Sifting through school bags for crumpled newsletters and permission slips. A regular feeling of overwhelm at the deluge of school emails in your inbox. Sitting, clutching a list of essential things you want to discuss during a parents’ evening or parent-teacher conference only to be beaten by the buzzer when your ten-minute appointment is up. Not one of those things ticked off your list. Sound familiar?
For many parents, this is part of their ‘silent’ workload. Yet parents aren’t alone in the challenges associated with ensuring that every child thrives at school. Educators are under pressure too with targets to meet, curriculums to deliver, reports to write, lessons to plan and kids to teach (each with different learning styles and often with widely varying needs). None of which leaves much time for lengthy conversations with parents.
While parents and educators face such daily frustrations, clear, consistent communication between school, teachers and parents is essential. Communication can reduce unnecessary stress, help school life run more smoothly and create continuity between learning in the classroom and at home.
Let’s not forget communication with kids either. Children need to feel that they have a voice, that they are heard and that teachers and parents will respond to them with empathy, understanding and action, if necessary. This empowers children to develop autonomy in their learning and take responsibility for their own needs.
Positive home and school relations
Kids comes from diverse backgrounds. It’s crucial, therefore, not to generalise school-home relationships. Still, there’s no doubt that a positive relationship between home and school is a good thing. Parental involvement can take many forms, from having an easy rapport with teachers, helping kids with homework and assisting on school trips, through to becoming a member of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and board of governors. Reviews of research into parental involvement in a child’s schooling show that it can:
- Help children achieve more, regardless of socio-economic background and parents’ level of education;
- Improve children’s self-esteem, self-discipline and motivation, and help them to have a positive attitude about school;
- Help parents feel more confident about their parenting, child’s development and schooling;
- Increase teacher and school morale, and enhance job satisfaction;
- Foster a more respectful attitude towards cultural diversity within the school community;
- Improve empathy between parents and educators;
- Enhance the school’s reputation; and
- Help schools deliver higher quality programmes.
Keeping parents informed
One of the greatest challenges is mundane admin. Ideally, everything we need to know about school life is easily accessible through the school website. Yet this isn’t always the case. Information can get dispersed across numerous channels – paper letters, email, website, social media, resulting in a Chinese whispers or game of telephone situation.
It doesn’t need to be like this, though. Schools can begin by using cool technology for kids and parents to stay connected with teachers. There’s an increasing amount of tech designed to make communication easier, from services such as Edmodo to free apps like Remind. Reliable communication is one way educators can instantly ‘power up’ parent-teacher communication.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of grumping and complaining. But how helpful is this attitude? If we’re going to create robust parent-teacher relationships, then empathy and appreciation are more important than fault finding.
Eleanor West, a parent and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Education, Bath Spa University, UK, describes how she and her husband made the decision to be very supportive of the teachers at their children’s school. ‘It’s so challenging managing 30 children’s learning and wellbeing. I try to listen attentively and recognise teachers’ views. I find that if I collaborate with the teacher, it is better for all concerned,’ says West.
‘When I worked in primary schools, I found that parents could be a fantastic asset and you could build up a strong relationship for the benefit of the child. I always listened, acknowledged their perspective and only then would I put my opinion over. That way, parents are more receptive. They need to feel you know their child well.’
Ask for help, get involved
When there are regular opportunities for parents to get involved, this helps develop empathy between all parties. Parents can gain a better understanding of what their child is doing, how teachers teach and what it’s like in the classroom environment, as well as enjoy learning with their child while building rapport with teachers and staff.
Expert in compassionate communication for parenting, Alice Sheldon of Partnership Parenting, says: ‘We should be doing everything we can as parents to get to know teachers, just as we would any other important person in [our children’s] lives. Ask yourself what you can do to support what happens in the classroom. Helping out in school gives you an understanding of the whole context of your child’s learning.’
However, Sheldon also acknowledges that when there are unrealistic expectations around parental involvement it can be problematic. It’s helpful for educators to recognise that parents also have limitations.
Most conversations start before we even open our mouth – we have preconceived notions and learnt behaviour that we carry with us, for better or worse. That’s why self-awareness is invaluable for clear communication. Self-enquiry helps us to be more aware of who we are and where we’re coming from so we can find an appropriate response to the present moment, rather than reacting and then regretting it.
We all have ‘stuff’ or emotional baggage around school, especially as parents. Whether we were the rebel who was always pushing boundaries and challenging authority, or the compliant kid who was motivated by praise and grades, there’s every chance we’ll act out some of these aspects of ourselves when we’re in conversation with educators.
