In one of my college teaching courses, I received a piece of advice that I always implemented in my teaching practice: “Make your first contact with parents a positive one!”
So, I sent out a letter at the start of the year to develop a positive relationship with my students’ parents.
As a new teacher, I felt my introductory letter set a tone of caring and concern and demonstrated that I had their child’s best interest at heart. However, I learned that sending a letter was not enough. Fostering a positive partnership means developing a respectful relationship when working with parents, especially when addressing student concerns.
Make your First Verbal Contact Count
Often the first meaningful verbal contact with parents is when a concern arises about their child. If an initial contact addresses a concern, start the conversation by sharing one genuine positive comment about the student. For example, I had a fifth-grade student who was not doing his classwork, and I knew his parents had not received many encouraging phone calls from school over the years. His mom’s first response to my call was, “What now?” I shared how I enjoyed her son’s sense of humor and told her he could get the whole class laughing. Her demeanor changed and we talked for a few minutes. Then I told her I was worried about her son not completing his classwork and that I needed her help. That was the start of a successful partnership, and her son ended up doing very well in my class.
Another strategy is to make positive phone calls home to share good news whenever possible. This is particularly important for students who struggle. Let them know you are watching for something good to share with parents.
Tell It Like You Want to Be Told
Before talking to a parent, think about the child you care about most in the world. Then think about how you would want to receive the information you are about to share. When you put yourself in the parent’s place, it helps you to be empathetic and diplomatic about how you discuss the concern.
Remove the Emotion
When talking to parents about an incident or behavioral concern, it is easy to become emotional. Before speaking to a parent, take a deep breath and remember that the student is likely acting a certain way to obtain something (e.g., attention) or avoid something (e.g., a difficult task), and it is not personal. Once you can have the conversation without feeling emotional, then discuss the concern.
Ask for Advice
Sometimes, no matter what we try, we cannot help students improve the choices they make. Ask parents how they handle the behavior. They may share a strategy that will work in the classroom. Working with parents is a partnership in which both parties have something to share, and parents know their children better than anyone else.
Actively Listen to Parents
When discussing concerns with parents, listen to what they have to say. This validates their feelings, and the information they share can provide valuable input in helping to support their child.
Let Parents Know About Concerns ASAP
We often let parents know about behavioral concerns right away, but sometimes we are slow to discuss academic concerns. Make parents aware of academic concerns as soon as a pattern emerges (e.g., turning in homework late). Then both of you can address concerns with the child, with no surprises when report cards come out.
Share Concerns When Student Behavior Changes
If a student starts acting out of character, contact the parents to see whether they have noticed a change as well. Sometimes major life changes will affect students in school, and the parents can let you know whether something important is going on. They may not need to share the exact issue, but knowing there is a reason for the change will help you support the child.
Resistant Parents: Do Not Assume the Worst
Unfortunately, developing a positive parent partnership does not work 100% of the time. Some parents are resistant to a partnership. Do not assume they do not care about their child. One of my former students cried because his parent could not take phone calls from school. Taking a phone call meant leaving the production line and losing wages. Parents have a lot of responsibilities to consider; refusing a phone call or missing an event may be the better choice to make.
If you work with resistant parents, talk with your school social worker or psychologist for guidance in forming partnerships. Sometimes those professionals have additional insight into families that can help you form connections and ensure that the student’s needs are being met.
Creating a positive partnership with parents takes time and commitment. You develop this partnership by treating parents with respect. You strengthen it by sharing good news as well as concerns. You achieve it when you recognize everything that the parents bring to the relationship.
For some additional help with building strong relationships with parents, check out these resources:
- Nurturing Positive Relationships with Parents (bit.ly/ParentRelationships)
- Getting Derailed Parent–Teacher Relationships Back on Track (bit.ly/NEABackonTrack)
- New Teachers: Working with Parents (bit.ly/edutopia_Parents)
Dr. Meier is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Clair. She teaches courses on reading for students with special needs, technology integration, and inclusion for elementary educators.