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Teaching Opinion

Response: Keys To Parent Engagement - Relationships, Climate, Communication

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 18, 2014 15 min read
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(This is the last in a four-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here; Part Two here and Part Three here)

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?

Katy Ridnouer, Janice Fialka, and Joe Mazza provided their guest responses in Part One of this series. Jane Baskwill, Julia Thompson and Bryon V. Garrett shared their thoughts in Part Two. Part Three featured contributions from Catherine Compton-Lilly, Dr. Sherrel Bergmann, Dr. Judith Brough and Maurice J. Elias.

You can also see four previous posts on this topic here, and might be particularly interested in the one titled The Difference Between Parent “Involvement” and Parent “Engagement.”

Today’s post highlights responses from Darcy Hutchins and Mai Xi Lee, along with many readers’ comments.

I’ve recently begun recording a weekly ten-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here. I interview Darcy and Mai Xi in the most recent one. By the way, the podcast was just listed in the “New and Noteworthy” section of iTunes.

Response From Darcy Hutchins

Darcy J. Hutchins is the Family Partnership Director for the Colorado Department of Education (CDE). . Before joining CDE, Darcy worked the last eight years as a Senior Program Facilitator at the National Network of Partnership Schools at Johns Hopkins University. Darcy is the co-author of Multicultural Partnerships: Involve All Families. She began her career as a first grade teacher in Baltimore City Schools:

Positive home-school collaboration is sometimes challenges, yet so critical for student success. Teachers have the important task of helping families understand how to best support their children’s academic and behavioral achievement. Sometimes such suggestions can be perceived as placing blame or finger pointing.

Misconceptions and misunderstandings are common occurrences on the part of both parents and teachers. Overcoming or avoiding these challenges can be accomplished in many ways. In my experience, three important actions can be taken to avoid misunderstandings and foster productive home-school partnerships: building positive relationships, establishing a welcoming climate, and creating positive channels of communication. Below are some examples of what schools across the United States are doing to avoid the blame game and cultivate trust.

Build Positive Relationships

Teachers at Wallace Gregg Elementary School, located in Florence, SC, wanted to show parents’ their appreciation for supporting education. Many parents either walked or drove their children to school, so teachers decided to have a surprise drive-through breakfast as a simple “Thank You.” Teachers wanted the breakfast to be a surprise, so they did not publicize the event. Instead, they arrived at school before 7:00 AM to prepare juice and muffins for parents dropping their children off at school. Parents also received a bookmark with tips about how to help their children with homework. The activity helped parents feel appreciated and built positive relationships between parents and teachers.

Several years ago, Lynnhaven Middle School, in Virginia Beach, VA, experienced a change in demographics because of redrawn school zones. School administration wanted to reach out to both new and existing families. Classroom teachers recommended specific students who needed to develop better relationships with school staff. These students and their families were invited to a Community Outreach Dinner. School staff made dinner for these families and met them at a local community center. Both families and teachers appreciated the relaxed atmosphere. Many parents also reported greater trust with school staff after attending the dinner.

Establish a Welcoming Climate

An important step to building positive relationships is to help all families feel welcome in the school building. In Lancaster, PA, teachers at George Ross Elementary School made this happen through its Lunch with your Child initiative. In addition to spending time with their children, parents had opportunities to observe the social aspects of lunch and recess, including peer interactions among the students. Because of this activity, parents saw that the school was a positive and safe learning environment and staff saw that parents were their equal partners in supporting students as learners.

Create Positive Channels of Communication

People’s mailboxes are usually full of junk mail and bills. But staff at Robert Frost Elementary School, in Pasco, WA, wanted to make sure that families had some good mail to open. Every student in school received a Good News Postcard at some point during the school year. Each teacher received a set of address labels for every student in his or her class. After writing a positive report about each student, teachers returned the postcards to the front office to put in the mail. Staff received overwhelming positive feedback about this practice. One parent reported, “My son put his postcard in a picture frame and takes it out to show it off when company comes over.”

Simple, inexpensive activities such as those described above can help teachers and parents avoid the misunderstandings that sometimes occur during collaboration. To read about other activities similar to these, go to Partnership Schools and click on “Success Stories.”

