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May 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 8

How to (Really) Listen to Parents

As schools grow increasingly diverse, educators need to listen to what parents have to say about their children.

The students we're educating in U.S. schools live in a different world from the one most of us grew up in. Consider that
  • 31 percent of all families are now single-parent families. In 1970, fathers accounted for 1 percent of single parents. By 2000, they accounted for 17 percent (Cunningham & Knoester, 2007; Grall, 2009).
  • After years of decline, the number of multigenerational households is increasing, from 26 million in 1970 to 49 million in 2008 (Pew Social Trends Staff, 2010).
  • The U.S. minority population, now at 30 percent, is expected to exceed 50 percent by 2050 (Kotkin, 2010).
Such rapid social change makes it more important than ever to know the children who come to our schools. We need to understand not only what skills and knowledge they already have and how they learn best, but also how life at home shapes their interactions with school.
To do a good job of knowing our students, we must first discard old assumptions about children and families. Then we must gather information about what life is really like for those we teach. The best way to do that is by listening to the people who know our students best—their parents.
We must listen to parents not just with our ears, but also, as Lisa Delpit (1995) reminds us in Other People's Children, with open hearts and minds. Parents are not only "experts on their own lives," but also experts on the lives of their children (pp. 46–47). When teachers tap into parents' expertise, both parties have common ground on which to stand to support their child's learning.
As a teacher, assistant principal, and now a coach for teachers and administrators, I've learned that good listening matters all year long, but especially during the first weeks of school. Here are some ways teachers can provide opportunities and encouragement for parents to open up.

Make School an Inviting Place

First, create a school culture that feels welcoming and safe for parents as well as children.
Consider your school's physical environment. Walking through the front doors, parents should get the message that everyone is welcome. Karen Casto (2010), a veteran principal and consultant, suggests taking a hard look not just at classrooms, but also at your school's parking lot, lobby, and hallways. Are these areas clean, uncluttered, cheerful, and well lit? Is the school's entrance well marked? Within the school, do signs help people find their way around? Is student work prominently displayed?
Honor all family structures. Common family structures now include single parents, grandparents or other relatives raising children, separated or divorced parents sharing custody, same-gender parents, blended families, foster families, and extended families sharing a home. Language offers a powerful way to include and honor everyone. For example, when speaking to a class, say "Take this form to the person who cares for you at home" instead of "Take this form to your Mom and Dad." When sending written communication home, use "Dear Family" or simply "Hello" as a salutation.
Accommodate parents' literacy skills. How does your school reach out to parents who speak limited English or struggle with reading? Are translators available during meetings? Do you translate communications sent home and school signage into parents' native languages? Could you set up an information phone line so parents can hear, rather than read, school news? Supports like these signal your interest in including all families.
Provide flexible meeting times. Many parents struggle to fit school visits into their schedules because of work or other responsibilities. Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, offers twice-monthly open parent meetings—one in the morning and one in the evening—when parents can drop in to share their ideas with school staff. You might also meet parents during lunch; schedule time to chat online; or meet in libraries, restaurants, or other community settings. Providing child care or parallel child programming enables more families to attend.
Examine your beliefs about parents. In schools in which parents clearly trust teachers and open up to them, I've found school personnel usually believe five things:
  1. All parents want the best for their children and want school to help them succeed.
  2. Teachers and administrators can learn much from parents about how best to teach their children.
  3. Family involvement in school enhances all students' learning.
  4. Working well with families improves overall school climate and the morale of teachers, students, and parents
  5. School practices and communication with parents should embrace all families' backgrounds and cultures.
Consider—and discuss with your colleagues—what each of you believes about parents and school.

Know What to Listen For

Good listening not only helps parents feel known, but also yields important insights. As you listen, seek information about the following.
Who is this child? Educators have expertise on teaching approaches, but parents have answers to the most important questions when it comes to a child's learning: What are this child's passions? What motivates him? What is she like with friends? What has school been like for this child so far? Parents can provide knowledge that might take teachers months to gather on their own.
What are parents' hopes and goals for their child? Asking this early in the year highlights the shared purpose of home and school: to help children succeed. Many schools invite parents to share one academic and one social goal. Document parents' goals and periodically let them know how their child is progressing.
What are families' cultural practices and traditions? Understanding important things about a child's household—such as who serves as primary caregiver, who makes which kinds of decisions, what weekends are like, and how the adults express love and appreciation for children—is important to successful teaching.
What interests or traditions would families like to share at school? Seeking this information invites families to take an active role in school life. Just asking the question shows that you care about what's important to parents. And the invitation can produce offers that enrich the learning day.

