Building Supportive Relationships
Parents and guardians can provide a great deal of support and reinforcement. For the most part, they want to know what’s happening in school, how their children are doing, and how they, the parents, can help. They tend to be far more enthusiastic and positive in their support when they feel informed and included, when they feel welcomed in our classrooms, and when their interest in their children’s well-being is respected.
Unfortunately parent-teacher relationships rarely attain their maximum potential. Often both parties complain of a lack of contact unless there’s a problem. (This is especially true in secondary settings.)
If this has indeed been the case with the parents of your students, imagine how effective a more positive approach can be! Here are a few ideas that might help:
• Get acquainted early in the year, either by note, phone, in-school conferences, welcome meetings or home visits. Keep first meetings positive.
• Keep parents informed about your policies and goals (rather than a list of rules). If you have certain specific requirements about how you want work done, when assignments are due, or other boundaries or follow-through intentions they may have some questions about, let them know ahead of time.
• Keep them informed about your classroom projects and practices. For example: If you are doing a special program, or allowing new behavior options—like leaving the class to work in the library or sitting on the floor to read or do special assignments—let the parents know.
• Maintain regular positive contact. Best bet: A weekly progress report that focuses on responsible learning behaviors necessary for success in the classroom. (See example.) Having the students (or one student) put the names on the forms will leave you free to quickly fill in the progress.
I have found that these reports work best when we only mark the skills that had indeed been demonstrated (only positive marks, rather than “grading” each skill) and when we make sure that each student gets at least two stars or smiley faces every week. (I frequently checked all 5, as often as possible!)
Even better: Made a point, when you can, to write a few words on the back or bottom of the form—always something positive! “Doing great in math!” “Self-control is improving.” “Great sense of humor!” “Very helpful and caring with other students.” This little bit of time you put in will pay off in a big way.
• Make positive “surprise” contact. Example: An unanticipated text, email, phone call, or note home about something special that happened or something that you noticed. These contacts don’t need to take more than a minute. Pick one class that really needs a lot of encouragement. Attempt to get back to the parents of each child in the class—say once a month, or even once a semester.
• Create (or supervise the creation of) a monthly newsletter. Be sure to include samples of the students’ work—including all students in some way during the course of the year. Tell about new projects, guests, field trips, or special events. You might also include reviews of parenting resources, parenting tips and ideas, and/or excerpts from books, magazines, or web sites (be sure to give credit and reference them correctly).
• PROOFREAD all correspondences that go home or, better yet, have someone else check for spelling, punctuation, grammatical, and even format errors. Make sure your correspondences reflect your care and professionalism.
• Do your best to find translators for any meetings with non-English-speaking parents. Bonus points if you can have written materials translated!
• Invite parents to visit your classroom, to see your class in action, to help out, or to share their own expertise in some area.
• Be respectful of constraints on parents’ time. Begin and end meetings on time.
• If a student is experiencing difficulty, either with the work or social behavior, or if the student is demonstrating behaviors that are interfering with her potential success in school, get in touch with the parents right away. Don’t allow yourself to be placed in the embarrassing position of having to explain why you didn’t contact the parents until the behavior became enough of a problem to affect the student’s grades, progress or placement.
• IF THERE IS AN INCIDENT, call only to report what happened. Watch your tone and any tendency to judge. Stick to the behavior—what you saw—rather than trying to interpret or analyze the child’s intent. Avoid blaming or criticizing, or judgments about personalities, character, or values that might leave parents feeling defensive, protective, shamed, anxious, angry, or resentful.
• When reporting an incident watch the tendency to suggest that this is the parent’s problem or demand that they solve it for you. Best bet: Describe the problem and how you plan to deal with it. You might ask for input or suggestions, but avoid asking the parent to “talk to him” or punish him for you.
Offer to follow up in a few days (and then make sure that you do). Remember, if you’ve been maintaining positive contact, regularly sharing what the child has been doing well and building a positive, respectful relationship with parents all along, you’re much more likely to find them much more supportive when there’s a problem.
• You have specialized knowledge that makes you qualified for your line of work. Do not use that knowledge against the parent by using jargon or talking down to him or her.
• Work with parents toward a mutual goal: the child’s success and well-being in school. Do not presume to care more about the student than the parent does.
• Do not speak ill of coworkers, the administration, or other students, teachers, or parents. At all times, keep your actions and interactions professional.
• If confronted with an angry parent, STAY CALM and maintain your boundaries. Speak softly if they speak loudly.
Acknowledge the parent’s anger as well as how important it is for you to hear what he or she has to say. If you need to, suggest going to an appropriate place for this kind of discussion.
Encourage the parent to talk about what’s going on and LISTEN! Try to avoid getting defensive or making the parent wrong for being upset.
If you feel the least bit threatened, make sure to include (or call for) another teacher, administrator, or support staff. It is OK for parents to get angry and blow off steam. It is not OK for anyone to use his or her anger as an excuse to violate you!
• Watch out for requests from parents for you to punish a child in the classroom for misbehaviors that happened at home. It is neither appropriate nor necessary for you to withhold privileges for events you did not witness, although you can suggest resources or classes for parents who are having problems and seem open to receiving such information.
• DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT. Keep track of all contact with parents in which you have shared important information or discussed a student’s progress or behavior. (Also, note patterns in the child’s behavior or details about incidents you witnessed or in which you were involved.) You may never need this documentation, but boy, if you ever do, you will be much relieved to have these notes on hand.
Note the date, the purpose of the communication, message, or interaction, as well as the parent’s response, and the outcome. Alert administrators to problems you may be having before they end up in the office by way of the parents. Also make a note to follow up as necessary and then do so.
Excerpted and adapted from The Win-Win Classroom, revised edition, by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.
© 1990, 2008, 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein
Related excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: “Parents as Allies”
Related links from The Win-Win Classroom:
Guidelines for Offering Students Choices
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Behavior
Getting Away with Success
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Handling Negative Student Behavior
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