Professional Development Opinion

Response: Listening To Parents With Our Heads And Hearts

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 07, 2014 10 min read
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(This is the first in a multi-part series on this topic)

Cheryl Suliteanu asked:

How do we educate families about the ways in which they can support their children, without insulting their trust in us to do what’s best, and while not placing blame?

This question, or some variation on it, is an ongoing issue for educators: How do we best promote parent engagement?

In fact, it’s been a topic of four previous posts, and you can find them all here.

But I don’t think it’s possible to explore such an important topic too much, so today I’m beginning a multi-part series on parent engagement/involvement in schools. I hope readers will contribute their ideas, and I’ll be highlighting those comments next week.

Today, Katy Ridnouer, Janice Fialka, and Joe Mazza provide their guest responses.

Response From Katy Ridnouer

Katy Ridnouer is an author and educator. Her book, Everyday Engagement: Making Students and Parents Your Partners in Learning (ASCD, 2011), offers ideas on how teachers can embed pro-engagement actions and attitudes into everyday practice to ensure that students and parents are full partners in the school experience. She welcomes readers to contact her at katy@ridnouer.com:

As educators, we can become frustrated when working with parents because they have adult-sized tools to manage their relationship with us, and these tools are a bit unwieldy in comparison to the student-sized tools we manage in the classroom.

Some of these parent tools are helpful; some are hurtful. Parents might have the tools of volunteer time, treasure box treats, and program attendance. More sophisticated tools include negotiation and love for their child. Love for their child can lead parents to use some of their negative tools, such as anger, demands, and threats, which could then be followed by the parent jumping the chain of command and firing off an email to your principal, district leaders, or the bus stop crew, instead of talking to you directly. All the while, you must remain the consummate professional, teach that student, AND build a relationship with this parent. Why? Because if you’d like your student to be successful, you will need to rearrange the letters of parent and add the ‘r’ of relationship to turn a parent into a partner.

Building a Relationship in Two Parts

Now I can’t offer a foolproof method to creating a relationship with parents, but I am able to offer you one method that will work most of the time: Be willing to listen with your heart and your head at the same time.

When a parent greets you at your door in the morning, worried that her daughter is upset about how you spoke to her the day before, simply listen. Listening with your heart gives you the opportunity to understand the problem, and it gives you time to calm down and collect your thoughts. This clarity will help you recall the situation and give you the chance to offer insight into the situation from which both the mother and daughter might benefit. Meanwhile, listen with your head. Use your training and experience as an educator to listen for the source of the problem without becoming sidelined by language that could be understood as an insult to you, your teaching methodology, or your professionalism.

When a parent calls you, insisting that his child’s math grades don’t reflect his true ability, simply listen. When he says, “Dominique can do the work at home. He just has test anxiety at school,” he is offering you a clue about resolving the issue, but you have to have your head about you to process that clue. If you are wasting time being insulted, then you will miss the clue. Instead, note the parent’s involvement in the child’s homework and say, “It sounds as though you are familiar with Dominique’s study habits and homework quality. That’s great. Now you mentioned anxiety. Tell me more about that.” You’re leading with a compliment and following up with a compassionate concern. This sends the message to the parent that you care, giving the parent the motivation to fill you in on details that he might not have been willing to give otherwise. Once you have the full picture, the parent is more likely to accepting a strategy that you suggest, bringing you, the parent, and the student closer to a solution, and on the path to building a working relationship.

The relationship between teacher and parent is key to student success, for while the teacher knows her subject matter and age group, the parent knows that specific child. Working together as partners assists students in becoming more than just learners; working together as partners leads to a cohesive message between home and school that will serve to nurture confident, capable, and curious learners.

Response From Janice Fialka

Janice Fialka, LMSW, ACSW is the co-author of several books including Parents and Professionals Partnering for Children with Disabilities: A Dance that Matters and is a national speaker and the Special Projects Trainer for Michigan’s Part C Training and TA Project. She and her husband produced the award winning DVD, Through the Same Door: Inclusion Includes College. Learn more about Janice and her family’s publications and speaking at Dance Of Partnership and at Through The Same Door:


Begin simply by listening to families share what their son or daughter is doing at home or in their community. Ask about their son or daughter. What interests them? Ask about a time when their child felt proud, happy, or excited about something that he or she accomplished? How did they learn to do those things? How did they handle frustration? What role, if any, did the family play to support the child’s learning?