Meanwhile, if you’re a teacher talking with a parent you might well be on the receiving end of this ‘acting out’ behaviour, and more or less aware of it happening. You may also find yourself reacting to parents in a habitual way that is based on a previous experiences with other parents or colleagues.
Often all we need for greater self-awareness is pen and paper. As mindfulness author Sarah Napthali advises in Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Your Children and Yourself: ‘When writing you can be more conscious of your thoughts, so they are less likely to take over and torture you. Write out questions that allow you to explore complex feelings. By making the process conscious in this way, you can resist the tendency to stew.’
Communication starts with the child
If we want thinking kids, adventurous and fearless in life and learning, then we need to encourage them to speak their minds and feelings with confidence. In fact, this is great for parents and educators as it makes it much easier to address children’s needs.
Based on the principles of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), Sheldon outlines three steps to this process:
When a child comes to you with a problem try to understand it from their point of view. For instance, your son is upset because he always tries really hard at school but has never been given a reward sticker. You could say: ‘It makes absolute sense to me that you’re sad. You feel that you try really hard at school and that you would like to be celebrated.’
Help them understand the situation. Be sure to use age-appropriate language. Avoid criticising intentions. It’s ok to question actions. For example: ‘Why do you think the school gives reward stickers? What must it be like for a teacher with 30 children in the class? Perhaps your teacher hasn’t thought about this; how would she feel if she knew you feel you need to be celebrated?’
3.Decide whether or not to take action
Sometimes being heard and having their feelings validated may be all kids need. In other cases, it may be that we need to take action and it is the adult’s responsibility, with their bigger perspective, to make the decision about how to best support them.
Ultimately, this is about knowing the child well and gauging what’s most appropriate in a given situation. In the above example, taking the child through steps one and so might provide resolution. However, if this is a source of continued stress then it’s time to chat with their teacher.
With younger children, it can be helpful to engage with them while playing with toddler teaching materials such as small-world role play toys or art materials that help them process school relationships. Playing with older kids side by side can also allow you to gently approach conversation while sharing an activity.
Framing the conversation
To build healthy communication habits, at first it may be helpful to take a methodical approach:
Clear the field
Depending on the scale of the problem, you may have feelings ranging from mild irritation to burning anger. A habituated reaction to those feelings might be to look for someone to blame. Instead, start from a place of non-judgment. By all means recognise and name your feelings. Then clear the field, put the ego aside and go in with the attitude that there is always a way through that respects each person.
Place the best interests of the child at the heart of every communication.
Practise active listening
This is when you listen to what the other person has to say, acknowledge their feelings and paraphrase what they say to check that you have understood them clearly.
State desired outcomes
What would you like to get from this conversation? How would you like to feel afterwards? Ask yourself if you want a specific action to result from the conversation.
Set a timescale
What do you hope to achieve from this specific conversation? What is the wider timescale for tackling this issue?
Compassion is key
Accept that things will not always go to plan. Acknowledge mistakes, apologise where necessary, and honour what you have achieved (the internal work, setting aside time to address issues rather than sweeping them under the rug, making an effort to steer things towards a positive course of action).
Sheldon describes how by preparing for a conversation with a teacher at her daughter’s school she first spent some time working out what it was she wanted. ‘When I started talking to the teacher, they were on the defensive. Yet, as soon as I said what I’d like to get out of the meeting – to be heard, to feel understood, not action – their attitude completely shifted. They wanted to know more and encouraged me to talk openly. It changed the meeting.’
(Tip: If you want to be a whizz at the art of adult-child communication, there’s no better place to start than with Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s classic, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.)
In formal frameworks for conversation, such as parents’ evening or parent-teacher conferences, it’s helpful for parent and teachers to keep the above tips in mind, but also to be aware of time limits. Parents can prepare by jotting down some questions to ask the teacher and then decide on a top three. For instance:
- How does my child seem at school? Can you give examples of where they are confident in themselves and their ability? Are there any areas in which, in your opinion, they would benefit from more support?
- What are my child’s academic strengths? Where do they need help?
- What one thing could I do at home to make a positive difference to their experience at school?
Then, arrive early to look through schoolbooks – ask for them to be available in advance if this is not routine. At the appointment, greet teachers with warmth and thank them for their time. Listen to what they say. Ask questions, listen to the responses. Give feedback and demonstrate understanding of what they have said so that actions are clear going forward.
Everyone has their own unique conversational style and we all enter relationships in different ways. Yet everyone can get off to a head start by doing some groundwork. Clear communication between schools and parents, with a commitment to developing self-awareness and putting kids first, helps the whole school community to flourish – and makes it an enjoyable exchange for everyone.
Jessica Adams is a writer, yoga teacher and mother of two. She has over nine years’ experience of raising boys and a lifelong love of learning, play and creativity.