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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Call To Action Or Blame Game? 3 Ways Schools Communicate With Families

By Peter DeWitt — April 15, 2018 5 min read
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During these times of accountability from our state we live in, or the social-emotional issues our students experience, family engagement is both a call to action, and a scapegoat depending on the conversation.

In John Hattie’s research family engagement has around a .51 effect size, which is over the .40 that equates to a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. There are times, as someone that works with Hattie, that I put 5 or 6 of his influences (i.e. feedback, classroom discussion, class size, etc.) up on the screen, and participants in the workshops have to rank them in order of what they believe has the most positive impact on student growth and achievement.

It’s always interesting to see how adults approach the list. It’s good to challenge their thinking at the beginning of the day. Some put each individual influence on a sticky note and work with a partner or team to rank each one...moving one sticky note up the list...and others down the list until they get the ranking the way they want it.

What’s also interesting is when I ask a few adults to stand up and explain their final ranking to the rest of the crowd. Most times, they do not want to take that risk unless I tell them that their ranking is correct before they hesitantly grab the microphone.

I wonder how often the same adults afford that same courtesy to students?

Within the influences chosen for the activity are those that focus on students (assessment capable learners), teachers (collective-teacher efficacy), leaders (school leadership) and families (family engagement). Many participants choose family engagement as the influence that has the biggest impact on student growth and achievement.

During the ranking activity, questions and discussions often come up such as...

  • How do we get families to support us at home?
  • They never make them do their homework...
  • How do we get families to come to school events?
  • I wish more parents, grandparents and guardians would come out to vote for the school budget.
  • How do we get our families to understand the new curriculum that their children are learning?
  • Why aren’t parents more accountable?

First and foremost, although family engagement has an important impact, there are many other influences on the list that have a stronger one. Including those that involve the student themselves, or the teacher.

However, the family engagement discussion has been very intriguing to me lately. During these times of accountability from our state we live in, or the social-emotional issues our students experience, family engagement is both a call to action, and a scapegoat depending on the conversation. It’s a call to action for those teachers and leaders who want to try different ways to engagement families, and it’s a scapegoat for those who want to blame them for the issues with our students.

How School Communicate
In order to engage families, schools usually have one or two open houses, monthly PTA meetings, and send home newsletters or put important information on their websites. There are times when it seems as though no matter how hard school leaders and teachers try to get families on board with the school, the communication used is often one-sided. And then when those school leaders need family input, those family members don’t show up because they really don’t understand how to offer input to the school leader.

There needs to be a balance where all of this communication is concerned. Too often the communication is indeed one-sided. It focuses on what the school needs from families, and not necessarily on building dialogue between schools and those families who send their children there. Of course, there are times when schools need to communicate messages that families need to know about, but it should come along with opportunities for families to share their thoughts and learn more about student learning.

Over the last few years, I have asked hundreds of leaders, teachers, instructional coaches, families and school board members what they believe is the best way to engage families. The ideas they provide, which are normally very inspiring, come down to three different themes. Those themes are:

  • Monologue- Messages they need to know (i.e. emergency dismissal, important dates, etc.). These are clearly important pieces of information for families to know. The issue becomes when this is the only way a school communicates, and yes, I have seen countless examples of where this is the only way schools communicate. Why? Mostly because they have created a culture and a self-fulfilling prophecy for families where those school leaders and staff don’t believe families will want to engage, so they treat them like they won’t.
  • Dialogue- Two-way dialogue (i.e. parent-teacher conferences, welcoming them in when dropping kids off at school, meetings with the principal, PTA, etc.). In our leadership courses, we were taught to be visible, but in-reality we have to be engaging. Schools have to create opportunities for dialogue where families can ask questions, even if they are difficult ones. Our families don’t only need to feel listened to, but they need to feel heard and see leaders and teachers taking action on those issues. If families don’t see action from time to time, they may not be willing to show up again.
  • Learning - This is where families learn about what their children are learning about in school (i.e. Math night, Science Fair, Game night, etc.). Even better than just learning from teachers, these learning events are a great opportunity for their children (and other children) to teach families what is being learned in school.

In the End
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about parent accountability because a few interactions with school leaders and teachers on social media brought up the topic. I think at the same time leaders and teachers question parent accountability, which is an important topic to discuss, they should also think about their actions within the whole discussion.

We need to ask ourselves a couple of questions:

Do we talk in educational jargon?When we talk at them using jargon they don’t understand, they will most likely not ask for clarification, or be hesitant to show to school again to talk with us one-on-one.

Were we there for them when they needed us?Too often we fault families for not being there to support us, but never think about whether we were there to support them when they needed us. How have we helped them in their time of need?

Family engagement is more than just having them support us at home. It’s about having open dialogue, even around difficult topics. Schools are a microcosm of society at large and adults these days have a difficult time talking with each other. If we are truly going to focus on all topics that come up in school, we have to take a deep dive into how we communicate.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.