Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Response: ‘Successful Schools Solicit’ Family Engagement

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 26, 2016 16 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here. This series will be followed by another one specifically focused on engaging familes of English Language Learners)

This week’s question is:

How can we best engage families?

In Part One, Jennifer Orr, Shane Safir, Karen L. Mapp, Allen Mendler, Mary Tedrow, and Patricia Vitale-Reilly share their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Jennifer and Shane on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Debbie Silver, Jenny Edwards, Sean Slade, Judy Bradbury, and Nadja N. Reilly provide their commentaries on the topic.

Response From Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is the author of the best selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Instruction and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed . She co-wrote the new book, Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Teaching. You can read more about her at www.debbiesilver.com and follow here on Twitter at @DrDebbieSilver:

In American education’s not so distant past there was a distinct separation between home and school. In general parents regarded schools as sacrosanct and limited their participation to booster clubs, bake sales, and other non-essential contributions. Unless they served on local school boards most parents and guardians had limited input about educational decisions regarding their children. However, research from the National Parent Teachers Association clearly indicates when parents are involved in school processes, students achieve more regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial background, or the parents’ education levels. Basically the research finds -- the more extensive parent involvement, the higher student achievement.

In order to actively engage parents and families in school activities and decisions districts are now reaching out as never before. District-wide initiatives include providing parenting workshops, parent resource rooms on campuses, parental advisory boards, family nights and other events, newsletters and websites, volunteer programs, and any number of activities specifically designed to encourage parents to become purposefully involved in the school community.

I have visited districts that have set up satellite programs in community halls, apartment complexes, and other target locations to help serve parents in a myriad of ways. Some schools encourage teachers and students to set up tables at local supermarkets and other central locations to answer questions from parents who are unable or unwilling to venture into a formal school setting. In many areas local community leaders and/or church leaders are asked to partner with schools to set up meetings for educators and families of students. Often translators are provided for those who do not know or who struggle with the English language.

Some communities are repurposing older school buildings and designing new structures to provide space for family and community members to share room with students. Adults are welcomed into the school setting for everything from attending adult education classes to meeting with other parents for a discussion on common issues to working one-on-one as tutors and student mentors.

At every level schools must strive to communicate that the business of education is a shared responsibility and that student families are vital to that partnership. Savvy schools make parental engagement a number one priority and expect teachers individually to involve student families in a meaningful and intentional manner.

Dealing with parents can tax a teacher’s best interpersonal communication skills, but no student is better served by alienating their families. Administrators can arrange for professional development opportunities for all staff members on how to deal effectively with parents and guardians. Teachers can practice role-playing various parent-teacher interactions so that they feel confident in handling their contacts with student families. Experienced teachers can help neophytes with strategies and phrases that will help them remain compassionate and in control. Teachers are instructional specialists, but they cannot provide the extended one-on-one time with a child that parents can.

On an individual basis teachers can further foster the home-school connection in several ways. In addition to phone calls and in-person contacts many educators now send e-mails, tweets, text messages, instagrams, and other communiqués to keep parents in the loop about what is going on in their classrooms. More and more teachers now maintain an active website with a designated parental portal in order to interact with parents. At every opportunity it is important to convey to parents how important their role is in their child’s education. Successful schools not only embrace but also actively solicit the engagement of student families.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of the ASCD books Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? and Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students:

Making Positive Phone Calls to Parents

One great way to engage families is to make positive phone calls to your students’ parents.

Fortunately, I learned fairly early in my teaching career to make positive phone calls to parents at the beginning of the year. I would have a list of the parents’ phone numbers so that I could go right down the list and call them. I would say something like, “Hi! This is Jenny Edwards, _______’s teacher. Is this a good time for you to talk?” When they said it was fine, I asked, “How is (student’s name) enjoying school?” The parent would say that the student was really enjoying it.

Then, I would continue, “It is great having (student’s name) in my class.” I would make specific comments about what the student was doing, the student’s strengths, what I had noticed about the student, etc. I would make the calls early enough in the year that I could not be expected to give a full report on the student. I would end the call by saying, “Please contact me at any time. Here is my contact information.”

