6 Brookes Authors Offer Tips on Keeping Parents Engaged This Fall (Whether School Buildings Open or Not)
School’s out for summer, but this year the idea of a relaxing warm-weather break is a quaint notion for many educators. Nationwide, leaders at the district and school levels will be spending their summer reflecting on three months of remote learning, weighing what worked and what didn’t, reviewing the advice of infectious disease experts, and formulating a plan for how students will learn in the fall. You may not know if your school will be physically reopening, either in full or in part, for a few weeks.
No matter when your school building reopens, keeping parents in the loop and connecting with them will be critical to school success this fall—and our expert authors are here to help. We’ve reached out to six of our authors and asked them to share parent engagement strategies you can use this fall to support student learning.
1. Nicole Eredics, author of the bestselling guide Inclusion in Action and creator of The Inclusive Class blog, supplies some great tips for maintaining positive communication with parents and enlisting them in the learning process:
- Meet with the family and ask them to tell you some key things about their child, such as talents, special interests, possible issues, areas for development, or important friendships. You can do this verbally during the meeting or by sending home a “Getting to Know Your Child” survey that families can fill out.
- Develop a strategy for communicating about the child’s progress (other than through the report card) throughout the year, whether it’s via email, notebook, text, or phone call. Mention that not all communication will be negative, and there will be many occasions when you’ll reach out to tell them how amazing their child is!
- Ask families if they have any special skills or knowledge they can share with the class. For example, one year I had a parent who trained service dogs. He made several visits to talk to the students about respectfully handling animals and demonstrate what the dogs were capable of doing.
- Set aside time for families to come in and do an activity with their child. At one school where I worked, families were invited to come into the classroom at the start of the school day and read with their child (and anyone else who wanted to participate) for the first 10 minutes of the day.
- Welcome families to lend a hand in the classroom. Whether it’s labelling glue bottles, setting up art supplies, or taking down a bulletin board, families can help out as well as see their child in the classroom environment. It’s a win-win for everyone!
2. Jen Alexander, author of Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools and the upcoming ebook Supporting Students and Staff After COVID-19, offers guidance on establishing a dialogue with families early in the school year:
- Reach out to families and students individually with the intention of genuinely connecting.
- Introduce yourself and open up a dialogue. Here’s an example: “Last spring and summer brought changes and events that can be stressful for everyone. There are also differences in how each of us has been affected. Social distancing and remote learning certainly brought challenges, and as protests continue to make headlines, I feel deeply concerned about the injustices that impact communities of color. I know we must work together to make changes so that every person in our school is safe and feels safe too. Is there anything you would like to share with me about how you and your family have been affected by all that has been transpiring?”
- Emphasize that you’re here to support students and families. Ask open-ended questions: “What feelings do you and your student(s) have as we think about starting back to school?” “What might you and your student(s) need?” “How can we best support your family?”
- Ask if there are any questions you could do your best to help answer.
- Consider wrapping up the conversation by asking, “Is there anything your student has felt happy, excited, proud, or curious about lately?” If so, say, “Tell me more.”
3. Inclusion expert Paula Kluth, author of “You’re Going to Love This Kid!”, suggests socially-distanced home visits as a natural way to engage with family members and learn more about students who need more support:
If you have a student with unique challenges on your class list this fall, consider making a home visit to observe him or her in a familiar place and to learn from family members. A home visit will help you learn more about the student’s support system, her hobbies and interests, and even some of her daily challenges. You may find that one student has many brothers and sisters who may serve as reading partners or homework helpers. You may learn that another can play the piano and loves to make card houses. Any of these pieces of information could be helpful in supporting students and designing appropriate learning experiences for them—especially if students end up learning virtually again in the upcoming school year.
Home visits can be used for any student, but they may be especially helpful for learners who have communication challenges and cannot easily share information about home and family, including those who are learning English, those with disabilities, and those who are very anxious or shy. You can adapt home visits for the current climate by meeting outside on the porch or patio or at a place in the neighborhood that is familiar and comfortable to the child. For instance, seeing a child play or interact at a park will allow you to observe some favorite activities and give you a glimpse of life outside the classroom.
