Sunday, October 20, 2013

Five Ways to Build Parent Engagement at Your School - Part 2

This is the second in a five-part series on how to build parent engagement at your school.

Parent engagement has never been more important for our schools and our students. Our schools and our students desperately need parents to be engaged and invested in the educational process, truly engaged and not just working the concession stand or serving on the booster club. Our schools need parents who know what's happening at school, who support the process, who want students to be challenged and held accountable, and who seek to partner with the school. Our students need parents who want to know what's going on at school, who support the school at home in front of the students, who model life-long learning, who don't make excuses for their students and who value education. Seasoned education veterans know from experience what a difference parent engagement can make and research supports this (see Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World, for example). The challenge, of course, lies in getting parents engaged.

2. Build parent engagement through positive communication.
One of the most meaningful and effective ways to engage parents also happens to be one of the easiest and least expensive. Positive communication with parents - whether from a teacher, a coach, or an administrator - works wonders for engagement. When you communicate good news, words of encouragement or other positive feedback, you build bonds and bridges that may become invaluable down the road.

Every parent longs to hear something positive about their children. Every parent. Without exception. Certainly there are parents who expect others to gush over their children without ceasing because, as everyone can plainly see, their children are the best, brightest, strongest, fastest, and so on. At the other end of the spectrum are parents who, for whatever reason, rarely hear anything positive about their children. Every parent on the spectrum will respond positively to positive communication about their children. You may encounter some parents who are surprised to hear what you're saying, but they will value your feedback. Through positive communication, you are saying to the parents that you are the child's advocate and the parents' partner. When you demonstrate this to parents, they will engage.

An important point to remember when making positive communication with parents is how to communicate appropriately. You always should make an effort to offer encouragement and validation instead of empty praise. For example, you should be strategic and intentional about complimenting effort, honesty, work ethic, improvement, diligence, grit, responsibility, dependability, strong performances and the like. When you communicate with parents about these and other similar things you observe, you reinforce and affirm the behaviors and qualities you'd like to see more often. On the other hand, you should avoid praising intelligence, brilliance, talent and other qualities over which the student has no control. Praising these qualities is the equivalent of praising a child's beautiful blue eyes, big muscles, trim figure, or other vanity-related quality. In fact, by praising things over which a child has no control (i.e. intelligence or talent), you actually are setting the child up to reduce effort and identify with a label (see Carol Dweck's research).

By using positive communication with parents, you gain parents' trust, a key factor in building engagement. When you provide appropriate positive feedback to parents about their children, you demonstrate to them that you know your students (their child/children, specifically) and that you are watching for positive desired behaviors. Many parents dread the appearance of the school's number on Caller ID or the school's email address in the Inbox. This dread stems from the sense that school communication tends to be negative (Johnny misbehaved, forgot his assignment again, etc.). This dread also comes from the perception that teachers and administrators often are out to get kids, to catch them being bad. When you communicate good news to parents, you help alleviate this dread and dispel the notion that your school operates with a "Gotcha!" mentality. The earlier in the year you can develop a habit of positive communication, the better you can build trust with the parents.

Here's a brief list of items worth communicating to parents:

  • Improved effort on assignments
  • Improved behavior in class
  • Citizenship or service in class or at school
  • Excellence in a presentation, performance, assignment, project, etc.
  • Engagement or participation in class
  • Examples of respectful, polite or courteous behavior
  • Examples of exceeding expectations
  • Examples of grit, resilience, effort or determination

What's the best way to communicate in this manner with parents? There are at least four ways, the first of which is the least effective and meaningful (although still a step in the right direction). You can email parents quickly and easily. While email must be considered the least personal, it still can be an effective way to send good news to parents. Second, you can send a handwritten note home, either with the child or via snail mail. Handwritten notes seem to be a thing of the past and, therefore, hold significant value for many parents. While email messages may get lost or deleted, a handwritten note can be saved forever. You can make a phone call and speak directly to the parent(s). Making a phone call to a parent to brag on his/her child will make that parent's day, and this is a quick and easy thing to do. The fourth way to communicate positively with parents is to be ready with good news at events like open house, concerts, carpool, athletic events and other school functions. Looking a parent in the eye and smiling while you shake his/her hand and deliver good news can be incredibly meaningful.

A good teacher, coach or administrator can find something positive and meaningful for every student, and should make the effort to communicate this to parents. Such communication will build trust and engagement and will demonstrate to parents that your school makes a habit of looking for the good in students. Positive communication also will come in handy down the road if you ever need to communicate not-so-good news. Think of positive communication as making deposits in a bank account. Making a withdrawal works much better if sufficient deposits have been made already.

You really have no reason or excuse not to practice positive communication regularly. Making such small investments will pay huge dividends in a variety of ways, especially in terms of building parent engagement. Guaranteed.

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