Everyone talks about the importance of including families in students’ school lives, but some of us—either through benign neglect or a sense of being overwhelmed—relegate it to back-to-school night and parent–-teacher conferences. That is just not enough.

There are a ways to make parents feel included in their child’s school life. And doing so at the start of the year will go a long way toward building positive relationships that will benefit your students.

Make the initial contact positive. Your first direct communication with a family should be 100 percent positive. Don’t wait for a problem to arise before reaching out. Whether it’s to welcome parents to school, share a positive anecdote, or simply say it’s a pleasure to have their child in class, you want to start on an optimistic note. Especially with students who seem to be struggling academically or behaviorally, it’s crucial the first contact is encouraging. Your next conversation with the parents may not be as sunny. Take a few moments early on to support their child, and your connection will grow in a positive direction.

Keep parents updated on classroom life. School can be downright mysterious to parents because so many kids return home with few details. The simple question “How was school today?” is often met with the most unrevealing answers, namely, “Good,” “Recess was awesome,” or “I loved lunch.” As teachers, we know (and hope!) there is a lot more about the school day that is captivating besides recess and lunch.

You can help parents by sharing details about classroom life that will jump-start end-of-day conversations. Every week or two, send a short note home summarizing what kids have accomplished and what is coming next. If you have a class blog or website, let parents know how to access it. This will help them feel more involved and encourage them to ask direct questions about goings-on in the classroom. You’ll also build a trusting relationship with families, and they might get more than a three-word answer from their kid at the end of the day.

Set clear boundaries. This may seem negative but it doesn’t have to be. If you assume that parents know what the visitation and communication guidelines are for your school and classroom, you may be headed for a disaster. Some parents will never enter the school out of fear of breaking a rule, while others will march right into your classroom mid-lesson. Creating guidelines will let all parents know the best ways to get in touch and how they can be more a part of their child’s education. Defined expectations from both sides will make communication that much easier.

Building a positive relationship with families takes forethought and energy, but the payoff is enormous. Parents who feel comfortable and included in their child’s education will be a boon to everyone: you, the school, and, most important, the child.

-—OK

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illustration: Chris Gash