Effective family-school partnerships begin with strong relationships. When families trust the school, they are more likely to support their child’s learning both at home and at school. The first step is welcoming families as partners. If welcoming families starts schools on the pathway to effective family-school partnerships, what is the next step? Before your school examines what information you share, you should first think about how you communicate with families.
“What is the best method for someone to contact you so that you will likely respond?” I always ask this question when I travel around the country talking about family engagement. The answer is always the same—no single method works for everyone. Some people prefer an email or a text, others say a phone call or a tweet, while others say that an in-person conversation works best for them. I have never, however, heard anyone say a 6-page newsletter is the most effective method.
As you consider how your school communicates with families, start by identifying the methods you currently employ. Do you primarily use a single type of communication—newsletter, email, robo call—or do you ask families what works best for them and then use their preferred method? You will be most successful if you employ multiple methods of communication to reach all of your families. Make sure you keep in mind that you will likely need to adjust your communication methods to accommodate the changing needs of families. Don’t get stuck in a communications rut!
As you expand the number of ways you communicate with families, keep in mind your methods of communication must be “two way.” Two-way communication is more than your school sharing information with families; it involves feedback from the families back to you.
I recently visited a school where I asked the front office staff if their school had a suggestion box. My intention was to understand if families had the opportunity to share their ideas safely. The secretary told me there was no suggestion box but there was a complaint form families could complete if they had something to say. In another recent training, a family resource coordinator told the group his school had to remove their suggestion box because families made unreasonable requests. To have a true partnership with families, educators must help families believe their opinions and ideas are valued. Some effective strategies for engaging families in two-way communication include a suggestion box (real and virtual), teacher/family journals, and all types of social media. If families don’t believe they can freely and safely share their thoughts, they won’t ever feel truly welcomed as partners in learning.
After considering the use of multiple methods to foster two-way communication, you must ensure you reach every family. The more methods of communication you employ, the more likely you will connect with all families. It’s not enough to send information out without ever checking to see if your information is received and understood. Throughout the year, periodically contact a random sample of families to see if your message was successfully received and understood by everyone. Don’t just ask families who show up to events at your school, make sure you reach out to families you don’t see or hear from. Make sure to check to see if your message reaches and makes sense to everyone. If you discover families who haven’t received or understood the information or, if you find that families don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas with you, ask them how you can improve. One strategy successful strategy I recently saw in a middle school is to have families review and provide feedback on communication materials before the school sent them out to all stakeholders.
A deep knowledge of the communities represented in your school or district will be at the heart of an effective communication strategy. This knowledge will inform the methods of communication, how you spread your message, and even the types of information you provide or ask for from families. Of course, acquiring this deep knowledge may require a bit of flexibility, agility, and even on-the-ground research as you discover how your families are most comfortable interacting with their children's school.
Partnerships can be made or broken through communication—create strong partnerships by using multiple methods that are two-way and reach every family in your school.