Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How Can We Engage Parents/Guardians in Education?

Copyright Bhaskar Peddhapati

I cannot recall all of the conversation, but I recall freezing and not knowing what to say. In my first phone call home as a teacher, I was attempting to find out why Dylan was having trouble in class. I knew that Dylan had ADHD and was significantly behind in reading and writing (his IEP told me that, but unfortunately, not much else). He was struggling with everything: from academics to classroom behaviour to social interaction, nothing was going right in my grade 8 English class for Dylan. And I was stumped. I thought that calling home to talk to his parents would help - after all, I reasoned, they must know what works to help him calm down, focus, and get something done.  I called, explained Dylan's latest blow-up in class, and well, it turned ugly pretty quickly when mom asked, "What did you do to set him off?" 

I made some pretty big assumptions and errors in that phone call. Firstly, I really didn't have a plan; I assumed that all parents would offer some form of support for my travails and challenges as a teacher, completely neglecting the idea that a) they might not be supportive of me; b) they possibly wouldn't have strategies for helping me - after all, school and home are very different environments; and c) maybe I did "set him off". 

15 years later, I still reflect on that first experience as I continue to dislike phone calls home. Let's face it: most aren't for positive feedback. But, I did manage to work out a few key ideas for communicating with parents and guardians, whether it's in a phone call or a face-to-face conference.

What are the 5 most important criteria for communicating with parents/ guardians?

Kindness - start with something positive, or better yet, call home with good news. Be sure to offer some concrete examples of something that is going well in class. Clearly establish that you are trying to help Dylan or Susie succeed in your class. Avoid judgement statements while stating the problem: focus on the behaviour or the issue (which can be corrected).
Honesty - be honest about what's happening. The purpose of the phone call or conference is to ensure that everyone knows that Susie or Dylan is struggling and why. Don't speak in edu-babble, but outline what the problem is clearly and succinctly. Use specific, curriculum based examples if it's an academic issue. If it's a behavioural concern, reference the learning skills, and again, use specific examples. Ensure you know the student's IEP or history as outlined in the OSR.
Ask questions - if you are unsure of why a student might be struggling, try to determine what might be contributing to that issue. But, of course, there could be things happening at home that a parent or guardian simply may not want you to know. Hopefully, a kind approach and a focus on solutions will help create a positive relationship so that you might get more information. But, we can only go so far in our questioning. 
Offer solutions - explain what you intend to do, what you thing might be done by the student, and what supports the parents/guardians could offer for the student's success. Be sure to have specific next steps. Solicit their feedback to ensure that everyone understands what needs to happen in order for the student to be successful. Provide resources if possible.
Listen - most importantly, be sure to listen carefully to what is being said (and what isn't!). Be responsive to what the parents/guardians are expressing. Rephrase what you are hearing in order to clarify and summarize so that there is no misunderstanding. 

Have other suggestions? What would make your list of success criteria for effective communication with parents/ guardians?