Then, I would call the parent from time to time throughout the year in addition to having parent-teacher conferences. The conversations were always pleasant, and the parent seemed to be happy to hear from me. We were often able to head off possible situations before they started.

I definitely reaped the benefits of building a relationship with the parent or guardian at the beginning of the year. If and when something went wrong, I already had a relationship with the parent or guardian. They knew that I liked their child and had their child’s best interests at heart.

Prior to learning about making positive phone calls, I occasionally had difficult encounters with parents. After making positive phone calls, I was always able to work things out easily and quickly.

When I applied to teach at the middle school level, the Assistant Principal who interviewed me asked how I worked with difficult or angry parents. I said I did not have any. He said, “Come on . . . sure you do!” I responded by telling him about the positive phone calls and building relationships with parents at the beginning of the year. He said, “You cannot possibly do that. You will have 150 students.” I said, “That is all the more reason to call them all at the beginning of the year.” I got the job!

For more information, please see:

Edwards, J. (2014). Time to teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Response From Sean Slade

Sean Slade is the Director of Outreach at ASCD, a global community dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading. He is the co-author of School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? (ASCD, 2014), a Social Development expert for the NBC Parent Toolkit, and host of the Whole Child Symposium. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanTSlade:

The first response is that there is a continuum of the word ‘engagement’. It spans from communicating through connecting all the way to empowering. Every school communicates with their families but very few empower them. Even appreciating that this continuum exists frequently starts school personnel along the path to understand how they can change their activities and actions to better ‘engage’ families.

How can you connect with families? How can you empower families?

The initial step is to understand who your families are. Have the demographics changed? How do you know? Have your family’s needs and concerns altered? How do you know? Do they know what your school’s mission is? How do you know?

Too often we skip the steps needed to answer these questions. We fail to ask. Many successful schools invite families in, working around their schedules and not the schools. Many schools invite their families in not to update them on the school’s perspective but to hear from them. Parent hours, community coffee, open forums. Iroquois Ridge High School in Ontario, for example. began their family engagement by inviting parents in for a coffee - just like you would with your friends. No set agenda nor predetermined asks but a conversation.

Iroquois Ridge High School

Parents are a vital part of this Iroquois Ridge school community ... absolutely vital for a thriving community.

It’s not only a learning community for our children, but for our staff, our community, and our parents.

Let’s have these parents have a leadership role. Iroquois Ridge is founded on the principle of engagement so just as our youth are involved in school as decision makers and as participants in every program that happens, so we felt our parents could do the same.

By allowing an open forum without predetermined asks the school was able to increase family and community engagement. It allowed the families themselves to see where they fit it and how they could assist the school and its mission.

Response From Judy Bradbury

Judy Bradbury (www.judybradbury.com) is a literacy specialist who has taught students from preschool through college. The author of eleven books, Judy’s most recent release, Empowering Families: Practical Ways to Involve Parents in Boosting Literacy (Routledge, 2015), details field-tested afterschool programs that encourage family involvement in bolstering children’s literacy. Judy speaks often at conferences and offers lively, hands-on professional development workshops and on all aspects of literacy, parent involvement, and character education:

The fundamental goal of teaching is to motivate and guide the learner to dream, believe, strive, and achieve. When the home joins forces with the school in concerted and focused efforts to support and encourage children to reach their potential, the ultimate objective of education is realized. The circle of learning is complete.

After-school programs that foster family involvement within the school community while boosting literacy serve a dual purpose. When educators equip parents and caregivers with simple, effective means of bolstering their children’s literacy, a powerful partnership that impacts academic success is forged. Successful programs strive for inclusive events showcasing a variety of accessible suggestions, practical how-tos, engaging family-centered activities, positive connections, and common language.

Here are just a few examples of one-to-two hour after-school programs spotlighting literacy that educators interested in building and maintaining a dynamic school-home literacy team might offer throughout the school year.

