When I started going out to eat after having my daughter, I quickly learned the difference between child-friendly and child-accommodating restaurants. Child-friendly restaurants have food on their menus specifically catered toward what children like to eat, provide activities for children to enjoy while dining out, and usually have lots of booth seating for family dining. Child-accommodating restaurant will usually have less or none of these things. They’re basically saying, “You can bring your child.”
Consider your own classroom: is it parent-friendly or parent-accommodating? Are you creating a space that encourages and celebrates parent involvement? Do you let parents know early and often that they are not only welcome but wanted in your classroom? If not, or even if you are but are looking for ways to increase parent involvement, below are some strategies that can help!
1. Set the expectation
Getting parents involved and engaged with what is happening with their children at school starts with setting the expectation for that involvement. Let parents know that they are wanted in the classroom and which ways and roles that you can benefit from their involvement. Be specific and provide suggestions on how you can partner to achieve these objectives.
For older students, I suggest sending your syllabus, classroom calendar, and expectations directly to parents and highlight/bold/underline important events, tests, and due dates. Inform them how, what, and how often you will be communicating with them and how best they can reach you with questions and concerns. Let parents know from the start what to expect and that you view this as a partnership, and invite them to partner with you in the ways they are best able. Start how you want to finish!
2. Implement multiple direct lines of communication
Although we have many methods of staying in touch with others at our disposal—from email to social media to good old-fashioned paper and ink—it’s important to consider that our students’ parents will all have varied comfort levels and access to these means of communications. Therefore, the more avenues to connect that you leave open, the more likely it is for parents to find a convenient one for them. Provide parents with two to three methods to reach you directly (in person, by email, by phone, on a classroom social media page, etc.), along with specific instructions and guidelines for communicating in a way that is comfortable for you.
Ex: “I can be reached by email and will usually respond to messages with 24-48 hours. I also keep office hours on Monday mornings between 8AM and 9AM or Thursday afternoons between 2PM and 3PM, or you may feel free to tweet questions to our classroom Twitter account.”
Whatever methods you use, ensure that they encourage direct, person-to-person communication between yourself and parents. Avoid sending messages through students unless absolutely necessary.
3. Consider cultural differences
We live in a society rich in diversity and will, therefore, come into contact with students and families whose customs, communication styles, and language are not ours. Be mindful of this, and have patience and empathy when dealing with parents who don’t share your background. It is common in some cultures for people to speak more loudly and with passion. Remember that if parents seem angry or upset, it is likely not with you, but with the situation. Hear them when they express feelings, including frustrations, and ask questions to find out what their goals and concerns are so that you can ascertain how best to partner with them.
In navigating communication with parents whose language you don’t speak, avoid relying on students to translate for their parents. Instead, request your administration provide an adult interpreter, or ask the parents in advance if they can be accompanied by an adult who can interpret. If neither option is possible, encourage parents to communicate with you in writing that you can translate through language websites and apps. Persistence and ingenuity will help you build stronger partnerships with parents who will appreciate your added efforts.
4. Celebrate family and diversity
Family can mean so many different things to each of us, all of which are significant and valid. A great way to strengthen parent relationships is to highlight those differences in your classroom. Encourage families to send in family photos to create a family wall or board in your classroom. Invite them to share their cultural, religious, and holiday traditions; and incorporate those traditions into curriculum themes and lessons. Invite families to come speak about subjects related to lessons or send in video clips sharing their stories.
Ensure your classroom and your curriculum includes diverse representations of family. Avoid talking about family in a nuclear sense and referencing “mom and dad” in quizzes, tests, and word problems. Introduce books, photos, and videos that highlight a variety of family structures; and make it known that all families and cultures are welcome, respected, and celebrated in your classroom.
5. Include parents in students’ learning
Keep parents informed and up-to-date on what their students are learning and how they are progressing. Parents should have your syllabus, classroom expectations, and classroom calendar. To provide parents the opportunity to check in with their child about studying and progress, schedule calendar reminders before exams or projects are due, and intervene as necessary.
If your school or class uses online databases for posting grades, ensure parents are set up to access and know how to access these sites to check their students’ progress reports. Schedule alerts to send notifications to parents when grades post. Establish an open door policy, or let parents know how and when they can visit to check on their child and see what they are learning.
6. Be consistent
Although there are many methods to connect with parents and encourage parent engagement and involvement in your classroom, what’s more important is the consistency with which you use them. Parent relationships, like all relationships, are built on trust. If you make yourself available through email and office hours, but are not responsive or available, then that trust will be damaged. Take on only what you can handle, honor the commitments you make, and start the way you want to finish!
The impact of increasing parent involvement in the classroom
Parents are a child’s first teacher. Between homework and studying, students spend almost as much time learning outside of the classroom as they do inside. Students benefit from having guidance and support from a community. When they are aware of what support is needed, parents are better able to provide the individual support that students need to learn and progress, even when that support is more emotional than academic. Keeping parents informed and involved with their students’ learning in productive ways has been shown to lead to increased mood and emotional health for students, which is influential to their academic success and growth as people. Parent partnerships matter, because we are all—parents, students, and teachers—stronger together.