Communication For Good and For Bad

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There will be times when schools have no choice but to share less than positive news with families; such communication is better received when schools communicate the good as well as the bad. When the negative is balanced with the positive, families are more receptive to problem-solving and less productive decisions can be viewed as opportunities to learn and grow; everyone benefits as children, youth, families, and schools come to understand that they are all on the same page.

A Note to School

I received the dreaded note home from school today; I do understand the decisions made and have discussed the day with him. I emailed you tonight to talk about what might be going on. I returned the note in the agenda. It is two days later and I have still not heard from you despite the request to keep in touch and accentuate the positive. He responds well to positive goal setting, which we are trying to do at home.

I called the school today as a result of a bus incident.  I left a message, asking for a return call so that we could sit down, chat, and try to find a way out of this negative spiral. He came home from school today with yet another note, which he had already explained to me. We have established strategies to support him with frustration; did he share them with you?

It is now five precious days later in his life, and we have just scheduled a school conference.

A frustrated parent


Families send schools the very best they have; they know their children best and have valuable information to contribute in  good times and in bad. Not surprisingly, they know their children’s needs and struggles well. Communication from school that continually draws attention to a child’s needs or struggles runs counterproductive to relationship building and for some, productive and positive family life. Problem-solving in the child’s best interests is grounded in trust and respect, and must be negotiated carefully in order to offset potential power imbalances, particularly when we are discussing what might be perceived as negative by families. Families need to know that you are looking to catch their child being good as well.

  • When do you communicate with families?
  • How do you communicate with families about the positive as well as the negative?
  • Do you value family knowledge by asking for critical information about children that can be used in day-to-day strategy work?

Strategies such as those listed below are starting points that value family knowledge and support authentic and meaningful dialogue about, and with children, in positive and negative times.

Call or send a note… just because. Why not touch base just because you want to celebrate something the child did that day? Be prepared for a surprised response as families are often not accustomed to receiving unsolicited positive comments about their children.

Communicate your knowledge of the child with parents. Let families know that you see the best in their child. Make a positive observation before offering more constructive and critical feedback. Balance strengths with needs in order to avoid discouraging families, and ensure that they know that the child is accepted even if the behaviour is not.

Keep in touch. Make it a habit to call or write in good times and in bad. Commit to communicating with each family on a regular basis. Be consistent and follow up when necessary, even when the going is good. Find a system that works for both the family and the school.

Make contact as early as possible when struggles have been identified. Do not wait until report card time or when struggles, difficulties, or conflicts have reached a tipping point to communicate. Waiting too long can create new problems, often raising the frustration levels of those involved.

Problem-solve with families. Recognize that families know their children best and that they can often provide important insights into their children’s behaviour (positive and negative). Ask questions instead of offering interpretations and drawing conclusions. Ask families what works at home and what might work in the classroom.

Involve children in your communication strategy. Why not hold children accountable for communication, problem-solving, and reflection? Ask them to reflect on their day: What went well today? What do you need to work harder at? Younger students can use a system of happy/sad faces, whereas older youth may write a sentence or two.

Schedule a meeting. There are some occasions where a note, email, or phone call will not be in the best interests of the child nor the family. Set up a face-to-face dialogue in order to explore solutions and strategies that will support children’s academic, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Make sure that families know who will be in attendance and that they have a right to someone present as well.

Adopt a 24-hour rule. Give families at least 24 hours to respond unless it is an urgent request, particularly if communicating by email. You should try to respond to families’ email within 24 hours as well.

What would you add to this list?

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One Response to Communication For Good and For Bad

  1. Michelann says:

    Anonymous Response: Your list of strategies seem quite sensible to me, and I have encountered teachers that utilize many of them, and teachers who use very few. This may or may not be acceptable in cases where the child is doing quite well in school (although parents still deserve and appreciate the feedback in the ways suggested). But in cases where there are developing concerns or issues, there is no excuse for delayed replies or a lack of communication from the teacher/school. If a parent is requesting updates and to be kept informed because the teacher has at one time raised a concern, then that teacher has a responsibility to the student as well as to the parents to reply to the parent in a timely fashion. I agree that within 24 hours is quite reasonable – but no longer than 48! There is no excuse for a teacher not responding to a request to return an email or phone call to a parent no matter how busy they are. If the parent is nagging or not making appropriate contact, then the teacher and administrator should set up a meeting to discuss roles and responsibilities and address the issue. Failing that, if I as a parent am attempting to work collaboratively and in support of the school’s efforts, then I need to know what is happening at school in a timely manner. Unfortunately relying on my son or daughter to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is an ineffective strategy to say the least. I need to know how things are going and what has happened at school (teacher’s view) in order to effectively address the matter as a parent at home. And yes, some things are best dealt with at school, but some things need to be addressed at home as well – especially when they relate to concerns the teacher is reporting home to the parent.

    So come on teachers (and parents), as the message says, we all want what is best for the kids so let’s keep the communication flowing (the positive as well as the not so positive) and most importantly, get back to my query within 24 hours for an email and within two days for a phone call at the most!