Response From Mai Xi Lee

Mai Xi Lee is a veteran educator in Sacramento City Unified School District and has been a passionate advocate for meaningful student and parent engagement. She believes that strong parent-school connection is the the key to accelerating student achievement and closing the achievement gap, especially in large urban schools. Mai Xi is the current Director for Social Emotional Learning in SCUSD, where she hopes to reframe learning and teaching to the whole child:

How we do teach parents to support their students without compromising their trust in our roles as educators? To answer this question, I think we have to first explore the role of the parent and the role of the teacher.

In the eyes of many parents, the teacher is the all-knowing expert that will infuse their child with sustainable knowledge that will foster academic excellence and increase potential for future greatness. Parents expect teachers to be the content professionals in math, English, social science, science, arts, and all things academia.

In the eyes of the teacher, parents are partners in the educational endeavors of their students. Teachers expect that parents have done their job preparing students to learn and will continue to do their part to reinforce good citizenship and high expectations for academic excellence. In short, parents prepare students to learn and teachers engage students in the learning process.

There are, however, situations where teachers need parents to support in the learning process. There are times, especially at the elementary level, where parents are expected to reteach a math concept or edit a child’s writing assignment. While many parents do this with automaticity and are instinctual about checking homework and quizzing their children about concepts learned, some parents are still rooted to the notion that education is best left to the professionals and their educational support is limited to providing school supplies, and ensuring that their children are fed, dressed, and ready to learn. How then do we, as educators, begin to dialogue with our parents and begin to shift their thinking about our respective roles in the educational progress of our students?

First, we must develop and nurture relationships with our parents.

We cannot ask for their support if we don’t have a connection to our parents. How do we begin to build relationships that are authentic and meaningful so that we can communicate effectively? Like any relationship, we begin by sitting down and talking. Programs such as the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, create opportunities for parents and teachers to sit down, face to face, and have informal conversations about parents’ hopes and dreams. They enable parents and educators to meet in a place familiar and comfortable to parents, their home, and have dialogue about how they can best support each other. They remind parents that they are, in fact, the most important teacher in their child’s life and that their hopes and dreams for their child matters. Home visits remind parents that teachers are, in fact, seeking parents’ expertise in order to best support their students. Home visits level the power imbalance between teachers and parents, because they put parents in a position of knowledge and prime parents to provide input that will help teachers as they continue to engage students. Essentially, home visits are the catalysts for future parent-teacher connections and communication. When done well, home visits are the most useful tools to building impactful relationships between teachers and parents, and provide the springboard for future collaborative conversations.

Second, we must provide our parents, especially those who are not quite as comfortable with the educational establishment, with enough working knowledge to best support our students.

Once again, we’re not telling parents what they need to know, we’re asking them what they’d like to know about school curriculum, structures, and systems. While some parents are able to navigate school systems well and with great ease, other parents may not, especially parents who are new to our educational system and/or parents who themselves have not had positive school experiences. Working alongside parents and soliciting their input, schools should provide a systemic way for parents to gather information about the learning and teaching that goes on at their child’s school. Schools should respond to parents particular feedback by creating opportunities for parents to learn from teachers and each other about best ways to collaborate and support their children. Examples of this structure may be something like the Luther Burbank Parent University program, which offers parents monthly classes that are themed around college-going criterion and requirements, as well as any curricular area parents deem important to their children’s academic success. Effectively, parent feedback is the driving force for the curricular areas and focus of learning.

Third, educators must be concise, clear, and consistent about what it is they’re asking parents to do.

Clear and direct communication is important and alleviates any ambiguity that may lead to confusion and frustration about what is expected and what is or what isn’t done. The blame game often occurs when communication is unclear and/or breaks down because assumptions are made about who’s responsible for what. Teachers must tell parents what they need from them and have an open line of communication, in case clarification is needed. If a teacher wants parents to check homework every night, they should state how they want the homework checked and what they want parents to look for. Provide parents a means to communicate directly back to the teacher. If clarification is needed, parents should be able to contact a teacher directly and expect a prompt response. With today’s email technology, teacher websites, and the use of many parent-teacher online portals, communication has been made more efficient and simpler than ever before.

Finally, we must insist on authentic parent-school partnerships.

