The best way to avoid misunderstandings with parents is to have ongoing, clear lines of communication from the beginning. The more you keep them informed about classroom news and include them in school happenings, the more they'll feel like a part of the team. The end result? Parents who are supportive, understanding, and a little less likely to jump to negative conclusions.
Here are five ground rules of effective communication with parents:
1. Begin the year by explaining how and when you'll keep in touch with them. Let parents know that you value their questions and concerns and would never minimize them by responding "off the cuff" or "on the fly." Explain that in order to give them your undivided attention, you've set aside specific times to talk. It's important to decide when you want to take and return phone calls and emails and when you're available for school conferences, and to actually be available during those times. Post these times and procedures and send them home with your welcome letter or first newsletter. Earmarking office hours and sticking to them eliminates the need parents may feel to grab your ear in the parking lot or to monopolize your attention outside your classroom door before or after school.
2. Never feel pressured to make an important decision, evaluation, or assessment during a parent conference or conversation. Instead, be prepared to take some time to think and get back to the parent. For example, "You've made a great point, Mrs. Smith, and this is an important issue. I'd really like to give it some serious thought and get back to you on it." Then make it a point to tell the parent exactly when he or she can expect a response: "Let's schedule another meeting/phone conference for Friday. Does that work for you?" This allows you time to consider the issue, develop possible solutions, and consult with colleagues, administrators, or other professionals, if necessary.
3. Let parents know they can trust you. Be discrete: Avoid discussing students with other parents or engaging in any negative faculty-room talk. I also make this a rule for parent volunteers who spend time in the classroom. I tell parents that all of us have good days and bad days. If a volunteer witnesses a "bad day" — any negative or challenging behavior on the part of a student in the class — that particular situation remains in the classroom and confidential.
4. Assure parents that you will inform them immediately about any concerns you might have with regard to their child. Parents become extremely upset when the first sign of trouble comes in the form of a progress report halfway into the marking period or worse yet, on the report card itself. I always try to share even small concerns early on, rather than waiting and then dropping a bombshell.
5. When presenting a concern to parents, ALWAYS be ready to explain what strategies you've already used to address the issue and what new strategies you are considering. Parents don't want concerns dropped in their laps without at least a tentative action plan, which you'll adjust based on their input.
If you keep these communication ground rules in mind, parents will thank you, and your life as a classroom teacher will be much easier!
This article was adapted from Easy and Effective Ways to Communicate with Parents by Barbara Mariconda, © 2003, published by Scholastic.