Families & the Community

The Good (and the Bad) of Using Apps to Connect With Parents

By Libby Stanford — April 25, 2024 12 min read
Parents log into Zoom to watch their students participate in a “Basic Facts Bee” on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, at Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary School in Southfield, Mich. Schools often use technology like Zoom to connect and build relationships with parents.
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How often should parents and teachers communicate? That’s the question at the center of a growing push for technology that allows parents constant access to the classroom.

For a long time, parents relied solely on physical report cards and papers teachers sent home with their children to know what was happening at school. When email came along, teachers could communicate directly with parents and vice versa, but it was still time-consuming, with conversations sometimes taking days to play out.

A slew of apps are looking to change that reality through messaging platforms and digital experiences that give parents and teachers constant and instant access to each other. The apps allow teachers to seamlessly share pictures and videos, or just chat with parents about what’s happening in the classroom.

At the same time, tools like Zoom have opened the virtual doors to classrooms, letting parents watch their kids participate in spelling bees and quiz bowls. Text messaging platforms like ParentPowered send parents tips on supplementing students’ lessons at home. And schools continue to use social media to share updates and reach parents who might miss information through email.

The options for communicating with parents can seem endless, yet many parents remain unaware of what’s happening at school, or confused or misinformed about it. And school leaders struggle to reach certain families, especially those they really need to so their children will come to school.

Technology can improve parent and family engagement, experts say, but schools should be strategic about using it—and be mindful of apps’ privacy policies as well as the reality that not every family has access to smartphones with internet access. They shouldn’t use apps to replace in-person relationships, but rather to supplement them. And teachers should be transparent about their expectations for using the tools, so parents understand their boundaries around technology that allows for constant communication.

“These are platforms, not best practices,” said Helen Westmoreland, director of family engagement at the National Parent Teacher Association. “They are a platform for communication, and they are only as good as what goes into them. Sometimes we see that districts stop at the platform; family engagement is 90 percent beyond that platform.”

Bringing back the ‘village’

Brian Prybil learned about ClassDojo when he was principal of Washington Elementary School in Moline, Ill., about two-and-a-half hours west of Chicago near the Iowa border.

A group of teachers had heard about the app as a way to improve student behavior—teachers reward students for demonstrating social-emotional skills, such as grit or empathy, through “dojo points” on the app—and approached him about using it.

Prybil was unsure at first but told the teachers they could continue using it as long as they stuck with the in-person behavior intervention practices the school had in place.

Within a year, though, Prybil said he noticed major changes in the classes where teachers used ClassDojo.

Students there had fewer behavior problems, and parents weren’t calling the school as often because teachers were keeping in touch through the app.

Prybil held a staff meeting and suggested they adopt the app schoolwide.

“As a principal, it took me just a few moments to type to a parent and message them if they had a question, and pretty soon it became our main mode of communication,” he said. “It also became the main mode of communication for our teachers to our parents, and the kids knew that communication was happening.”

Now the 7,000-student Moline-Coal Valley school district’s deputy superintendent, Prybil is working with ClassDojo to adopt the app districtwide. It’s part of a new endeavor for the company, which has always marketed to individual teachers.

They are a platform for communication, and they are only as good as what goes into them. Sometimes we see that districts stop at the platform; family engagement is 90 percent beyond that platform.

School staff will be able to use the new districtwide offering more seamlessly, said Sam Chaudhary, ClassDojo’s co-founder and CEO.

Administrators will be able to access school-level data on the app’s use, such as how many families are engaging with messages, how many messages the app is translating to other languages for families who don’t speak English, and statistics on the top skills teachers are building with students. They’ll also be able to send out mass messages to parents on important district developments. Soon, administrators will also be able to use the app’s “stories” feature—similar to Instagram’s feature by the same name—to showcase what’s happening at school.

Meanwhile, teachers will be able to continue messaging parents directly to share videos and pictures from their classrooms, reminders of class assignments, and any concerns they might have about specific students.

The idea behind ClassDojo, which launched in 2011, was to improve communication and strengthen connections between families and schools, Chaudhary said.

“In some ways, we’re just giving people a way to reconstruct the village,” he said. “Parents can’t be there all the time and teachers can’t be home all the time. But if you can have the sense of us being on the same page, you’re rebuilding the village around the classroom.”

Other technology companies operate under the same premise.

Seesaw, for example, offers the same instant messaging capability as ClassDojo, but operates more as a learning management system for elementary schools that also includes lessons, data on student progress that parents can track, and the ability for teachers to assign activities.

