An Educators’ Guide to Great Communication with Families

Do you want better relationships with students’ families? Effective communication is always vital to building relationships and engagement, but this school year’s anomalies intensify the need. Use this guide to hone your communication technique this year and beyond.

Keep It Short and Simple (KISS)

School emails are for information, not pleasure reading. Simple language is imperative with families with limited English literacy. Write concise messages that are easy for everyone to read and understand. Strive to write at or below the seventh-grade reading level. The review feature of many word processors checks for reading level and excess wordiness. Avoid educational jargon or define them in the text. The following is a quick list of substitutions, but there are many more. Consider having a parent volunteer preview your emails before you send them.

Instead of: Use: 
eLearningLearning on a computer or device
AsynchronousTime doing independent learning
AccommodationWays to help students with learning differences succeed

Send Updates to the Entire Learning Community

Newsletters help parents engage with student learning. Tell families what students are learning, recognize notable achievements, remind parents of upcoming events, and ask any needed support.

Monthly newsletters are usually enough for principals and secondary teachers. Elementary classroom teachers typically aim for weekly or biweekly updates. Support and specials teachers often supply classroom teachers with a short blurb that they add to their newsletter.

Employ Conversations and Conferences

For sensitive or complicated problems, start by scheduling a phone call or meeting. Too many ideas and nuances get lost in emails and texts causing hurt feelings and missed opportunities.

For the best outcome, practice the six traits of active listening:

1) Let speakers finish their thoughts without interruption.

2) Open your mind to new ideas and perspectives.

3) Paraphrase what you understand the other people to be saying.

4) Ask clarifying questions.

5) Summarize the conversation.

6) Share your own thoughts and suggestions.

 Quickly Address Distance Learning Challenges 

Students not showing up to a virtual class is one of the biggest challenges with distance learning. Many teachers report that texting parents results in students joining the class within minutes.

Another widespread problem of distance learning is children failing to complete assignments. The sooner guardians know about this, the quicker they can support their children before the number of missing assignments becomes unmanageable.

Be sure to investigate the root cause for the student not turning in assignments or showing up to class. Sometimes the issue is simple to solve, such as learning to navigate an LMS platform better. Other times the difficulty will be much more complicated, and you will need to involve multiple support systems.

Set Boundaries and Expectations

Everyone needs boundaries and personal time, but no one likes feeling ignored. Give yourself a reasonable timeframe, such as two working days, to respond to messages. Let students and families know your policy, and do your best to stick to it.

Make sure families know your working hours, but be aware that people often send messages at their convenience. Emails sent at dinnertime do not need to be read then. If seeing messages at all hours puts stress on you, disable notifications outside of specific hours and then relax.

Use Subject Lines to Signal Purpose and Urgency  

Use the subject lines and flagging to help parents filter urgent messages from general updates. Although these features make important messages stand out, be aware that overuse of them diminishes their effectiveness.

Request that kids and parents signal urgency with the subject line too. You will prioritize messages differently with the subject line “FYI about Tommy’s Homework” than you would to “Urgent Help for Tommy!”

Choose the Delivery Method that Fits the Demographics

Ask your students’ families how they prefer to receive communication, and do your best to comply with their preferences. Families without smartphones, data plans, home computers, and WIFI may need a particular delivery method. If everything else fails, mail a paper letter. Sometimes old school methods are the most reliable.

Technology to the Rescue

Technology offers many ways to optimize communication methods. Here is a quick breakdown of some favorite EdTech tools free for individual teachers. Many are free schoolwide.

  • Email Tools such as Trackers, Schedulers, and Auto-Responders

Stop wondering if an email got lost in cyberspace or a spam folder. An email tracker embeds a pixel into the email and alerts you someone opens an email. The program you choose will depend on your email server and needs. Check with your IT department and colleagues for specific recommendations.

Write and edit the email at your convenience and then send it at a specified time. Most email programs allow you to schedule emails to send at optimal times. Early mornings and late afternoons are usually a good time to catch parents.

Remind parents of your email policy with an auto-responder. Set the auto-responder to say something such as, “Thank you for contacting me. I will get back to you within 2 working days.”

  • Information Gathering and Scheduling Tools

Save time when getting feedback with tools that aggregate the responses for you. Doodle Polls, SignUpGenius, Google Forms, Survey Monkey, and eWalk, are popular choices for different purposes. Google Forms and Survey Monkey are generalized survey tools. Doodle Polls streamlines finding convenient group meeting times. SignUpGenius is perfect for signing up for specific slots, like conferences or volunteer positions. eWalk helps educators gather input for improving instruction and procedures.

Apps:

  • Google Voice

Get all the convenience of your phone from any device and keep your phone number private. Google Voice uses Voice over IP so you can text and call from any device. Once you set up your account, you will get a phone number to call and text over the internet.

  • Talking Points

Communicate in the language families speak. Talking points is an app-to-text service that allows teachers to text in English, and the app provides a translated version to the families. It supports over one hundred languages, and the families do not need to download the app. Many of the apps include translating in the program, but Talking Points claims a higher quality translation. Be aware that no translation app is perfect.

  • Remind App

Text specific groups of people all at once while maintaining privacy for all. For example, you might text students and parents about an upcoming test. Schedule messages to go out whenever you want people to receive them. Recipients do not need to download the app, but they do need to opt into specific groups. Opting into a group is free and only takes a few seconds.

  • Comprehensive Sharing Apps

Share far beyond basic information with ClassDojo, Bloomz, Seesaw, and ClassTag. These apps are popular with elementary classroom teachers who like to share a detailed picture of what is happening during class time. Parents choose to use the apps to take advantage of all the bells and whistles or only receive email/text notifications. Each platform focuses on different capabilities that you can compare in this spreadsheetcreated by Jessica Meacham.

Pass it On

Parental involvement is more critical than ever before. Harris Education Solutions continues to publish articles and create products that support the best educational practices. If this guide helps you hone your skills, please share it with your friends and colleagues because better communication makes communities better.