4. Elizabeth Potts, co-author of the books How to Co-Teach and Launching a Career in Special Education, shares tips on using clear, consistent communication to strengthen your relationship with parents:
- Let parents know about changes. If you as a teacher are being trauma-sensitive, you’re providing flexibility, more time to process, and more opportunity for self-monitoring. But if that doesn’t mesh with a parent’s past experience of their child’s schooling, and you don’t communicate your policies directly to them, they may question everything their child tells them. Be sure to give parents a heads-up about any changes to your past policies and approaches.
- Partner with them to help students make progress. Parents are more important in the learning process at every level right now, for students with and without disabilities. Communicate important dates and milestones to them so they can help keep their children on track. We all need more supportive strategies than we did in 2019, and parents can be valuable partners in providing those supports.
- Be predictable in how you communicate. If you use more than one form of communication for class-wide distribution, use all of them all the time so parents don’t have to guess where they will be receiving information. And if your school has a platform that both parents and teachers can access, be sure to confirm what parents can and can’t see so you’re not making assumptions about how important information is being communicated.
- Keep them in the loop. Parents want to feel like they know what’s going on. Since we’re living through a pandemic, we’re all having moments where we feel like we know nothing. Giving parents regular updates on what’s happening in your class will help you form a strong, supportive relationship with them.
5. UDL specialist Loui Lord Nelson, author of Design and Deliver and creator of the UDL in 15 Minutes podcast, shares strategies for breaking down barriers and forming strong connections between home and school:
Families are just like our students: they are wonderfully diverse. There are several overarching things we can do to honor that diversity and set the stage for family involvement. Let’s use communication of an upcoming school event as an example:
- List out a variety of different ways to communicate with families. You might think of using social media, the website, and a paper flyer to reach out about the event.
- Consider the potential barriers families might face. Ask yourself what might prevent caregivers from seeing or understanding the information you share. The family might not use social media or be connected to your social media stream. They might not consistently visit your website. Maybe the flyer gets lost in the bottomless backpack, or maybe there’s a language barrier. Now that you’ve thought about the obstacles, start where you are and move forward with ideas to break down those barriers.
- Recognize that families want to be involved. Begin with something like, “We know you want to be connected. We do, too!” Next, survey families to find out how to best connect with them. How do you survey them if you can’t contact them? Go into the community, network with families that are connected (but don’t place the burden on them to carry the information forward), and ask for location suggestions from your students. Connect with local parent advocacy groups—your statewide Parent Training and Information Center would love to help you connect with families. Finally, seek out supports for language translation and use icons and images that help communicate your message.
6. Jennifer Mahdavi, author of A Teacher’s Guide to Progress Monitoring, stresses the importance of working with families to cultivate self-determination skills in students so they can work more independently:
This fall, when schools reopen in hybrid or virtual settings, teachers and families will need to collaborate more closely than ever before. As the hurried transition to online instruction proved this spring, teaching and learning are difficult for everyone in this format. Parents may lack the technology or the skills to assist their children with assignments being emailed or presented via software platforms. They may be trying to balance their own work, either in the home or outside as essential workers, with the needs of children who are suddenly at home all the time. Teachers who recognize the obstacles families may face as they try to complete school assignments will be most appreciated.
A concrete action teachers can take to assist families this fall is to work closely with them to help children develop the self-determination skills they need to work more independently. Self-determination skills include making choices, setting goals, and evaluating one’s own progress. Children of all ages and all ability levels can learn to take a measure of control over their lives. Doing so not only makes them more independent, but also frees the adults in their lives from directing their every move.
Very young children, or those with more severe disabilities, should be encouraged to make choices each day. Parents, having looked at assignments sent home by the teacher, can help children decide what task to work on first and when to take a break. Older children might need parental assistance to set goals for how much time they will work on a task before they move to another task or earn free time. Children in secondary school may be able to organize their daily schedules of schoolwork and free time with minimal support from adults. Teachers can rely on their knowledge about students’ developmental stages to facilitate each child’s self-determination in collaboration with parents and caregivers.
Whether your district sees a return to distance learning this fall or adopts a hybrid of online and in-person classes, the simple strategies in this article will help ensure that parents are fully engaged collaborators, ready to support their child’s academic and social-emotional development.