By Jennifer Schwanke
Let’s face it: things have changed.
Fifty years ago, schools were essentially closed to anyone beyond teachers and their students. Children walked in the door with their lunch boxes and books, and teachers took over from there. Parents tended to hear how their children were doing exactly twice a year: in a fifteen-minute parent-teacher conference in October, and another 15-minute conference in March. The conferences followed a similar, non-communicative format: the teacher talked, and the parent listened. Whether the news was good or bad was immaterial. It was a matter-of-fact report meant to share information and be done with it already.
Not anymore. In a world of electronic communication, online grade books, advocacy groups, and parental involvement, parents are part of an ongoing dialogue about their child’s school progress. They demand more information and, quite frankly, they deserve it. This does not mean we should encourage “helicopter parents” to demand constant frivolous feedback. But if your kid is the Mean Kid, you want to know. If your kid is using the restroom fifteen times a day because of anxiety, you deserve to know. If your kid hasn’t made any friends, or isn’t learning to read, or hasn’t mastered math facts… well, again, you want to know that so you can help.
It is our job to make parental communication an essential part of how we operate. If done well, this communication will motivate parents to be part of their child’s school journey.
Why is it so important to keep parents involved? Communication between school and home allows the most important adults in a child’s life to share information about areas of weakness, strength, and progress. It allows them to coordinate their efforts so they may work on the same things during their time with the child. Best of all, it lets the students know their teachers and their parents are communicating and working hard to help them succeed.
For parents to be involved, they need to feel informed and confident in two areas: Behavior and Academics.
In meetings with teachers and parents, I often remind participants that teachers often see behaviors that parents never see; likewise, parents see things that teachers can’t possibly see. I’m living this right now. My daughter’s teachers think she is perfect. Really perfect. They beam when I come to pick her up, giving me glowing reports on how well she’s doing.
But I see a child who punches her big brother in the stomach when she thinks she’ll get away with it. I see a little girl who, when told she needs to wear a coat, “forgets” it and only “realizes” it as it’s time to go into the school building. I see a girl who insists she HATES her dinner because it’s BROWN and she DOESN’T EAT ANYTHING BROWN and says a banana as a dinner replacement won’t do because she HATES bananas and DOESN’T want anything except CANDY. Stomp. Pout. Screech.
My point isn’t that I have a difficult child, or a perfect child, or—although it is true—a complicated child. My point is that schools and families need to work together to make sure a child is more than just difficult, perfect, or complicated. It helps me knowing my daughter acts as she’s supposed to at school; that tells me I need to work on her behavior at home because she’s quite capable of managing it better.
I often hear parents admit, ashamed and a little embarrassed, that their children are sometimes difficult to manage at home. They report constant fighting with siblings; reluctance or refusal to do chores; sloppy bedrooms and minimal motivation. They report about loud, emotional resistance to homework. When we report seeing none of these behaviors at school, parents are often astounded. “Remember,” I tell them, “We wear our church clothes to church and our sweatpants at home. We save our sloppiest selves for our families, and sometimes it ain’t pretty.” I go on to explain that their children are their most relaxed, most comfortable, and most willing to take risks when surrounded by people who love them. That is why they are most rotten at home and sometimes completely appropriately behaved at school. “Remember, too, that you see your children when they are most exhausted: early morning and after school. They’re tired and emotional, and it’s hard to hold it together—especially when there’s not a mass of friends and classmates watching them,” I reassure parents.
Although it is a very common scenario for well-behaved students to display poor behavior at home, it seldom happens in reverse. Yet, there is a third scenario that occurs: students who struggle with behavior at school almost always have behavior problems at home as well. In this scenario, communication between teachers and parent is vital. It allows them to face the problem together, and to create a unified response with common expectations, rewards, and consequences. While it’s impossible for the school to know for sure how carefully and consistently the parent sticks to the plan, we can at least know we are holding up our end of the deal. And with the correct amount of communication and support, parents can help the school teach the child appropriate behaviors.
Teachers must communicate a child’s progress frequently for several reasons. First, students who are not struggling to grasp concepts should be rewarded for their hard work and understanding with appropriate praise and encouragement. Second, there’s nothing worse than a parent being blindsided with news that a child has poor grades or has been unable to grasp important concepts. In that scenario, parents feel upset or angry, further impeding good communication between school and home. Finally, it’s crucial for a parent to know how to help his or her child at home with the same supportive techniques being used at school. If they feel confident and knowledgeable, they will be motivated to follow through with academic support.
