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?