It gives parents real-time updates on student progress in different academic areas. Teachers can send videos and photos to parents showing students participating in reading or math activities. Students can also have a hand in deciding specific activities and memories to share with parents.

Seesaw has more closely connected parents to their children’s education, said Tiffany Wood, an instructional technology specialist at the Mid-Del school district in Midwest City, Okla., east of Oklahoma City.

“Teachers get to build that sort of digital scrapbook with kids,” Wood said. “Because parents can’t be in the classroom—they have to work; that’s not an option—now parents can be a part of that educational experience.”

A screenshot of the Seesaw platform shows how teachers, parents, and students can communicate through translation features.

Bringing parents into student learning

The major benefit to platforms like Seesaw and ClassDojo is that they provide parents with a digital look inside the classroom that they wouldn’t otherwise have. If used well, parents gain a deeper understanding of what their kids are learning, through pictures, videos, and messages, and they become part of the process, realizing a core goal of effective parent engagement.

That was the idea behind ParentPowered, a platform that provides parents with weekly text messages with activities, insights, and learning opportunities, so they can continue the learning at home with their children, said Terri Lynn Soutor, the company’s CEO.

ParentPowered specifically aims to serve parents and families who might otherwise have a difficult time becoming engaged school community members. They might speak a language other than English, have multiple jobs, or have other barriers that make it difficult to connect with the school.

Those families “are the ones that are most in need of this high-quality kind of support,” Soutor said.

Unlike Seesaw and ClassDojo, ParentPowered’s platform is technologically basic. It sends text messages to parents’ phones that parent and family engagement researchers have designed to provide caregivers with actionable tools they can use at home with their children. The thinking is that this form of participation will ultimately get them more engaged in their students’ education and more comfortable coming to school in person.

When districts partner with ParentPowered, they can either automatically sign all parents up for the platform, giving parents the ability to opt out, or have parents opt in. The goal is to make it as easy and accessible as possible, not requiring parents to download anything or even have access to Wi-Fi, Soutor said.

“Our approach is really around making the guidance for families, parents, and caregivers very easy and accessible, using the most equitable and research-backed technology that reaches every family—and that is text messaging,” Soutor said.

Accessibility limits are one of the primary downsides to the apps because not every parent has internet access or a smartphone, said Catharyn Shelton, an assistant professor of educational technology at Northern Arizona University.

“I always, with tech, want to ask who benefits and who doesn’t?” Shelton said. “There’s just such clear ways that privileged parties benefit and others do not. While there are opportunities for increased accessibility through offering different channels of communication, there’s other people who are left out.”

The app-based platforms are aware of this limitation, but they argue their products compensate for some of those problems.

ClassDojo and Seesaw offer language translation, for example, so parents who don’t speak English can write to teachers in their native language and the app translates the messages to English.

I always, with tech, want to ask who benefits and who doesn’t? There’s just such clear ways that privileged parties benefit and others do not. While there are opportunities for increased accessibility through offering different channels of communication, there’s other people who are left out.

The platforms can also reach parents who are overseas for work or other reasons, said Matt Given, Seesaw’s CEO.

“They can see what’s happening with their student in real time and it doesn’t have to be a game of telephone, getting the information to the parent that’s overseas,” Given said.

Still, it’s largely up to teachers and school and district leaders to get parents logged on. A small handful of parents of Moline-Coal Valley elementary students don’t use ClassDojo, Prybil said.

“When you get down to that last 5 percent of your families, a lot of it is just reaching out, which we should do anyway,” Prybil said. “If that family can’t get on, then we need to reach out, and ClassDojo just accelerates that reach-out.”

Maintaining student privacy

A top concern about apps like ClassDojo and Seesaw should be student data privacy, said Shelton, of Northern Arizona University. Anytime pictures or videos of students are shared through an internet-based platform, the adults involved should research those apps’ security and privacy policies.

Shelton’s 1st grade daughter’s teacher uses ClassDojo, but is careful to share pictures or videos of students only in a section of the app that’s restricted to parents from the class she said. Shelton said that makes her more comfortable.

“You have to weigh out the risks and benefits of offering up our kids for these tech platforms, to profits and for potential online predators to get lots of information about them and their community,” Shelton said.

ClassDojo is designed to ask for as little identifiable information about students as possible; students can be identified by initials or nicknames or avatars rather than by name, gender, email, address, or student ID number.

