In the counseling world, the therapeutic alliance is a term we use to describe the unwritten contract between a patient and a therapist with regard to working towards a common goal. But in the real world, we just say “we’re getting to know one other.”
No matter how you phrase it, that intentional building of relationships, which is rarely taught, is the most underrated tool in an educator’s toolbox.
Whether working directly with students or with their families, the old saying is true. People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. The only way to know that you care is to build relationships. The added benefit is that building relationships also gives us the information we need to truly support parents as partners in their children’s learning.
There’s no shortage of research that shows how critical parent involvement is to the success of children, but with many parents reporting that they feel stretched to keep up with the basic household needs or overwhelmed by the demands of our modern life, how can teachers make connections that lead to authentically engaged families?
The question contains the answer, and that answer is connection. Schools that want to engage all families have to build connections into every area of the school experience. The general idea of connection is that people become attached to or joined in relationship to one another through shared experiences. Most of the time educators create school-centric experiences that don’t necessarily translate to a connection point for the parent. With a few simple twists we can take things we’re already doing and make them more effective so our focus becomes more student- and family-centric.
Make positive phone calls home. While phone calls home may feel time consuming, they are so uncommon now with texting and email that they are more likely to leave an impact on the family. Whether parents are accustomed to hearing teachers telling them what their child is doing wrong or they are used to the absence of calls because their children are typically well-behaved, every parent enjoys hearing a compliment about their child. The two or three minutes you invest in calling parents by their name and complimenting their child will reap you plenty of rewards, especially if you later have to give a less positive update on the phone. You can highlight simple things like how nicely their child held the door for a friend or waited patiently in the line coming in from recess, or with an older kid who got a passing grade for the first time on the pop quiz. Make a plan to work your way through the class roster as many times as possible, giving you the added benefit of seeking out strengths of some of your less prosocial kiddos.
Create full family events. Many schools have created family friendly events as a part of their family engagement plan. However, as a mother with large gaps in my kids’ ages, I know that at times events that are age specific means separating families, and that can mean making tough choices. In some cultures, where families value a multigenerational lifestyle, these events may inadvertently turn parents off. When possible, look at partnering with neighboring schools and creating events that the whole family can enjoy; for instance, a career and job fair where young kids can see demonstrations, older kids can explore colleges, and parents can look at local employers who are ready to hire. This shows your families that you care about all of their needs and not just the ones that seem to serve you.
Go to the people. The key to a strong relationship is understanding that the street goes both ways. Having all your events at the school makes perfect sense for educators, but if the goal is building a bridge, it’s worth stepping outside of your comfort zone. Home visits are one way to establish a school presence in the neighborhood, but encouraging staff to participate in community events or even co-sponsoring activities with local churches or organizations also shows that you are a team player, just the way that you want parents to be.