Fostering Meaningful School-Home Connections

Nov 30, 2023 3:47:31 PM


In the education world, schools recognized November as Family Engagement Month, an initiative to strengthen the bonds between schools and families.

While this is always an important topic, in the aftermath of pandemic learning disruptions, it has transitioned from important to critical. Without stronger partnerships with families, climbing out of the COVID-related learning canyon we’ve fallen into will be much more difficult.

It’s not just me saying so! Researchers and educators are underscoring the need to involve families to bolster academic recovery. In a recent SchoolStatus educator priorities survey, 75% of respondents highlighted the importance of "Establishing a Communication Routine.” This fall, the U.S. Department of Education also unveiled a more than $11 million funding commitment for family engagement initiatives.

When we think of the basic building blocks of schooling, subjects, curriculum, and instructional methodology usually come to mind. Let's envision it as a table. The missing leg? Communication. School-home communication is more than simply sharing information; it's a vital support system that builds trust between parents and teachers, fostering school connectedness.

This is especially crucial for at-risk student populations and families from historically marginalized communities. Constructing a communication framework rooted in inclusivity transforms our schools into spaces of understanding and partnership, laying the groundwork for effective learning.

So, as we wrap up Family Engagement Month, let's commit long-term to harnessing the power of school-home communication to cultivate an environment where every student can genuinely thrive.

The Crucial Role of Effective Communication

In my teaching and principal days, communication happened after the fact, like a test at the end of a unit. However, my views on assessment and communication have evolved with experience and diving into education research.

Assessment isn't just a post-event wrap-up; it's an integral part of the learning journey. Similarly, if we want to lay down the strongest foundation for student success, our communication efforts should kick in well before students enter the classroom.

Research consistently shouts about the benefits of ongoing school-home communication — improved academics, better in-school behavior, positive social-emotional development, enhanced student well-being, and higher graduation rates.

Why? Because it builds trust. When parents are clued in about school happenings, they're better equipped to support their child's academic journey. The more they support their child, the more they trust the teacher and the school community. A study published in May underlines the impact of trust in education, showing that students with the best outcomes coming out of pandemic-era remote learning belonged to districts with the highest community trust levels.

Being a top-notch communicator doesn't require fancy tools; it's all about being intentional. But sure, there are tools and tricks out there to make our communications more inclusive, enabling us to reach those families who could use a bit more support.

Some Strategies for Meaningful Engagement

  1. Start Early and Maintain Consistency in Broadcast Communications
    • Smoothly introduce families to key players and routines, paving the way for a seamless transition to school. If you haven't started in November, no worries — December and January are typically challenging for attendance. The sooner you emphasize the importance of school happenings, the better attendance you can expect.
    • Establish a regular cadence for district, building, and classroom communications and stick to it. Consistency in communication builds a foundation for a robust relationship with home adults.
    • Ask families about their schedules, communication preferences, access to wifi,  and time constraints. For engaging families, we can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach. Some parents or caregivers may be working two jobs, not have access to reliable transportation for in-person meetings, or may not have child care available in the evenings. Two-way communication and proactively asking families what they need can help make sure all families are included and supported in engagement. Keep in mind that not every family will have wifi at home or access to a smartphone to download an app.
    • Offer communication options, from text or email to standard phone calls or video meetings that don’t require a trip to the school. When we offer flexible options, it allows more parents to be part of supporting student success.
    • Keep your text succinct—think bullet points instead of paragraphs—and make your updates visually friendly with emojis, pictures of students, and videos.
    • When possible, provide a space for parents and caregivers to share insights, concerns, and aspirations through a simple Google form survey with three to five questions.
    • Opt for a translatable format, considering that more than 10% of U.S. public school students are multilingual learners. Ensuring families can read communications in their preferred language is essential for equity.
    • Leverage the analytics of your chosen communication platform. Your data tells a story about who's engaged and who needs more outreach efforts.
  2. Embrace Dialogue:
    • While one-way communication informs families about the big picture, two-way communication allows parents and caregivers to participate actively in their child's success.
    • Select a communication platform that meets families where they are—usually text. The ability to send private, quick, translatable text messages or share photos with cheerful emojis facilitates individual communication.
    • Two-way translatable text ensures parents can respond immediately, fostering school connectedness and conveying that someone in the building cares about their presence.
  3. Celebrate Attendance
    • Throughout the district, building, and classroom, consistently reinforce the benefits of daily school attendance in all communications.
    • Explore various ways to cultivate a culture of showing up, from upbeat, multilingual letters from the Superintendent to principal-sponsored pizza parties, and a Classroom Hall of Fame featured in every class update.
    • For students struggling with absenteeism, foster a sense of belonging through positive two-way communication.

Providing Support and Training for Teachers

To empower teachers in fostering meaningful school-home connections, building leaders and district instructional leadership can exemplify best practices in communication.

One effective approach is through regular updates. For instance, a weekly update from the principal to faculty can serve multiple functions: providing communication resources and tips for teachers, highlighting successful updates, celebrating top communicators, and modeling best practices in school communication. Echoing the wisdom of education scholar Grant Wiggins, "Assess what you value; value what you assess." Suppose school-home communication is a crucial aspect of student success. In that case, leaders should seamlessly integrate communication practices into faculty observation and evaluation metrics, underscoring the significance of school comms in achieving overall success.

Navigating the Path Forward

As we move beyond Family Engagement Month, let’s shine a light on consistent, collaborative school-home communication.

Collaborative communication acts as the catalyst for building trust, a fundamental element in the school-home relationship. Research consistently affirms that trust is the bedrock of positive educational outcomes. It's this trust that transforms challenges into opportunities, creating a resilient foundation for students to navigate their academic journey. By intentionally cultivating consistent, collaborative communication, schools not only bridge gaps but also foster a sense of belonging, ensuring that every family feels heard, respected, and included.

Two-way communication, or open dialogue, is equally essential in creating robust connections between schools and families. It transcends the mere exchange of information, evolving into a dynamic partnership that shapes a child's educational journey. By consistently reaching out and actively seeking feedback, the school team cultivates an environment where home adults not only feel integral to their child's learning experience but also valued contributors to the educational journey. This approach lays the groundwork for sustained academic success and constructs a supportive framework for the steep climb of pandemic learning recovery.

Dr. Kara Stern

Dr. Kara Stern is the Director of Education and Engagement at SchoolStatus, a fully integrated data analytics and communications platform designed to improve student outcomes through comprehensive data and school-home engagement. A former teacher, principal, and head of school, she holds a Ph.D. in Teaching & Learning from NYU.

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