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The Dos and Don'ts of Communicating with Parents

parent conference

Now that school is once again in session, events like Back to School Night and parent-teacher conferences are in full swing. Communication can be tricky for many reasons, but a proactive and strategic approach can help get relationships with parents or guardians off on the right foot. As much as teachers and parents are ideal partners in advocating for each student, working together can feel like a minefield at times, especially before trusting relationships are firmly established. However, for the wellbeing of each student, setting up functional connections is essential to making sure everyone is looped in. 



Be prepared with two kinds of data, quantitative and qualitative. While it might be an established norm to show parents gradebook data during a conference, that is not the only important information we can share. In addition, be ready to speak to qualitative details that paint a more complete picture of how students are doing. That might be giving specific examples of the ways in which children participate in class (or when they do not), having an example of student work ready to share that exemplifies a particular skill area, or simply sharing a story about an exchange that occurred to shed light on how kids are interacting with others in class. 
Have a positive anecdote to share. Parents are accustomed to hearing bad news, so it’s doubly important to have a ready example at hand that showcases a positive attribute. That could be as simple as a student holding the door for someone or helping to collect materials, or it could be a more involved illustration, such as a great comment or contribution that a kid made in class. Either way, parents are more likely to relate productively to teachers when we explicitly show how much we value all our students. 


Share only negative information. As explained above, teachers who harp only on what is wrong fail to build trust with parents, no matter how accurate they might be about what a student is not doing to be successful. Even the most disruptive of students have traits that could be turned around to be more conducive for learning, so focusing on growth and strategies for improvement is far more helpful than complaining and not offering any solutions that will move things forward.
Engage in deficit mindset language or conversation. Accidentally, we sometimes offer feedback to parents that incorporates problematic language. We might say that a student “doesn’t read,” or that a child “never cares about” learning. While it can be difficult to avoid frustration, it is a teacher’s job to believe that all students have the capacity to learn. For that reason, using the word “yet” becomes paramount in our communication. We could say something like, “Helen isn’t reading her assigned work yet, but I’m confident we can change that with some work from all of us.”

Back to School Night 


Engage visitors with an activity that highlights what students experience. It’s so hard for everyone to attend an evening event after a long day of work, but parents need to be engaged to get a true snapshot of what a day looks like at school. Rather than just read a syllabus aloud or hold up a book that students will be using, engage visitors in a quick activator that exemplifies your teaching style. That way, they’ll get a clear taste of what it’s like to experience the class. 
Provide resources or information about course objectives. While visitors will want to have information about the course, having it available to take home is far more productive than going over it quickly. After all, teachers typically get only between 5-10 minutes to present, so using those precious minutes on something people can do independently is a waste. 


Overshare personal information. While it might be useful to briefly share the number of years we’ve been teaching or other educational credentials, nobody needs to know (or cares about) our private lives. That includes information about where we might have grown up, who we live with, and whether we have any pets. Students are often interested in this information, but for visitors, it’s irrelevant. While sharing details about ourselves seems like a humanizing move, that is not the reason why people have gone out of their way to come to school at night.
Get mired in questions about individual students or situations that do not pertain to the group. If a parent raises a hand and asks a question that is clearly tailored to just one child, politely but firmly share that you’d love to set up a meeting or phone call afterward to delve more thoroughly into the topic, and then move on. It also helps to approach this individual as people are filing out and ask them specifically to send an email, which will reassure them of an intention to follow up, as well as an interest in helping the student in question.

Calls or Emails Home


  1. Call when there is good news to share. If a student does something wonderful, take a few minutes to call home and share that good news. Especially toward the beginning of a school year or semester when teachers and students are establishing a connection, it helps to show how strongly we advocate for them and appreciate their productive contributions to class. 
  2. Start any call by establishing that everything is all right. When parents receive phone calls from school, their first assumption is that something has gone wrong. It’s important to begin any call by saying: “First, everything is okay.” Then, move on to the topic of the call. That will reassure parents that first and foremost, their child is both mentally and physically fine at that moment. 


  1. Leave messages that are unclear or that could cause alarm. Most of the time, people will not pick up their phones. Therefore, leaving a message (once again, by establishing that all is okay) is unavoidable, but be wary of giving too much information that becomes convoluted. Instead, keep the purpose of the call simple by saying something like, “I’m calling to share some information about how Jason is doing, so I’d love to hear back from you at your earliest convenience.” Going any further just makes it more likely that a misunderstanding will occur. 
  2. Use phone calls home as a disciplinary measure meant to be punitive for the student. When teachers call home to punish students for poor behavior, that move is almost guaranteed to backfire. Students will become resentful and receive the message that the teacher cannot manage their behavior without telling the nearest adult. However, if the purpose of calling home is to get insight from the parent and create a partnership to change behavior in a more proactive way, then making that call is more than justified.

There is so much to bear in mind when we communicate with parents and families, but the top priorities are remaining both clear and proactive about how messages are relayed. It’s also important to note that acting in anger is never a good idea, so taking time and space to breathe and calm down where needed is not just recommended, but essential to building the kind of parent-teacher collaborative relationship that is needed to help move students in the right direction. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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