  • Explore how to develop and maintain the read-aloud habit, how to read aloud effectively to children from birth through high school, and why reading aloud daily is vital to academic success

  • Investigate myriad ways to bolster literacy in the home every day

  • Highlight fun, family-centric activities that will sustain and reinforce academic skills over summer and holiday breaks

  • Compile a list of free family-friendly community and online resources that support literacy

  • Host vibrant, multisensory cultural events that heighten awareness and celebrate diversity and books

  • Detail simple methods for strengthening study skills and creating conducive study areas within the home setting

  • Involve dads and other male caregivers in entertaining, participatory literacy-rich events

To put a literacy spin on a well-known saying: Give a family a reason to read and you plant a seed. Teach a family to read together and you cultivate a lifelong love of books and reading. When the school and home join forces through positive, synergistic, and ongoing programming, children benefit. When educators and parents partner to foster literacy, they reach, teach, and fortify the future. The circle of learning is complete. Boosting literacy begins with one book, one print-rich activity, one engaging family event. Make a remarkable difference in your school-home connection and impact your school community’s literacy one sure step at a time.

Response From Nadja N. Reilly

Nadja Reilly, PhD, is an expert in school mental health. She is a Lecturer of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Associate Director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development at William James College. Dr. Reilly is also the editor and main author of Preventing Depression: A Toolkit for Schools and the Break Free from Depression school curriculum, and executive producer of Break Free From Depression, a documentary focused on addressing adolescent depression in high schools. She is the author of Anxiety and Depression in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Fostering Self-Regulation in Young Students:

Effectively engaging students’ families can often be challenging, but when achieved, this communication can lead to significant support of the students’ academic and emotional functioning. Meeting families where they are is an important first step. Ask yourself, “How can I best find appropriate ways of communicating with my students’ parents, remain open to suggestions and feedback, and maintain a welcoming and supportive atmosphere?”

Small gestures can convey large messages when it comes to developing a school culture that welcomes parent participation. Are there signs that say, “Welcome parents!” in the school? Do teachers regularly invite parents to set up meetings or to volunteer? Methods for easy communication, such as regular conferences, email exchanges, and invitations for feedback also convey a strong interest in parent communication. More informal events, such as parent coffee meetings, can also be helpful.

During traditional meetings, such as an open house, openly discuss your hopes for teacher-parent communication. Ask parents what might be the best ways to reach them and what most interests them in terms of ongoing communication. Sometimes logistical matters, such as lack of child care, may impede parent participation in workshops or meetings. Partner with local high schools for these events so that older students can provide child care for younger children.

Identifying potential barriers to communication is crucial. Offering flyers in different languages for parents who cannot read in English can help increase parent engagement, as can offering alternative ways (e.g., phone call or letter vs. email) or times to contact staff personnel. If possible, home visits can be particularly helpful. Finally, be mindful of cultural differences, and consider that some parents may feel deferential toward school personnel and rules, and waiting to be contacted may be a sign of respect rather than of lack of interest.

When speaking with parents, let them know that you care about all aspects of their children, not just academics. For example, assure parents of your interest in knowing when there might be changes in the child’s family or other support systems that may impact his or her functioning. If one of the parents is going away on a trip for the first time, you might send an email to the parent to let him/her know how the child is doing in school. If the child is experiencing difficulties, problem-solve with the family about how to handle these setbacks, framing them not as failures but as moments that are to be expected as the child learns a new set of skills or adjusts to a new situation. Parents may not feel comfortable sharing their worries, so it may be useful to wonder out loud if they might be worried about particular things. For example, you may say, “Other parents have worried about how their divorce may impact their children’s grades. Do you ever worry about that?”

Parents may also be more reluctant to engage with school staff if their perception is that they will only be contacted when something is wrong. Especially for parents whose children struggle with behavioral issues or with mental illness, it may feel discouraging to receive only information about what is not going well. Following a strength-based perspective, reach out to parents to share positive updates, good news, and child successes.

Parents will feel most supported when you let them know that you are willing to collaborate with them to find the best possible resources for their child. You do not need to have all the answers. What parents value most is the willingness to listen and offer help without judgment.

Thanks to Debbie, Jenny, Sean, Judy, and Nadja for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first four years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

Classroom Management

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

The Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Brain-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Teaching Reading & Writing

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Author Interviews

Teaching Math & Science

Professional Development

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Look for the next “question-of-the-week” in a few days.....

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.