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Communication with Parents to Enhance Learning

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Updated on Apr 18, 2011

In its broadest sense, school communication with parents includes all the information that flows—intentionally or not—from teachers, the school, the district, and the student to the parents (including, for the purposes of this entry, persons fulfilling the role of parent in the child's life outside of school). This entry, however, focuses on features of intentional school-to-parent communication that may increase parents' involvement in schools and improve student learning and motivation, with an emphasis on strategies for individual teachers. The considerations and strategies are presented in the context of written communication, but they are relevant to other forms of communication as well.

A Framework for Partnerships

Increasing parents' positive involvement in their children's education is one short-term goal for most school-to-parent communication. Epstein's framework of school, family, and community partnership comprises six types of involvement: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with community. Epstein's model acknowledges challenges for each type of involvement and identifies potential results of each type of involvement for students, parents, and teachers. Because school-to-parent communication is often a means for promoting other types of involvement, illustrative practices for each of the six types of involvement are presented in Table 1. These activities are not intended as to-do list. Teachers, schools, and districts choose one or several of these activities or develop their own activities, depending on their needs, resources, and goals. These efforts may have both short-and long-term goals.

Research suggests that school-to-parent communication can promote productive parental involvement, and that productive parental involvement in schools can, in turn, have a positive impact on student achievement (Henderson & Mapp; Jeynes). Because of limitations in financial and human resources and because ineffective attempts at parental communication may result in educators' abandoning rather then refining their efforts, it is important for every school-to-parent communication effort to be as effective as possible. How can teachers, schools, and districts effectively communicate with parents to promote the positive parental involvement that may result in improved student achievement?

Outside Assistance for School-to-Parent Communication

There are alternatives to traditional do-it-yourself school-to-parent communication efforts. Some educators have access to a communications department or public relations professional within their school districts to help them assess their needs, develop a communications plan, draft documents, and similar tasks. The National School Public Relations Association includes school communications professionals who support the communication efforts of schools and districts. Organizations such as the National Network of Partnership Schools offer extensive resources and comprehensive support for schools and districts whose goals include developing a strong parent involvement program. The school- or district-wide commitment required for participation, however, could present a barrier for teachers lacking the broad-based support required for participation in most networks.

Educators taking the do-it-yourself route may supplement their own work with print materials from professional organizations or commercial providers. The International Reading Association, for example, offers booklets and brochures for parents in both English and Spanish at a minimal cost. Commercial providers' products include audio compact disks for parents, videos, web content, and print materials, many of them in several languages. Even for educators who have access to outside support and resources, however, developing effective school-to-parent communications requires more than joining a network or selecting commercial products and sending them home. Effective school-to-parent communication requires consideration of parents as an audience for the school's information.

Audience Awareness for School-to-Parent Communication

According to McIntyre, Kyle, Moore, Sweazy, and Greer (2001), the efforts of parents and teachers gain synergy

Table 1Table 1ILLUSTRATION BY GGS INFORMATION SERVICES. CENGAGE LEARNING, GALE.

when they know one another and are aware of one another's efforts. McIntyre and his colleagues suggest that teachers who know more about the child's experiences at home are better able to provide classroom instruction suited to the child's needs. Similarly, teachers who know their students' parents or at least know about their students' parents can tailor both the format and content of their messages to meet parents' needs.

Presumably when educators have information to convey to parents, they choose the most effective medium (or media) available, but limited resources mean limited choices. Commercial media, such as radio and television, are not among the media options for most educators, particularly teachers working independently. Most school-to-parent communication involves some form of text— printed in a newsletter, posted on a Web site, or sent in an e-mail—created with the expectation that parents will not only receive the message but also read and understand it. To increase the chances of that occurring, educators must meet parents' needs as an audience. Important audience awareness features include parents' literacy levels, their cultural differences, their need for specific information, and their prior experiences with schools.