A screenshot of the ClassDojo mobile app shows how educators can post pictures and videos of the classroom using the stories function.

The app also deletes “Dojo points,” which students earn from teachers by advancing in social-emotional skills like “grit” or “curiosity,” after a year, and students’ entire profiles are deleted after a year of inactivity, a ClassDojo spokesperson said.

Seesaw restricts access to student videos and photos to people who work directly with students, usually parents and teachers. The platform also works across the world and has to operate under the strictest privacy laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that exists in some European countries, Given said.

“We are obsessed with [privacy] to a very significant degree,” Given said. “It’s a big part of our job, that responsibility.”

Data privacy concerns are especially prevalent with social media platforms, Shelton said. Photos posted to such platforms can be easily shared, and districts should ensure that they’re only featuring students with signed media releases on those platforms, she said.

Going beyond the technology

Sharnae Oden, a 3rd grade teacher at Stevenson Elementary School in Southfield, Mich., uses ClassDojo to communicate with students’ parents. But ClassDojo isn’t the only platform teachers at the school use; some use Remind or Clever, which operate in a similar way.

Oden said the app has been instrumental to improving parent engagement. Rather than calling or emailing parents, or hoping messages make it home in 3rd graders’ backpacks, Oden can use the app.

“There’s not enough time in the day to get to every single thing,” Oden said. “The best way I can try to manage that communication is ClassDojo. We can instant-message each other versus trying to set up a time to meet or trying to meet on the curb after school, which is not always the most feasible time.”

Oden said she occasionally deals with parents who need a lot of support and communication. The app has helped her navigate those situations and kept her from getting frustrated with those parents, she said.

Oden primarily uses the app to contact parents when they don’t have time to meet in person. Sometimes, she’ll message parents to remind them of upcoming school events or assignments, or she’ll ask when they have time to visit the classroom for a deeper discussion if their child is struggling.

That kind of interaction is difficult without ClassDojo, Oden said, as many parents might not check their email or have time for a phone call at work. Oden uses ClassDojo for her own son, who also attends Stevenson, and said it’s also been helpful from the parent perspective.

In Midwest City, Okla., Seesaw has been especially helpful during parent-teacher conferences in the district of more than 12,000 students, Wood said. It allows students to show their favorite lessons and activities to parents during the conferences, and parents get recommendations through the platform on how to further their children’s learning.

The platform “lets the kid present all of the things that they know they’re good at and all the things that they’ve done,” Wood said. “The parent can then be like, ‘Hey, my kid knows they’re getting this, my kid knows that they need to practice this. Now, I can have those conversations at home.’”

That approach—using the app as a starting place to connect with parents rather than the only communication method—should be the ideal for educators, said Shelton and Westmoreland, the National PTA director.

Schools should look for tech programs that “align to the classroom curriculum and say, ‘OK, your child is learning about adding unlike denominators this week. Ask them this question at home,’” Westmoreland said. “That’s very different than sending out the mass message of, ‘Come to the school tomorrow to pick up your child’s uniform.’”

Teachers should also be careful to set and communicate firm boundaries with technology that allows parents constant access through messaging, Shelton said. They should set specific hours for when they’ll read and respond to messages.

“Introducing app-based communication may set bad expectations among caregivers that teachers should be always available to communicate whenever caregivers need,” Shelton said. “The reality is that teachers are paid professionals with official working hours. So when teachers communicate with caregivers outside the work day, it is essentially free labor.”

The National PTA advises educators to get feedback from families to inform decisions about which platforms to use, to invest in texting services like ParentPowered that have greater accessibility, to partner with vendors to improve implementation, and to be transparent with families about the technology platforms.

“It’s the starting place for good family engagement, not the ending place,” Westmoreland said.

Dive Deeper

This story is part of a special reporting project on family engagement.
The Future of Parent Engagement: Parents and caregivers are paying more attention to their children’s education than ever. Here’s what that means for schools.
A New Community School Model: Family and community engagement is central to the success of Stevenson Elementary School in Southfield, Mich. See how the transformation started.
“Add-on” or Core Skill? Researchers agree family engagement is effective, but few colleges actually teach it.
Bridging the Gap: A home visit program is helping parents and teachers build more trusting relationships in Denver.
A New Generation of Apps: Tech platforms are changing the way teachers communicate with families. How can schools use them effectively?
5 Strategies: Schools don’t need an influx of money and resources to have effective family engagement. Find out how. (Here’s a downloadable guide.)

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