

An academic paper published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education this summer, cited parents’ mounting frustrations with uneven school-home communication, especially among minority and low-income families, saying simply, “don’t leave me out.”

That’s because parents know that, in the years ahead, as they work to help their children, both academically and mentally, through things like better social-emotional learning and accelerated learning, they will need an open line with schools and teachers.

Schools and teachers, for their part, know that they will need information and knowledge about students that only parents and/or their guardians can reasonably provide.

Here’s why school-home communication needs to be a part of your strategic vision this year:

Families are experts in their children

I have three children. And I often say, I am not an expert in Algebra. In fact, I’m pretty lousy at math. But, I am an expert in Benjamin. I’ve known that kid since the day he was born. 

A quick story for context: 

Benjamin, now in college, was a squirrely kid growing up. I remember his elementary school held a big meeting to talk about how to help him stay on task. At the time, Benjamin attended a public elementary school that required uniforms. The school decided that if Benjamin got his work done, he could have a “Free-Dress Friday.” 

I was not at the meeting. If I was, I could have told them, Benjamin doesn’t care what he wears. At his college, he’s one of those “shorts guys” that wears shorts all the time… and he attends school in upstate New York!

If the school had communicated with me, if I had been asked to share my knowledge about Benjamin beforehand, I would have suggested the teacher allow him to make dinosaur origami — something he really liked and felt passionate about at the time — when he finished his work, but no one asked me.

In the years ahead, schools need to create mechanisms for families to share their expertise about their children. Parents and guardians simply have access to more and valuable information about what motivates their children, empowers them, and helps them feel safe. 

Families are the experts in their family cultures

When schools communicate with families, and really listen, they learn things that they can use to support students.

Say, for example, you have a student who is the first in their family to graduate from high school.  It would help to know that fact, so that you can customize support for that student. Or, say you have a student whose family just moved to the United States. Knowing that might help you build and nurture a stronger connection to both the student and the family.  

In the years ahead, stronger school-home communication will serve as a bridge between family and school cultures, creating learning pathways and new opportunities for development and collaboration.

Families can change our assumptions

We all do it: make assumptions about students and about families. The danger is that these assumptions can creep into the way we reach and teach our students. When we take time to really get to know the family of a student, perhaps through a regular phone call, meeting, or a home visit, this experience often changes our assumptions. 

The more we authentically get to know our students and their families, the more we can build the relationships that lead to learning and, more importantly, that accelerate learning. 

Families are our most powerful partners

It’s never been more obvious: Schools need families, and families need schools. As we begin to address the issues created during the pandemic, we can build on that mutual need to engender trust and good will.

Moving forward, schools need families to reinforce and extend learning from the classroom into the home. Schools need families to tell them how their children are doing and feeling. And schools need to know the different family traditions and activities to incorporate into the classroom to create seamless learning. 

In the past year and a half, many parents and caregivers experienced access and exposure to our education system in ways not previously seen. They got glimpses of the classroom while peeking over their students’ shoulders during virtual lessons. For the first time, many parents talked with teachers about their child’s progress and attended virtual events. They experienced what it feels like when communication highways between the school and the home open up and they want those highways to stay open.

As educators, we have a window of opportunity to welcome families into learning in a way not done before. But that means communicating more intentionally. It’s time to go beyond the newsletters and automated phone calls to make real, meaningful connections with students and families.

If we don’t communicate effectively, using words families understand, taking a partnership tone and approach to communications and providing “just right ” useful, actionable information, this opportunity will close, possibly for good.  

There is no doubt: out of tumult comes change. It’s up to us to make sure that change is for the better. As we slowly emerge from this pandemic, it’s up to us as educators to close the school-home communication loop once and for all.

Interested in ways to close the 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.

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