What Parents Really Want: Strategies for Family-School Communication

Communication between teachers and families varies in frequency and method, from emails, texts and apps to old-fashioned notes. It can be hard to keep track of everything! Even when effective systems of communication are in place, sometimes they only include feedback about children’s academic performance and neglect to address students’ life skills. We set out to find out how families are collaborating with teachers to help children thrive socially, emotionally and academically.

Getting an inside look

Earlier this year we launched the Transformative Family Engagement & Whole Child Learning grant* and partnered with Austin Council of PTAs, Lake Washington PTSA Council and Pinellas County Council PTA to discover what family engagement strategies are working in schools today and where can we improve.

Throughout the summer, National PTA partnered with these PTAs to facilitate eight focus groups (six in English and two in Spanish) with a total of 116 participants that represented diverse socioeconomic, racial and cultural backgrounds.

Our listening sessions intentionally included an oversampling of families of color to elevate the voices of families who have not always been included in these conversations. See the chart for a complete racial demographic breakdown.

The results from these community conversations revealed a variety of findings, including three major takeaways.

1. Families want a greater focus on the whole child.

We asked participants, “What kind of adult do you want your child to be?” and families consistently responded with traits like responsibility, respect, motivation, leadership, financial literacy and social skills. The findings made it clear that parents understand there’s more to education than grades and test scores. They care about their children becoming healthy, happy adults and good citizens, and they believe schools can do a better job at helping to accomplish this.

Parents would like schools to focus more on whole child development by:

  • Emphasizing the development of research and study skills
  • Focusing on emotional intelligence, social skills and bullying prevention
  • Offering more opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities and additional recess time
  • Focusing less on standardized testing and more on curriculum and lessons that are relevant to the real world

According to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a whole-child approach to education includes a focus on children’s social-emotional, identity, academic and cognitive development, as well as their mental and physical health. Learn more about this approach in, “What is Whole Child Education?

2. Families want more intentional relationship-building.

Families believe that student-teacher relationships are important to their engagement in whole-child learning. They appreciate regular, proactive, positive and timely outreach that is specific to their child.

Beginning the relationship with a positive note or phone call home was a very effective way to build a trusting relationship. They also cited the frequency and timeliness of teachers’ communication as very important.

Families want a variety of ways to communicate with their child’s teacher. Our conversations revealed there is no “best” way for teachers to communicate with families, what really matters is establishing a personal connection. One participant praised her child’s teacher, “If my son did something good, something amazing, she emailed us immediately [to share] … so, she was very responsive, and we were very appreciative of that.”

As participants thought about teachers they have struggled to collaborate with, they cited opposite characteristics. Parents and caregivers grew frustrated when teachers only provided generic language like “everything is fine” or when they reported issues long after an event occurred. One parent shared, “After our child has gotten a D or an F [in your class] is not the time to tell us [there is an issue] …Tell us after the first test so we can be a partner with you and help you.”

3. Families want systems change to improve family engagement in whole-child learning.

Throughout the discussions, participants acknowledged how hard teachers work, how much they have on their plates, and how they cannot create these changes in family engagement and whole child learning alone. Parents and caregivers agreed that, in order to get the resources and individualized attention they want for their children, bigger system level changes need to take place.

Their ideas for enhancing the education system overall included:

  • Increasing teacher pay
  • Enhancing teacher training, particularly around cultural competence
  • Having more teachers / smaller class sizes

The PTAs in Austin, Lake Washington and Pinellas County are taking these findings their local leaders to develop action steps to strengthen family engagement in their communities. To stay up to date with their work and other news from the Center for Family Engagement, subscribe here.

*The Transformative Family Engagement & Whole Child Learning grant was made possible by the support of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Rebecca Bauer is the family engagement specialist with the Center for Family Engagement at National PTA.

Why Should You Listen to the New PTA Podcast?

From PTA flyers and permission slips to handwritten updates from your child’s teacher, every day your child comes home with notes in their backpack. How do you keep track of everything that’s going on? With limited time, it can be difficult to figure out where to invest your energy, when it comes to engaging your child’s school. That’s why we launched Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast!

Each 30-minute episode offers frank advice and ideas from researchers, parents, educators and other experts. Guiding these conversations are our hosts, LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications, and Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement, who are both mothers navigating their own parenting journeys.

The podcast answers those questions you have always been wondering but weren’t sure who to ask, like:

What questions should you be asking to make the most of your child’s Parent-Teacher Conference? We turned to Luz Santana, Executive Director of the Right Questions Institute to provide her expert opinion.

What should school discipline look like at your child’s school and what does restorative justice even mean? Former Secretary of Education John King sheds light on why so many students get suspended and where we go from here.

Is it possible to avoid wanting to tear your hair out when trying to help your child complete their homework every night? Researcher Steve Sheldon offers evidence-based tips for making the most of homework time, without the stress.

How can you possibly help your child navigate the world of hormones, crushes and frenemies now that they’ve entered middle school? We chatted with school counselor Phyllis Fagell, who will provide concrete strategies for making the most of your child’s adolescent years.

Notes from the Backpack covers all of these topics and more, providing you with the practical information you need to make the most of your child’s school experience.

So how can you learn more about this new resource and start listening? Visit PTA.org/BackpackNotes for a full list of the episodes we have released so far, and more information about the podcast. You can also listen or download on all major podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Leave us a review to let us know how we’re doing!

We want you hear from you on social media! Engage with other parents in conversations around the topics we discuss on the podcast and share your own thoughts, advice and parenting anecdotes on social media using #BackpackNotes.