Helping Children Thrive: Strong Family-School Partnerships
Both schools and families play critical roles in the healthy development of children. Years of research across many different educational settings, from preschool to high school, has demonstrated the importance of strong family-school partnerships. For instance, when educators and families work together, children show improved academic achievement, attendance, and social-emotional development, as well as decreased problematic behavior. Strong family-school partnerships also support parents and guardians in effectively advocating for their child’s success and improving the ability of schools to meet the needs of diverse cultural backgrounds and perspectives. In addition to research, experienced educators also note how fundamental cultivating relationships with families is to a successful classroom. Lori Edenfield, a preschool teacher at St Andrew Preschool in Vancouver, notes, “Family partnerships are key to developing a trust in the program, as well as the safety and best interests of the children. Open communication between families, teachers, and administrators allows schools to best support the needs of families within our community.”
Even knowing all of this, the truth is, building and sustaining positive family-school partnerships is difficult. It is hard for busy families and teachers to find time to communicate. Schools and families may not know how to work together, especially when trying to solve big problems. And schools may not have the infrastructure or processes in place to support effective collaboration. While it certainly takes study and effort to put strong family-school partnerships into place, here are some strategies to get started.
Start Communicating Early
Most families want to be involved in their child’s school success, and establishing effective family-school partnerships begins with positives experiences on day one. Instead of waiting for a problem to emerge before making a connection, it is helpful when schools reach out early with positive messages. In fact, this makes it easier to have difficult conversations when needed because a trusting relationship has already been established. Early positive connections with families might include mailing home postcards with pictures or a brief note about something that went well at school. It might be a certificate recognizing a child’s positive behavior in the classroom. Or maybe a brief phone call home to offer an introduction and kind word. The method can be creative and tailored to the unique culture of each school, as long as it includes all families and becomes integrated into the expected professional responsibilities of school staff.
Focus on Children’s Progress and Success
While there will be problems to solve, strong family-school partnerships focus on children’s progress and success. A good, albeit difficult, goal to aim for is to offer families five pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of challenging or negative news. This magic ratio comes from psychological research showing relationships with a high ratio of positive to negative interactions tend to build trust and collaboration. Strong family-school partnerships are always on the lookout for opportunities to highlight a child’s improvements, efforts, successes, and strengths no matter the challenges that are also present.
Families and Teachers: Equal Partners
Effective family-school partnerships ensure the maintenance of an equal alliance. This means educators recognize the expertise of families regarding their child, and families recognize the expertise of educators regarding their classroom. As stated by highly experienced local teacher Joann Derie, “In a strong family-school partnership, the common mission is for the child to thrive. If a good relationship between these two parties has been established, wonderful growth can occur. It may mean a celebration or a difficult conversation takes place. This conversation can happen due to the trust on both sides who are working together, sharing information, and consistent strategies for the growth of the child.” Equal partnerships value active listening, perspective taking, validation of emotions and situations, and openness.
Stop the Blame Game
Most of us enjoy being “right.” Blaming others is an easy way to make this happen. Solving problems without blame is much more difficult, but essential to effective family-school partnerships. One way to make this happen is to stop thinking about problems as a forced choice between two outcomes. Instead, challenges can best be overcome by asking questions to increase understanding, building on what is already working, remaining empathetic to differing perspectives, and agreeing to trying something out for a brief time followed by another check-in. The ultimate goal is to find a solution that works for the child, family, and school–not about being right.
Take Your Time
Finally, trusting relationships take time to build, as well as ongoing attention. This means strong family-school partnerships are about creating a school- and family-wide culture of collaboration, rather than a one-time event. Resources must be available to integrate family-friendly communication and events throughout each school year. This might include informal interactions, such as coffee being available for families, that encourages them to slow down and chat with each other and staff. It might be having a resource room available for families that reflects their backgrounds, cultures, experiences, interests, and needs. It could include family outreach activities such as coffee with the principal, doughnuts with dads, or a pancake breakfast.
As resources, time and communication grow, parents and educators will be in an increasingly better position to help each student thrive.