Using digital tools to connect with parents


Design a winning plan for parent/teacher communication

By Susan Brooks-Young

Remember when the adage “No news is good news” laid the foundation of home/school communication? Today’s teachers are increasingly proactive when it comes to communicating with students’ parents or guardians, and in turn parents expect to be able to easily connect with their children’s teachers. Open lines of communication are good for everyone.

Researchers find that regular parent/teacher communication leads to multiple positive benefits ranging from increased parental support of the school to positive growth in student accountability and performance. While the ideal time to begin fostering these relationships may be the start of a new school year, it’s never the wrong time to reach out to parents to initiate or strengthen relationships with them.

Many articles about home/school communication discuss what this looks like from a school-wide perspective. Others target ways teachers can reach out to parents when a child is experiencing some type of difficulty at school. Of course it’s important for school administrators to regularly be in touch with parents and for teachers to contact parents when a student is having a rocky time. But when teachers interact with parents or guardians on a regular basis, the adults who are part of a child’s home life are more likely to view those educators as allies who have students’ best interests at heart.

The challenge here is that parent/teacher communication frequently occurs on an as-needed basis — meaning that it’s reactive rather than proactive. Instead, what if each teacher developed a communication plan and employed it throughout the school year? What strategies could be incorporated, and how might digital tools be used to facilitate ongoing communication? Let’s look at a model for creating a proactive parent-teacher communication plan.

Getting started

Do you have a classroom communication plan you share with parents and guardians at the start of every school year? If so, is the plan intentionally designed to meet the needs of your students and their families, or is it something cobbled together over the years in response to school requirements and/or specific incidents from the past? Does that plan include use of digital tools to facilitate contact?

Depending on the answers to these initial questions, it may be possible to revise or update an existing plan. Lack of a formal plan means pulling something together, but either way, now is a good time to get started. The first run at writing a new plan or making major revisions to an existing plan takes time, but once this work is done, subsequent revisions should be far less time-consuming.

Know your audience

Teachers can make educated guesses about parents’ access to and use of technology in their daily lives, but why presume when you can ask them? Create a survey that can be administered electronically using an online tool like Google Forms (Forms.Google.com), on paper, or both. Ask parents how they access the internet (smartphone, tablet, laptop), what kind(s) of internet connection(s) they have (data plan, DSL, cable, satellite), and their connection speed. Ask what social networks they use and their preferred methods of communication (text, voice, or email). Be sure to ask for cell numbers and email addresses if you do not already have that information from students’ emergency forms. Use this information to help inform decisions about the feasibility of going paperless and which digital tools to include in the plan. Ideally this survey will be administered annually so the plan can be tweaked to meet the needs of that year’s parents.

Beginning to plan

One strategy might be to base your plan on the types of communication you have with parents, identifying three or four categories that cover those areas; this will allow for a robust — yet manageable — plan. In this case, the categories might be: general news and events; forms and paperwork; weekly or daily information; and individual conversations. Next think about what components might best reflect these categories. Identify two to four methods of communication in each area. For example:
General news and events — class newsletter, notifications about special events, and a photo gallery
Forms and paperwork — school documents (e.g., student handbook), classroom policies and procedures (e.g., rules, schedules, supply lists), and forms (e.g., field trip permission slips, medication permissions)
Weekly or daily information — weekly learning objectives, daily homework assignments
Individual conversations — parent access to online gradebook and “contact me” information that let parents know the best times and methods to reach the teacher

The components selected should reflect your classroom’s needs. You will pass along school-wide news as well, but the school’s office staff will have the primary responsibility for developing and distributing communiques of this kind.

Going digital

With the categories and corresponding components identified, think about which components can be supported partially or fully using digital tools. Keep it simple and useful; the objective for doing this is to facilitate communication, not dazzle parents.

Basic platform

Organization and implementation will be easier if both teachers and parents have a primary online space to access most information. This platform can be a classroom page provided through a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Google Classroom (Classroom.Google.com) or Schoology (Schoology.com). In the case of schools that don’t use an LMS, teachers can create their own classroom websites with easy-to-use free tools such as Google Sites (Sites.Google.com) or Weebly (Education.Weebly.com). Review your options to decide what tool to use and which features will be most useful.

Use the categories and components identified as a blueprint for the design of a classroom site. If you already have a classroom site, look at it through the eyes of a parent who is trying to keep up with what’s happening in the classroom. What communication is done well, and where could improvements be made?

Additional digital tools

Choose additional communication tools based on parent survey results and the components identified in earlier planning. How can these elements be created and/or shared digitally? The following chart suggests some, but certainly not all, options for digital tools.

Review the options for each component and choose one or two that would work best for your students’ parents. Some tools can be used for more than one component. It may be wise to select one or more of these multi-purpose options. For example, use Google Docs to create and embed newsletters and flyers for special events on your class page. Embed a shared Google Calendar on another page so parents can look at events scheduled throughout the school year. The basic platform has a way to insert photos on pages, so that may be a way to begin sharing images of class activities. Alternatives for publicizing events and sharing photos — such as Facebook or Instagram — may work well for your situation, but it depends on parents and teachers’ needs as well as school policies regarding the use of social media.

Finally, decide how often each component will be updated. In the above example, the class newsletter and special events can be updated monthly, but updating photos more often — every one to two weeks — will keep site content fresh and encourage parents to get into the habit of checking the page regularly. Remember to keep things simple initially. It’s always possible to incorporate the use of additional tools later.

Repeat this process with the remaining categories. You will probably see patterns emerging for tools that can be used across all categories of the plan. With the exception of the gradebook mentioned in the individual conversations category, virtually every component of the remaining categories can be addressed using one of the digital tools listed in the general news and events table above. As a result, it’s possible that a handful of tools will meet all the needs identified in the plan, as indicated in this chart.

Depending on educators’ personal preferences, this chart could look very different, but it’s easy to begin to see which tools might offer the most bang for the buck. Again, when initially launching a communication plan, it’s important to cover what’s needed without becoming overwhelmed. Simple plans can always be expanded and enhanced later.

Implementation schedule

Once a plan is outlined, look at how time-consuming it will be to implement. Static information like the school handbook or classroom rules are easy to post once and then leave online for the year, but what about a shared calendar or homework assignments? How often will these need to be updated, and do you have the time to do it all? It might be best to focus to those items that can be embedded on the class website to begin with and add additional tools like a texting app or gradebook later. It’s important not to spread yourself too thin by making assurances about communication that cannot be kept. Better to under-promise and surprise parents with more information than over-promise and fail to deliver.

Let parents know when updates will be made and honor that commitment. For example, will assignments for the entire week be made available at the start of the week or will they be posted daily? Will new events be posted as information becomes available or monthly? What about your response time? When a parent leaves a message for you, how quickly will you be able to respond? These may not seem like terribly significant questions, but they can lead to avoidable misunderstandings if not made clear from the start.

Not all that long ago, educators began collecting parents’ email addresses to use for school/home communication. How quickly things change! Email still works for some purposes, but there are better ways to inform parents about classroom news and special events. Consider ways you can use digital tools to facilitate communication with your students’ parents.

All tools cited in this column are readily accessible at this URL: bit.ly/TCTFall2017.

A former Catholic school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Susan invites your comments at sjbrooksyoung@gmail.com.

Using digital tools to connect with parents
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