Have a conversation with the family---- not with the intent to insert your ideas, as important as they may be, but to truly get a fuller picture of this family and specifically this child. Listen, listen and listen again. This isn’t always easy, especially when you have a clear picture of what you want families to do. Sometimes “good ideas” have to wait a bit as you build a trust relationship. Without a relationship with the family, your good ideas often never get beyond your classroom. Taking time to listen is not a “nice thing to do”, it is essential.

Support families

Help families know what they are ALREADY doing that supports their child’s growth and learning. This helps families know that you are listening and getting to know them. Be specific about the child’s accomplishments and strengths and how the family has supported this growth, even if it seems like a small accomplishment. Give concrete examples about how the family helped their child learn a new skill or succeed in a task. When families get feedback from you about what is going well, they are more likely to continue doing it, share more with you, and expand their participation in the process.

Once you have a few stories and examples from a family, build on what the family is already doing. I remember how our son’s third grade teacher helped us know how to strengthen our son’s emerging math concepts---not an easy task because of his intellectual disability. The teacher knew that our son did his own laundry each Friday (as best as he could!). She suggested that we help him sort and separate the light and dark colored clothes in piles. She explained that this sorting helped him understand categories----components to basic math concepts. She gave us a new idea, and one that fit our family and built on what we were already doing.


Ask families if they would like to have a few suggestions about ways to support their son or daughter’s learning. You might offer, “I see how much you are working with Shelia on her reading. You have some great ideas. I also have learned a couple of other things from families. Not all ideas work for all families, but they might be helpful. Would you like me to share a couple of them with you?”


Let families know you are interested in hearing what worked and didn’t work. Let them know that, if they are having a hard time implementing the suggestion, you want to know -- so that together you can devise a different approach. Let families know that if they decide not to try out your idea, you still want to continue working with them on other possible solutions.

If you use these steps: Listen, Support, Ask, Follow-up, and use them within the context of letting families know that you understand them, and their unique child, your ideas and suggestions are much more likely to be appreciated and implemented. Just remember that good ideas work best when offered within the context of a relationship that comes from listening.

Response From Joe Mazza

Dr. Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza) is Project Manager for Connected Teaching, Learning & Leadership in the The North Penn School District in Pennsylvania. Joe is also the Innovation Coach for the University of Pennsylvania’s GSE and co-hosts the weekly Parent-Teacher Chat (#ptchat) on Twitter, Wednesday nights at 9PM:

To answer questions like this one, I constantly revisit the four core beliefs (Henderson and Mapp 2008).

• Core Belief 1: All Parents Have Dreams for Their Children and Want the Best for Them

• Core Belief 2: All Parents Have the Capacity to Support Their Children’s Learning

• Core Belief 3: Parents and School Staff Should Be Equal Partners

• Core Belief 4: The Responsibility for Building Partnerships Between School and Home Rests Primarily with School Staff, Especially School Leaders

If we can “partner” with parents, without encouraging “sides,” we can work together to meet the needs of students.

Building sustainable relationships with our families must be a major focus of school staff and school leadership for the partnership to form. We must treat our school families as if they are an extension of our own family at home if we want them to feel comfortable and partner with us.

The thing is, parents can tell when we’re faking it. If we treat them as “clients,” then our relationship remains business only with lots of formalities such as “the customer is always right.” --- we all know the customer is NOT always right and it is healthy for home and school to push each other’s thinking to identify what is best for the child. If we get to know each other, while building real relationships with core beliefs that allow us to push each other’s thinking, we can work together in the best interests of the student. Good teams don’t always agree with one another. The home-school partnership is not a destination but a process. It’s ongoing, and takes commitment, transparent reflection and ongoing effort on the part of school staff and families for it to continuously evolve.

Thanks to Katy, Janice and Joe for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in a post next week.

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 this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be starting the new year with ASCD.

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Look for Part Two in a few days...

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