Editor’s note: This is the second essay in a series about using cultural knowledge to improve education drawn from the work of researchers and practitioners in the Forest Grove, Ore., school district. Read other essays in the series and find out more about this district.
No matter how districts respond to the COVID-19 pandemic—fully virtual, in person, or hybrid instruction—some families remain unsatisfied. Yet recent data collected in Forest Grove, Ore., demonstrate that relationship-focused communication between families and schools can mitigate some of the frustrations of pandemic-induced educational disruptions.
In June, we surveyed approximately 1,500 parents in the Forest Grove district to learn which practices were most helpful during the first wave of distance learning. The parents who responded were primarily Latino (40 percent) and white (55 percent), which matches the student population. The responses sent a resounding message: Communication is key. Parents praised teachers who kept them informed about classwork and offered ways to supervise at-home learning.
Parents who felt communication was lacking wanted more about opportunities to support teachers’ work. “I depended a lot on my child to know what was expected of them,” one parent wrote. “I feel like that put a lot of responsibility on the teachers and [my child]. … I would have been happy to help encourage and support!”
Overall, parents felt that strong communication practices—weekly emails; clear descriptions of learning objectives; and email, phone, or video conversations—were as helpful as student-centered practices such as virtual class meetings, one-on-one student check-ins, or virtual social activities.
Teachers communicate because they want families to engage in their children’s education. However, even when teachers believe they have “strong” communication skills, many become frustrated when families, particularly minority and low-income families, don’t respond. What educators perceive as “disengagement” often arises not because minority and low-income families don’t care about their children’s education but because the way educators communicate misses the cultural mark.
Parents praised teachers who kept them informed about classwork and offered ways to supervise at-home learning.
Over the past three years, we have focused on expanding Forest Grove educators’ cultural toolkit—their knowledge of how culture shapes motivation and learning and how to engage students from diverse backgrounds. This expanded toolkit includes an understanding that families from different cultural backgrounds often differ in their views of what “good” communication with teachers looks like—the appropriate format, topics, frequency, and purpose of communication. These differences shape how and to what extent families communicate with schools.
Many middle-class and white families, who largely rely on “independent” cultural norms—rooted in individuality, uniqueness, choice, and self-advocacy—appreciate individualized, child-centered feedback. These parents are often more likely than minority and low-income parents to voice opinions about how and what their children learn. Minority and low-income families, on the other hand, tend to rely on “interdependent” cultural norms, which value connectedness, relationships, roles, and respect for hierarchies. These families may be less likely to initiate or act on communication about academic issues because they view teachers as the academic experts who can be trusted to make the right decisions for learning.
When teachers communicate about curriculum and individual performance, they often neglect another form of communication that is equally, if not more important for parental engagement, especially among lower-income and minority parents—communication about families’ interests, needs, and well-being. The relevant questions for many interdependent students and parents aren’t, “How are you doing?” or “What do you need?” but, “How is your family doing?” or “What does your family need?” In interdependent families, when one person is struggling, all family members feel this struggle and share responsibility for easing the burden. Similarly, an individual’s success lifts up the whole family.
When educators recognize this cultural difference, they can speak the right cultural language to elicit parental engagement. Relationship-focused communication builds trust, which allows families to feel safe asking questions and soliciting advice from teachers.
Relationship-focused communication also contributes to students’ academic learning by helping teachers develop a deeper understanding of students and their families as people with lives and identities outside of school. Teachers can better motivate students by tapping into knowledge of students’ home lives and cultural backgrounds. A teacher might, for example, remind a Latina student that her grandmother, who is her “special person,” would be proud of her hard work.
Here are key learnings from our work in Forest Grove to help educators implement relationship-focused communication:
- Show caring. Emphasize the importance of individual, family, and community well-being in addition to conveying academic information. Recognize that families’ experiences, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, shape students’ academic engagement. Acknowledge families’ struggles with distance learning and genuinely invite families to share how they are doing. In return, be candid about your own experiences.
- Give families the benefit of the doubt. When communication attempts fail, avoid jumping to the conclusion that families do not care. Recognize that families have complex lives that can prevent them from being as responsive as teachers hope. Learn which means of communication work best for each family and which family member is the best point of contact—it may not always be a parent.
- Open multiple lines of communication. Ensure parents know how to contact educators. Offer multiple ways for parents to ask questions and provide feedback (phone, text, email, or virtual meetings).
- Be consistent. Establish a regular communication schedule so families know when and how to expect updates. Convey information about what is going on in the classroom both academically and socially, and describe clear, specific expectations for students. Also be mindful of burnout—too much communication can be overwhelming.
- Build community among parents. Encourage parents to share strategies and resources through class websites, e-learning discussion boards, or email chains.
- Offer flexible ways for families to support learning. Invite students to share about their families and encourage students to learn with and from their families (for example, by interviewing a family member about a lesson topic).
- Make communication family-centered. Invite siblings, grandparents, and other important family members to join conferences. When families have children in multiple classrooms, hold joint conferences to discuss the family as a whole rather than individual students.
For many educators, the shift is not to communicate more but to communicate strategically. By centering relationships and family well-being, educators can tap into parents’ existing motivation to help their children succeed.