Having a positive relationship with your students’ families lets you share concerns and work together to help students who learn and think differently thrive. Here are eight effective ways to start a trusting relationship with parents or caregivers.
1. Imagine yourself in their place.
Building a relationship with families starts with empathy. Consider the perspective of a parent or caregiver whose child was recently identified with a learning disability or ADHD. The family might be uncertain about what this means for their child’s future. They might be fearful that their child won’t receive the right support. Or they might still be processing the news, and unsure of how they feel.
When students have struggled in school for years, their families may have had many negative experiences with the education system. They may have felt overwhelmed or judged by teachers in the past. Keeping that in mind can help you understand why a student’s parent or caregiver might be on the defensive from the start. Make sure they know that you’re there to support them.
Remember that some learning and thinking differences run in families. Biological parents may come to the parent-teacher relationship with emotions about their own struggles and experiences in school.
Consider too what families may be experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic and unrest due to racial injustice. Families may be dealing with job loss, food insecurity, trying to balance the demands of distance learning, or experiencing other setbacks.
You can use questionnaires to gather information from students and families to get a better sense of their concerns. You can also use strategies to connect with families of English language learners. No matter the family, know that parents and caregivers are on their own journey.
2. Begin with a positive interaction — and then keep it up.
When you first reach out to families, start with something good. Introduce yourself, share something you enjoy about their child, or simply let them know you’re available if they’d like to speak. But the good news doesn’t have to stop there. Aim to share a piece of good news with each student’s parent or caregiver at least twice a month.
3. Find out how families prefer to be reached.
Not all people are comfortable talking by videoconference. Others don’t have time for a phone call at certain times of day. Ask if families have a preferred way of communicating and at what time of day. Then honor that preference. In cases when email is appropriate, consider that your tone may be hard to interpret in an email. Learn how to write an effective email that helps you get a positive response.
4. Gather your thoughts in advance.
When it comes time to talk with families about your concerns, draft what you want to say before the meeting or phone call. A bulleted list of notes can help you prioritize and keep track of your thoughts.
Consider sharing a high-level version of this list with families before the meeting so they can gather their own thoughts, too. This list can help you both remember what you want to talk about if the conversation becomes emotional or moves in an unexpected direction.
5. Use “I” statements.
Frame what you say from your perspective by using “I” statements. You can start sentences with “I noticed,” “I am concerned,” or “I feel.” These statements are an empathetic way to share your thoughts. They may help family members not take the concerns personally.
For instance, saying “Why isn’t your child turning in assignments?” may put a parent or caregiver on the defensive. This may shut down the conversation. Instead, you could say, “I notice your child hasn’t turned in assignments for the last few weeks. Has your child spoken to you about it?” This explains your concern and allows for more conversation.
6. Set boundaries together.
Let families know you’d like to establish a two-way relationship that honors the parent or caregiver’s knowledge of the child and your knowledge of education. Share that you’d like both parties to be able to talk candidly in a way that promotes productive conversation — all with the shared goal of ensuring their child’s success in school.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done, so establish boundaries for conversations. Try these suggestions:
- Agree to start and end your meetings and calls within the time you’ve allotted.
- Encourage families to share their perspectives. Show respect and appreciation for their knowledge.
- In return, ask families to consider your point of view as a professional.
- Explain that you assume everyone comes to the discussion with the best of intentions.
- Suggest that you’re both allowed to speak without being interrupted.
- Agree to discuss commonalities you both know about the child. But also be open to hearing information you didn’t know.
- Ask families if they have any boundaries around the conversation they’d like to follow, too.
7. Communicate clearly and be solutions-oriented.
When you begin a conversation, be up-front about what you want to talk about and what your expectations of the family are. If you simply need to share information or voice your concerns, make sure that’s clear.
Or, if you’re looking for solutions to a concern, let the parent or caregiver know you’re asking for input to find the best solution together. Share your own ideas for solutions, too. For example, if you know of an accommodation you think might help, suggest it and ask if the family has tried something similar at home.
8. Send a follow-up email if needed.
A follow-up email after an important conversation can serve many purposes. First, it gives you the chance to thank families for their time. It can also help both you and the family process your discussion and summarize any decisions and takeaways. And it gives parents and caregivers a chance to add any lingering thoughts or ask questions.
Reflect on your practice: What have you done to successfully build a positive relationship with a student’s family?
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Mark J. Griffin, PhD was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.