Education today is not what it was when our parents were in school. Evolving technology and learning has translated to evolving standards of learning and increased expectations for teachers and students. Teachers cannot and should not shoulder student learning and achievement independently. They need parents to provide additional support. With increased pressures to catch up to the global academic standards, teachers will need parents to not only prepare their child to learn, but to stay knowledgeable about what their child is learning. They must do this so they can support the teacher to reinforce these skills at home and continue to nurture their child’s positive engagement in the learning process.

Schools must do a better job of engaging parents, by providing meaningful opportunities for parents to learn alongside teachers and students. Teachers will need to keep parents informed and knowledgeable about current standards of teaching and learning. It’s one thing to expect parent support and insist on a collaborative partnership, it’s an entirely different thing to to create systems to ensure that the partnership is based on mutual respect and knowledge.

So, how do we get parents to support their students without compromising their trust in us?

We dialogue and build connections, offer learning and engagement opportunities for parents, communicate consistently and directly, and insist on a partnership that is based on concise information and mutual respect. Historically, parents have held educators in high esteem as they entrust us with the education of their beloved children. Isn’t it about time, we not only meet their expectations, but insist they join us in creating an educational process that supports learning and high levels of student achievement?

Responses From Readers


As a parent and a retired educator, I suggest only one thing for all parents: read to your children regularly from books they might not choose on their own or ones that are a little bit above their reading level. And don’t stop when they can read on their own; keep it up until they leave for college or a job. Non-English speaking parents should read from works in their native language....


I am a parent and would like to offer my thoughts and experiences:

* Be interested and curious! We can tell when you are not interested in what we have to say, and we know when you have made assumptions about our family situation.

* We can also tell when you act as an expert - and yes, you are an expert on educational strategies, or whatever your expertise may be; however, do not forget that parents are experts too, and their information and knowledge can greatly enhance your strategies.

* Give yourself permission to take your expert hat off and view the situation from the perspective being presented by the parent.

Rochester SAGE:

Here are some thoughts from a parent on parent-teacher relationships:

1) Let us know if and when you want our input on issues that affect our children. We have some knowledge about our children that we believe would be helpful to you. We know there are times that you are more overwhelmed than others and taking 10 minutes to talk may be harder for you. Would you like us to wait two weeks or send you an email immediately? Perhaps you prefer to discover each child on your own. Let us know and we will step back - until we see an issue occurring.

2) Don’t lie to us. If you can’t or won’t take our suggestion or don’t think it is a good idea, tell us. Please don’t claim that a district policy prevents you when no such policy exists. Don’t tell us you are providing differentiation when you are not.


I send a rubric home to all students asking parents to fill it out , though it is relatively short with what they feel is their child’s expectations and what they hope they want their child to achieve. Then they get another form, also relatively short, that they keep at home to track their own child’s progress. The more parents know that their student has a schedule, is on track, prepares what they should, then it makes the rest of the job of being a teacher so much easier.


First, we must realize that every parent has done the best they can at raising their child. They’ve given us the best child that they are able to give us.

Secondly, it’s always helpful to start every conversation with a general and gentle reminder, “We’re all here because we want what’s best for [the child].”

But beyond that it’s important that you set the tone early in the year that you, as a teacher, want to involve the parents and that educating their son/daughter is a team effort. My welcome to my class (first day letter) had 3 questions: 1) What are your child’s strengths; 2) What are some areas that you would like your child to improve on? 3) Is there anything else about your child that you’d like me to know.

The responses to these questions were always illuminating and helpful, but they also created a sense of openness with parents. Beyond that, my welcome letter included my cell phone number with the invitation to contact me whenever needed.

Most importantly, whenever meeting with parents, I took the time to ask questions and listen.

Tracy Bachellier:

I would emphasize: engage in dialogue, actively listen, aim to establish mutual trust and respect, and work on building collaborative relationships. From there, the ongoing sharing of information (aka: educating families) via open houses, resource centres, coffee clubs, family nights, guest speakers, workshops, seminars, special events, etc., are all good strategies that build upon the foundation of solid relationships with parents and families. But first, it starts with a conversation. Are you ready to listen?

A number of readers sent comments via Twitter. I’ve collected them using Storify:

Thanks to Darcy, Mai Xi, and to many readers 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 on Sunday.

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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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.

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

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