If you’re a teacher or administrator, I want you to take a moment and think back to the last interaction you had with a student’s family (and I’ll be broad here—family constitutes anyone who loves and provides some level of care for that child). Who initiated contact? What was it about? How long did the interaction last? Do you think both of you said everything that needed to be said?
Students usually spend between six and eight hours at school each day; it’s a lot of time that accrues by the end of the school year. When that time is used well, students and teachers build relationships that help everyone to develop themselves more fully. Students grow in their skillfulness, capacity, and reasoning; staff evolve in their ability to reach all kids and deepen their reservoir of empathy. But these hours miss a vital part of a student’s life: their family. The time with their family and community shapes who they are indelibly. If you don’t have an open line of communication with the people who know that student well outside of school, you can’t fully appreciate who that person is. When you’re able to build a strong relationship with a family, everyone is able to get a different perspective on who the others are; it allows us all to step outside of our preconceived notions. Partnerships with families are critical.
In order to support the development of meaningful family-school relationships, here are some thoughts to guide practitioners on interactions that they can initiate with families:
-Establish positive contact early: Ok, I know this one gets said frequently, but I don’t think it can be said too often. When you begin a relationship with a family by sharing good news, you align yourself with that student and you signal that you see positive attributes in that kid (and presumably, in the family who has helped that child develop). Setting the tone in this way will pay off in dividends, particularly when you need to have a harder conversation. If they already believe you have that kid’s best interests at heart, they will (most likely) listen differently than if they’d heard radio silence up to that point.
-Strive to have communications with families that honor a child’s complexity: All of us are three-dimensional people. Every person has wonderful qualities and parts of themselves that can be stubborn or antagonistic or difficult. If I overheard a conversation that other folks (who knew me well) had about me that only acknowledged the worst behaviors I displayed or the unloveliest of moments I’ve had, I would not feel understood nor would I trust those individuals in the same way ever again. As a professional, be aware of what you need to share but also keep in mind what else you should share to communicate your depth of understanding of who that child is.
-Observe: I think it’s tempting (and sometimes helpful) to create a narrative of who a child is in our own heads. I did it, even this morning, with my toddler. On several occasions, he’s displayed a hatred for his car seat, so on first blush, when he screamed “Up, up, up!!!” from the backseat, I assumed he was just mad that he had to be strapped in to his car seat. When the yelling persisted, I was able to look more carefully (don’t worry, my husband was driving) and figure out that he was actually really upset that his travel cup was stuck in the cup holder, and he couldn’t get it to budge. After getting it out and handing it to him, he settled. His frustration wasn’t about the car seat; it was about the cup. I had a narrative in my head about why he’d be upset, and it actually delayed a helpful reaction and created more stress. I think, as adults, we do this too often. Instead of being careful observers of the moment, we revert to a more static story we’ve created. When we can start from a place of curiosity and observation, we can be more helpful to a student and their family more quickly because we aren’t reverting to what we think might be true. Then, when we need to communicate with families about what we see, we can share a fuller picture and hopefully create less stress for everyone. (Note: This also applies to constantly challenging your own assumptions about the families of students you work with. Don’t stereotype or generalize them; families are unique).
-Be honest and sincere: Every family sees strengths and areas of difficulty for each child, so don’t feel the need to be over-the-top or inauthentic when communicating. If something was amazing, honor that, but don’t feel compelled to use flower-y language or too many adjectives to describe what you saw.
-Invite dialogue: Remember to open a communication with a family with some variant of “How are you?” Sending an e-mail, making a call, or choosing to engage in public shouldn’t be about getting in and out as fast as possible. When you choose to reach out to a family, invite that family back in so that you’re learning as much as you can about who they are and what their perspective is. Building real relationships with your students’ families will pay dividends for everyone.
Families are not an impediment to a child’s success. Regardless of the situation a kid comes from, they are a product of their environment, and they have learned important and very real lessons because of it. When you encourage family participation, you encourage an approach that honors a student’s lived experience; you’ll see that child more clearly and be a more powerful educator and advocate for them.
Do you have a strategy for working with families that you’ve found successful? Share it with us!
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