Comprehensibility

Any form of written communication requires selecting or composing text for an audience of parents. Educators routinely consider readability when choosing or creating text for students, and similar considerations are important when composing writing for an audience of parents. A widely cited reference in medical literature asserts that patient education materials should be written at a sixth-grade level to reach 75% of the U.S. adult population and a third-grade level to reach 90% of the same population (Doak, Doak & Root). Most word processing programs apply one or more readability formulas, weighing such factors as sentence length, the frequency of multi-syllable words, and the use of unusual words, enabling educators to revise text so the audience has an opportunity to understand the message.

Words with specialized meanings in different contexts, such as fluency and factor, pose a special challenge for educators. Teachers and students likely know what these words mean, but will parents know what they mean in the education context? Educators can provide context clues defining specialized terminology to help parents understand text that might otherwise be not only confusing but also off-putting to frustrated readers. As noted previously, teachers should describe their intended meaning for vague words, such as read and master. Finally, educators must attempt to communicate with parents in a language the parents understand. When translation services are not available, the educator may need to enlist the help of a student, teacher, or community member who can translate text reliably, or he or she may need to rely on commercially available products until resources for translation can be located.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences between educators and parents may affect the way a parent perceives information provided by the school. For example, a culture-based preference for collectivity and interdependence in the home may conflict with a school culture that values individuality and autonomy (Torrez, 2004; Van Velsor & Orozco, 2007). These differences may result in mutual concern and confusion over the roles of parents, teachers, schools, and the community in children's education. Parents' volunteering in schools and personally participating in their children's formal education may be another source of concern and confusion for some parents. Far from being cultural universals, these concepts are unfamiliar to some parents. Educators who know more about their students, their parents, and their cultures are more likely to understand these differences and be able to communicate in ways that promote positive parent participation at home and at school while minimizing conflicts between the culture of the school and the cultures of their students' homes.

Specificity

Even when parents can read the information and there are no apparent cultural barriers, parents' lack of familiarity with instructional processes may present a challenge to their cooperating with teachers' requests. In a case study involving two urban elementary students, their parents, and their teachers, Musti-Rao and Cartledge found that teacher communication lacking specific instructions for parents may result in frustration for both the parents and the teacher. For example, a teacher may try to encourage parents to read with their children by sending home information about the benefits of practice: “Children who read more become better readers.” She may even go a step further: “Please read with your child for ten minutes every day.” The teacher has made what she perceives as a specific request, but without a definition of “read with,” do these statements tell the parents precisely what the teacher wants them to do? Some parents would have questions: “How much do I read during each session? How do I structure these readings? What should I look for when we are reading? How do I know he is making progress? How can I measure this progress? Would you show me how I should read to/with him?” (Musti-Rao & Cartledge, 2004, p. 16).

Based on the case studies, Musti-Rao and Cartledge suggest that the parent who does not know how to comply with the teacher's request may perceive vagueness as a reflection of indifference or insensitivity to the parent's needs. When the parent does not comply, the teacher perceives the noncompliance as indifference on the part of the parent. In this scenario, what started as a well-intended suggestion resulted in a mutual perception between the parent and the teacher that the other is indifferent to the child's needs. If the teacher provides specific instructions, parents will know—or at least have a better idea of—how to help: “One way you can help your child develop her reading skills is to read (this book) out loud to her for two minutes and then have her read (this book) out loud to you for two minutes for a total of ten minutes every day.” The message could be tailored with suggestions for follow-up activities to address the students' needs while respecting the parents' ability to comply. If a written explanation is too daunting, a video explanation and demonstration could accomplish the same purpose.

Parents' Previous Experiences with Schools

In contrast to problems that arise from parents' unfamiliar-ity with classroom processes, some problems arise from parents' familiarity with schools and programs. Many parents have had negative experiences with schools, both as parents and as students themselves. As suggested by McBride, Bae, & Blatchford (2003), parents whose school experiences were negative may be less likely to respond positively to a school's communication with them as parents than parents whose own school experiences were generally positive.

