School Climate & Safety Opinion

Calling Parents: To Keep Kids in Line or Help Them Learn?

By David Ginsburg — August 30, 2015 3 min read
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Are phone calls home one of your escalating consequences for discipline infractions? Do you call parents to help ensure their children are compliant in your classroom?

If your answer to either question is “yes,” you’re not alone. As a new teacher, my calls to parents were about my frustration and futility dealing with their kids’ behavior. I had no clue what to do, so I wanted mom or dad to do something. Some parents were dismissive (“My daughter would never do that; she knows better”) and I, in turn, was defensive (“I didn’t just make this up; I saw her do it”).

Other parents were understanding (“I know what you mean, Mr. Ginsburg, I can’t control her either”) or reassuring (“You won’t have any more problems after I get through with him”). But the more I reached out to these parents, the less understanding and cooperative they became. What parents, after all, want to hear complaint after complaint about their children?

Most important, no matter how parents responded, my calls home usually had no effect on student behavior. No positive effect, that is, since many students ramped up their misconduct to get back at me for calling their parents, while others (especially those whose parents dismissed my accusations) mocked me. And even when students did stop disrupting class, they weren’t more engaged in learning. They were quiet and withdrawn, leading me to conclude they were just trying to avoid consequences at home. (Many students told me their parents “whooped my butt after you called.”)

So, if calling home is so unproductive--if not counterproductive--should we stop doing it? No, but we should re-think our purpose for doing it. Martin Haberman provides a great model for this in his book, Star Teachers, where he contrasts parent outreach of “star” teachers with that of “quitter/failure” teachers:

“When asked “What do you want of parents?” stars do not suggest the typical functions: i.e., discipling students who misbehave, helping with homework... Stars see parents and caregivers primarily as resources.”

Haberman then shares four purposes of star teachers’ interactions with parents:

  1. learning as much as possible about students in order to use their interests and talents to engage them and make their learning as relevant as possible;
  2. encouraging and reinforcing positive behaviors; whenever stars have something good to report about children they inform parents so that children will be encouraged at home as well as in school;
  3. conveying respect for parents and genuine caring for children at three-way conferences where the teacher listens to and speaks with the parent and child together; and
  4. involving parents in class activities so that something they know and can do is showcased.

In my case, after a year or two of quitter/failure parent outreach, I shifted the focus from getting students in line to helping them learn. If students were struggling in class--academically and/or behaviorally--I approached parents with concern rather than condemnation. I initiated collaborative troubleshooting that focused on children’s confidence rather than compliance.

Also, as described in #2 above, I always started with a child’s positive behavior or admirable qualities. And I didn’t just call parents of students who were struggling, but also those who were thriving. In fact, I called every student’s home at least once every five weeks. (As a high school teacher, I had five classes, so I called all parents for one class per week.)

Is it always easy to find something redeeming to say about a child? No, but it’s essential. Again, parents don’t just want to hear what’s wrong with their children. Telling parents what was right about their children helped me earn trust and cooperation--from them and their children alike.

Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission.

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