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Ten Ways to Improve Communications with Parents About Their Child's Behavior

Parent involvement raises student achievement, much-publicized research says, but there is less attention on enlisting families to diminish aggravating and time-gobbling behavior problems. Yet some experts believe that’s where there might be a big payoff – and a key ingredient is teacher communications home.

Teachers frustrated by off-task behavior that can stifle learning for a whole class will find involved parents can help, according to a study at the University of Pittsburgh. Research also shows regular calls home decrease behavior corrections by 25 percent. But communicating specifically about behavior issues requires a mixture of empathy, creativity and patience—and, perhaps, abandoning a commonly held belief that irresponsible or misguided parents just aren’t doing their job. “When you realize that parents and teachers all want the best for kids, there must be some common ground,” says Meghan McCormick, a researcher at New York University looking at parent involvement in schools. Her recent study showed that teachers providing “emotional support” to students were more likely to find that parents helped improve student behavior. Teachers should recognize that parents can be a valuable ally on this front, she says.

Natalie Schwartz, author of a book detailing teacher concerns (The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators and Society), found that teachers think parent communication is the hardest part of their job. However, she also thinks teachers need to have the right mindset and use parent relations to make their job easier and students more successful. “They have the same goal – they both want the student to do well,” she says. “A teacher can find ways to use that resource to help students and make their own job easier.” A survey of about 1,000 teachers found that 83 percent wanted increased parent involvement while 72 percent of parents wanted better connections, according to another study. But it isn’t easy. In a detailed 2011 report, researchers found a “gap between rhetoric and reality” when it comes to parental involvement, noting that there are a number of difficult barriers—from new economic and cultural patterns to troublesome family issues.

So here are 10 ways teachers can improve communications with parents over behavior issues.

1) Start early. “Cultivate positive relationships with parents from the beginning of the school year,” says Schwartz, inviting their involvement and gathering information about students. A simple form at the start of the year when everyone is energized can ask, “Tell me five things I should know about your child that will help me work with him or her this year”. Develop a relationship with parents of students who you know may be difficult, but with a positive approach.

2) Set it up. Clearly establish and communicate (to students and parents) expectations about classroom behavior. Consider having both sign a behavior contract that requires them to discuss it at home and spells out what you expect and when you’ll involve parents. It can make clear with everyone what the expectations are, reinforce with students that the issues are important, and put on record the plan so that if concerns arise later there isn’t confusion or disputes.

3) In their shoes. McCormick says parents—especially those with students showing significant behavior problems—may have a complex relationship with education. They may have found school challenging themselves, for instance, or had difficulty before in their own relationships with teachers, with their other children or with this child. They also may have what she calls a “cognitive overload” and be stressed by limited resources or other issues—embarrassed, frustrated by their children too, or defensive (no one wants to hear their child is a concern). Empathize with the parent and student. “Once we become familiar with parents, our view of them often changes dramatically,” says Todd Whitaker, author of the book Dealing with Difficult Parents.

4) The right tone. Even if you struggle to spot positive behavior with a student, McCormick says there are ways to let a parent know you are looking for good moments, which will make calls about behavior more productive. “Jason had a good day today,” can be reported even if there was just slight change. (The parent is likely to pass that along to the student or reward them which may improve behavior.) Set a goal of communicating three positive comments each week to parents whose children don’t generally receive them.     

5) Form a team. “The purpose in contacting home is not to complain about the student and drop the problem in the parent’s lap. Enlist their help in supporting the student and resolving the issue,” says Schwartz.  Make it clear you all need to work together—but that responsibility lies with the student.

6) Grit your teeth. As certainly as you’ll have a difficult child in your class, you’ll have a difficult parent, and researchers say you have little to gain by contributing to the conflict. The issue may color a busy administrator’s opinion of you if it ends up in their lap, or increase problems (an angry parent can provide justification for a student’s misbehavior). Try diligently to understand their concerns, remind the parent of your position and consider a “fresh start”. Consult other teachers, document interactions, inform the administration and consider requesting a parent conference. But be frank. Explain the problem and how you are handling it and avoid emotions and advice.

7) A team meeting. Parent meetings can allow others who have had similar problems to contribute and benefit. But have a clear agenda with time limits, then briefly review the challenges and focus on a path forward, prepared with classroom interventions or behavior intervention plans that give everyone (including the student and parent) a role. Have a schedule for next steps and a follow-up meeting too—a key often missed.

8) Or less formally. Home visits, are sometimes impractical but show interest and provide a better understanding of a student’s life, McCormick says. Plan for and fully utilize school-sponsored parent conferences, but also hold them yourself with a parent or small group (perhaps those whose students are misbehaving so it’s clear you’re not singling out anyone). Find out when it’s convenient for parents to meet; it might be after school hours, especially for struggling parents.         

9) Consider technology. Some parents are easier to reach via social media, but obviously platforms like Facebook should be used carefully, says McCormick. Skype and Google have translation functions if language is a barrier. Email or text messages can circulate a student behavior contract to parents and others or get a message to a parent quickly.

10) Get more information. For you or your school. McCormick’s research has shown that most teachers don’t spend time on parent communications in college or in staff development, despite the fact that it pays off and is a critical part of their job. The national PTA has some good tips about parent-teacher communications, and the National Education Association has several articles on the topic, including one about “Getting a Derailed Parent-Teacher Relationship Back on Track.” The Texas Education Association has also developed this extensive training manual that has professional development resources about parent communications and Teaching Tolerance has some good professional development tools on its page for parent engagement.

Written by Jim Paterson

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at