Five Easy Ways to Positively Engage Parents

Some days feel harder than others.  When I have a rough day at school, I make time to walk around and observe random acts of kindness in my school.  I see a student pick up a pencil after it rolls off a classmate’s desk, another student ask a classmate sitting on the Buddy Bench to come play, and another student recommend a book to a friend.  It warms my heart to see this kindness.  I make notes of my observations in my little notebook and head back to my office.  My rough day immediately feels smoother and my negativity melts away after I call parents and share stories of their child’s kindness.  It is one quick and easy way to be intentional about building relationships between parents and the school.  

Developing positive relationships with parents is essential to helping students reach their full potential.  Here are five simple ways I am intentional about building and nurturing positive relationships with parents.

Call Home with Positive News

Making positive phone calls is one of the easiest and most effective strategies for building positive relationships with parents.  I use this strategy in two main ways in my school.  

The first way is to call the families of new transfer students after two weeks of enrollment.  My goals are twofold here.  I want to check in and see how our school is working for them.  Students that transfer during the school year are often leaving a bad experience at another school.  Not only does this phone call help me get a read on how their school experience is going so far, but it also helps me build rapport.  I want them to feel comfortable reaching out to me if they have questions or concerns.  Those that know me well know that I enjoy making others happy.  This carries over to my ‘day job.’  I read hundreds of positive comments on our school survey yet still obsess over the one negative comment.  My goal is that every member of our school community be happy and proud of our school.  A positive first interaction with parents helps in reaching this goal.

Positive phone calls home that are specific to one child, similar to the type I described earlier, are those that I especially enjoy.  I try to use this strategy as often as possible.  I have used this approach often as both a classroom teacher and principal.  I will never forget the parent reaction the first time I called with positive news.  I have sadly seen similar reactions time and time again.  I can hear the nervousness in the parent’s voice the second they say hello.  I say, “Hello.  This is Mr. Bailey from Hemmeter Elementary.  I wanted to give you a call to tell you about something that happened with Brian today on the playground.  Brian befriended a student who was lonely by talking to her and spending the rest of his recess playing catch with her.  I was so impressed by his compassion.  Brian is such a positive role model, and I am so happy to have him in my class this year.”  Based on the long pause, I could clearly tell the parent was confused.  

She said, “OK.  Is there anything else?”

A little disappointed I said, “Nope.  I just wanted to let you know how proud I was of Brian and what he did today.”

Suddenly I heard a gasp for breath, a shaky voice, and heavy sobs.  “No one has ever told me anything good about my child.  The only time a teacher or the school has ever called was when he was in trouble.  Thank you, Mr. Bailey.  Your phone call made my day.  I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.  Good bye and thank you.”

It makes me sad to think that parents don’t hear positive news about their children.  How can we expect to have strong relationships with parents if we only call when there is a problem?  This one interaction completely changed my relationship with that parent.  She knew I took the time to see good in her son.  She knew I was on her side.  She knew I cared about her child.  We were now partners.

Using Social Media to Build Parent Relationships

Twitter and Snapchat may be the preferred platform for our students, but Facebook is still king with parents.  Most parents have a Facebook account and will engage with school if you use it to your advantage.  From a marketing perspective, a public Facebook page can be great for your school. However, for purposes of building relationships with parents, I prefer a private group.  We have a very active private Facebook page for our school.  The Facebook page is not only a place for parents to ask questions about the school but also a place I can give parents an inside look into the school and promote the awesome things that are taking place.  With a private page, I can share videos and pictures from the school without having to worry too much about individual privacy.  Parents love this!  I have received more positive feedback about pictures and videos on Facebook than anything else.  The other thing I love about the Facebook page is it allows me to interact with parents in an informal way.  While still being professional, I can be a little more myself on Facebook.  I post funny memes or amusing stories.  I post my Christmas card to the parents.  This helps remind them that I am just a normal person.  I am not the big, bad, scary principal.  Parents tell me all the time that they are scared to come talk to the principal because it brings up bad memories from their childhood.  However, they feel comfortable coming to me because I seem more like a ‘normal person.’  I’m not sure my close friends and family would consider me ‘normal’ by any stretch, but I think what parents have the opportunity to see is something most principals hide: their personality.  I am always professional in my posts, but I am also fun.  Yes.  Principals can be fun.

Coffee Talks

The idea behind a coffee talk is simple.  I want to give parents an informal, comfortable setting to ask questions and talk about the school.  The coffee talks are held 2-3 times per year and last for approximately 45 minutes.  I provide coffee and donuts and start by sharing a couple of events currently happening in the school.  However, a majority of the time is spent just having a discussion that is driven by the parents.  Although I keep a few topics ready in my back pocket, it doesn’t take long for parents to see this is a safe, honest environment.  A number of new initiatives in the school have come out of conversations that started in this coffee talk setting.  We have added a salad bar to our lunch offering and changed several modes of communication based on the feedback I received from these meetings.  Coffee talks are a great way for parents to have a voice in the school.  Plus, who doesn’t love free coffee and donuts.

Parent Book Clubs

I started this idea a few years ago and it has led to some great conversations and strong bonds formed with the parents that participated.  I have used a variety of books but usually try to find something that connects to an initiative at school but also has some educational application.  The first book we used was The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease.  This book worked perfectly for the parent book club.  It was interesting and aligned with our core mission of building a reading culture. We had great discussions about the importance of read alouds and the research that supports this practice.  We were able to correct common misconceptions, such as ‘once your child is old enough to read, you should stop reading aloud’ and ‘graphic novels aren’t real reading.’  The conversations spread outside of our book club as well.  A number of parents said they were unable to attend the book club meetings but were still reading the book.  It was a positive, powerful experience.   We have also read Mindset by Carol Dweck, The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley, and Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne.   

Family Nights

Family nights are not new in education.  Most schools have curriculum nights and open houses.  We have those things as well, but we have also made a conscious effort to have more than just informational nights for parents.  We want opportunities for families to come together and just have fun.  My favorite family event of the year was our “One Book Reading and Art Show.”  We invited all families to read Pink is for Blobfish by Jess Keating.  Then families created an art piece together based on the book or their favorite animal.  In an attempt to encourage creativity, we gave very little guidance or direction in creating the art.  We had over 150 families participate in the art show and the artwork was incredible!  We had paintings of blobfish, photographs of wild animals, and clay turtles.  Families told me how much fun they had working together to build the art piece for the show and reading the book.  Skyping with Jess Keating was the perfect ending to the event.  

Another new family event we added this year was family board game night.  Board games are a great way for families to spend quality time together.  Although we contracted with a local company that brought in the board games, you could easily have families bring their own games.  Families spent the next two hours playing games.  The feedback was tremendous.  At Hemmeter, we often talk about our school as one big family.  This event helped reinforce that goal.  It was another great opportunity to connect and bond with parents.

I have heard several principals and teachers joke, “The kids are great, it’s the parents who ruin the job.”  I am thankful to be in a school where this is not the case.  This doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes work to build relationships.  In order for a school to be successful, we have to be intentional about nurturing relationships with all of our stakeholders. I can honestly say parents, students, and educators are all working together at Hemmeter.

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