To appeal to members of their audience whose negative experiences present a barrier, educators should make a particular effort to present sincere and accessible information these parents will perceive is important and relevant to them and their children. Whitaker and Fore propose replacing “the traditional open-house program in which parents are urged to come to school to listen to teachers explain rules and expectations for the school year” (2001, p. 31) with interaction between parents and teachers, establishing a relationship on which further positive communication could be built.

Broader Applications 

As suggested by Epstein's framework, some school-to-parent communication aims to inform parents about matters other than academic endeavors. Audience awareness considerations discussed in this entry apply to these types of parent communication, too. For example, a group of teachers may want to address their concerns that parents do not believe their actions can affect their children's behavior or performance at school. The educators may be aware of Shumow and Lomax's finding that parental efficacy, “the extent to which parents believed that they could influence the context in which their adolescents were growing up” (2002, 127–128), among parents of adolescents predicted parental involvement and monitoring, and that parental involvement and monitoring predicted adolescents' academic and social-emotional adjustment.

Shumow and Lomax do not claim the study demonstrates a causal connection between parental efficacy and particular outcomes for children; nevertheless, educators who become aware of this research could reasonably decide to act on it. Deciding how to act on this or other important research would be challenging, however. Sending parents an abstract of the study's methodology and findings would not address most parents' needs: few parents would find the information accessible and relevant in that format. If the information were presented in a comprehensible, culturally sensitive way, however, it is reasonable to expect that many parents would perceive such information as important and relevant to them as parents, at least as compared to information about classroom rules.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Adams, K. S., & Christenson, S. L. (2000). Trust and the family-school relationship: Examination of parent-teacher differences in elementary and secondary grades. Journal of School Psychology, 38, 477–497.

Boyd, B. A., & Correa, V. I. (2005). Developing a framework for reducing the cultural clash between African American parents and the special education system. Multicultural Perspectives, 7(2), 3–11.

Dearing, E., Kreider, H., Simpkins, S., & Weiss, H. B. (2006). Family involvement in school and low-income children's literacy: Longitudinal associations between and within families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4), 653–664.

Doak, C. C., Doak, L. G., & Root, J. H. (1996). Teaching patients with low literacy skills (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Eccles, J., & Harold, R. (1993). Parent-school involvement during early adolescent years. Teachers College Record 94, 568–587.

Epstein, J. L. (1995) School/family/community partnerships: Caring for the children we share. Phi Delta Kappan, 76, 701–712.

Fan, X. (2001). Parental involvement and students' academic achievement: A growth modeling analysis. Journal of Experimental Education 70(1), 27–61.

Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Education Development Lab.

Jeynes, W.H. (2005) A meta-analysis of the relation of parent involvement to urban elementary school student academic achievement. Urban Education, 40, 237–269.

Machen, S. M., Wilson, J. D., & Notar, C. E. (2005). Parental involvement in the classroom. Journal of Instructional Psychology 32(1), 13–16.

McBride, B. A., Bae, J., & Blatchford, K. (2003). Family-school-community partnerships in rural pre-K at-risk programs. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 1(1), 49–72.

McIntyre, E., Kyle, D., Moore, G., Sweazy, R. A., & Greer, S. (2001). Linking home and school through family visits. Language Arts, 78(3), 264–272.

Musti-Rao, S., & Cartledge, G. (2004). Making home and advantage in the prevention of reading failure: Strategies for collaborating with parents in urban schools. Preventing School Failure, 48(4), 15–21.

National Network of Partnership Schools. Epstein's six types of involvement. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from http://www.csos.jhu.edu/p2000/sixtypes.htm.

Shumow, L., & Lomax, R. (2002). Parental efficacy: Predictor of parenting behavior and adolescent outcomes. Parenting: Science and Practice, 2(2), 127–150.

Torrez, N. (2004). Developing parent information frameworks that support college preparation for Latino students. High School Journal, 87(3), 54–62.

Van Velsor, P., & Orozco, G. L. (2007). Involving low-income parents in the schools: Community centric strategies for school counselors. Professional School Counseling, 11(1), 17–24.

Whitaker, T., & Fiore, D.J. (2001). Dealing with difficult parents (and with parents in difficult situations). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

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