Early and Ongoing Communication
One of my biggest frustrations is when an angry parent contacts me, report card in hand, and says, “How can she be failing? I had no idea! I would have done something! Why didn’t I know this?” I never have an answer to this question. Parents need to know immediately if a teacher has concerns about a child’s understanding of concepts being taught—not as an accusatory fact hurled at the parent, meant to illicit guilt and shame, but as a gentle sharing of information accompanied by a list of things the school is doing to intervene. “I’m worried about Sarah’s ability to create a complete extended response to multi-step questions. She tends to answer the first part of the question asked, but often forgets to thoroughly address all parts of the question. What I’m doing to help her is giving her several highlighters, and I ask her to use a different color to highlight each thing that’s asked of her. When she thinks she’s done writing, I ask her to go back and highlight in a corresponding color, which part of her answer matching which part of the question. If any of her writing is not highlighted, or if any color has not been used twice, she’s not done.” This type of conversation informs the parent that the child is struggling, but more importantly, it gives a complete and thorough picture of the teacher’s plan for intervention. From there, the teacher can encourage the parent to support the plan at home.
Helping Parents Know How to Help
School and home communication in the area of academics is trickier than the area of behavior; however, it is crucial that it be done well. Many parents are flummoxed at the idea of helping their child learn—they are frightened and embarrassed at what they don’t know. Sitting in difficult conferences with parents with whom we are sharing academic concerns, I’ve heard teachers say, “You can support us with these concerns at home.” Most will turn to look at me, bewildered, and say something like this: “I’m not a teacher. I have no idea how to help him.” They’re right. Teachers often assume everyone knows how to support a child’s learning—it’s easy, right? Not so much. Teaching well is really hard, and teaching students who can’t easily grasp concepts is really, really hard.
For that reason, communicating academic progress from school to home must also include a second element: helping the parent knows how to help the child. This can be a general conversation to guide the parent toward the appropriate help—a list of tutors in town; some supplemental resources; practice sheets; a list of apps or websites that would help the child grow; and so on.
Better yet, but infinitely more difficult, schools can provide explicit training to parents. Recently, our district offered 12 different Parent Literacy Training nights in which we invited parents to the school and literally taught them how to support their child’s learning. We explained the three components of literacy—decoding, fluency, and comprehension. We talked to them about letter patterns and vowel sounds. We explained why the old adage to “sound it out” really doesn’t work. We modeled specific probing questions they could use when reading with their child. We encouraged them to observe us teaching a lesson to a small group of struggling readers. We even went so far as to have the parent work with the child while we observed, so we could make gentle suggestions for improvement. The whole process was difficult, because the parents were initially hesitant and even embarrassed at their lack of knowledge; further, they felt extremely vulnerable working with their child under the watchful eye of a teacher. “I’m so worried I’ll say the wrong thing,” one mother lamented. But over time, we built enough trust to make a big difference. In the end, we had a group of empowered, confident parents who were motivated to work with their child at home in the same consistent manner we were using at school.
Rewarding and Expanding on Success
Some students have success in school from the beginning because they’re intelligent, driven, eager to please, or simply love learning. Others have to work hard at it, but they can excel with enough focus and commitment to success. Either way, students who are achieving in school deserve just as much teacher-to-parent communication as those who are a bit behind.
Yet, this communication should move beyond a gushing comment on the report card: “Frankie works so hard and it pays off. I am so proud of him. He is a delight to have in class.” Instead, it should be just as thorough as if the opposite were true. It should include specific and detailed information on progress, as well as suggestions for how to carry on.
For example, a teacher might call a parent and say, “Frankie is consistently engaged in lessons at school and asks excellent follow-up questions. I’ve noticed he displays a particularly keen interest in science; no matter what we’re studying, he seems to light up when it’s time for science each day! I recently made him our class Lab Specialist. That means he helps me set up the lab projects for science class while the other students are coming back from lunch. I couldn’t help but notice he was especially interested recent study of rocks and minerals. Although I have given him several books from the library about rocks and minerals, I think he’d love more information about it. The local library has many books and documentaries about geology in various parts of the world, and the science center downtown has an exhibit he might really enjoy. It might be a fun thing for you to do together.” Such communication does two things: it tells the parent about success, and also gives some ideas and inspiration for how the parent can supplement—and expand upon—that success.
Having a strong connection between school and home can make an enormous difference for a child, because it creates a “team” of people that comprise the two main components of a child’s life. Teachers, let’s invite our parents in and teach them what we know. Parents—come on in! Join the dance!