Offer Many Opportunities

It's important to create many opportunities to hear parents' thoughts and concerns about their children. What makes a good listening opportunity depends on your staff and your community. So that more parents can find an arrangement that works for them, offer varied options, such as the following:
Summer letter or survey. Welcome letters from teachers and principals or beginning-of-the-year surveys asking questions about children and their families provide a warm introduction. Questions like these work well:
  • What are your child's favorite ways to play?
  • What are your child's strengths?
  • What things are hard for your child?
  • How does your child cope with frustration?
  • What are some of your family's hobbies, skills, crafts, or favorite activities?
"Door" visits. At Hollin Meadows School in Alexandria, Virginia, teachers do a Welcome Walk before school begins, walking (or driving) from one student's home to the next. In five-minute meetings at the doors of students' homes, teachers make a friendly connection with students and families. One staff member observes, "It's a simple idea that has a huge positive effect" (see "School Spotlight," 2009).
Informal classroom visits before school starts. Encourage parents (and their children) to stop by for a look around and an informal chat, perhaps while teachers are setting up their classrooms. As teachers observe and listen, these low-pressure visits help them get to know parents. And as parents begin to feel known at school, they're more likely to voice concerns and questions as the year progresses.
Information-rich open houses. Honor parents' wish to know what school holds for their child by displaying students' learning goals, sharing parents' goals for their children (get permission first), and explaining classroom and school rules at an open house early on.
Earlier conferences. Bump up your first parent–teacher conferences from the traditional November date. Holding a special conference earlier in the year—or even before school starts—lets you gather crucial information, which can mean more effective teaching from the start. Invite families to share their goals, hopes, and dreams for their child's upcoming school year. This can also be a good time to learn about families' preferred means of communication and when they are most available.
Coffees or brown-bag lunches. Hold these informal gatherings at various times to accommodate varying schedules. Plan questions to ask and then listen more than you talk. Taking notes helps you remember key points and signals to parents that you take what they say seriously.
Small daily interactions. Whenever parents pick up or drop off a child, call to get homework for a sick child, or help in the school, take the opportunity to connect. Report on progress with a child's behavior challenge while checking on progress at home ("Rosa shared markers with her group today. How's the sharing coming at home?"); follow up on a previous discussion ("Have you thought more about showing your weaving to the class?"); or simply ask, "How's the new baby?" Especially early in the year, these small daily listenings build communication bridges and let families know that we recognize and care about them—and their child.
Try hard to get in touch with all parents. If one method doesn't work, try another, and another. Patience and persistence in finding ways to connect will show parents that you truly want them to belong to your school community.

Make It Count

Make the most of every chance you have to listen to parents:
Make the first move. Don't wait until parents contact you about a concern or problem. Instead, begin building a positive partnership by reaching out before school begins, or at least early in the year. Sharing brief notes about a child's successes is a good opener.
Offer conversation starters. Help things along by offering guiding questions. A focused question like, "What's one thing you'd really like your child to accomplish in school this year?" is easier to answer than a broad question like, "What do you want your child to learn?" Asking, "What's one thing your child is good at" shows that you're thinking about a child's strengths—and encourages families to do the same.
Give parents a chance to think. I encourage teachers to send home a question or two for parents to consider before school meetings. Parents are less likely to feel put on the spot, and conversations are usually more productive and positive.
Seek first to understand. It's even more important to listen with openness and compassion in high-risk conversations and dialogues, and when conflicts occur. Instead of responding defensively, show that you are genuinely interested in hearing concerns. Leaning into these situations with curiosity and respect for parents will further strengthen trust. Statements like, "I can tell this is very important to you. I'd like to hear more about that" or "What do you think might help in this situation?" are apt to open lines of communication and make everyone feel understood.
Research overwhelmingly supports what we educators know from experience and instinct: When families are involved with school, students are more likely to succeed (National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, n.d.). The case for parental involvement is solid, especially as the school population grows more diverse. Now it's up to us to listen hard.

Casto, K. (2010, November). Making an entrance. Responsive Classroom Newsletter, 22(4), 14–15.

Cunningham, A-M., & Knoester, C. (2007). The psychological well-being of single parents. In A.D. Yarber & P. M. Sharp (Eds.), Focus on single-parent families: Past, present, and future (pp. 136–155). Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Grall, T. (2009, November). Custodial mothers and fathers and their child support: 2007 (Current Population Reports, Consumer Income, P60-237). Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from www.census.gov/prod/2009pubs/p60-237.pdf

Kotkin, J. (2010, August). The changing demographics of America. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/The-Changing-Demographics-of-America.html

National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education. (n.d.) Research review and resources. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.ncpie.org/WhatsHappening/researchJanuary2006.cfm.

Pew Social Trends Staff. (2010, March 18). The return of the multigenerational family household. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://pewsocialtrends.org/pubs/752/the-return-of-the-multi-generational-family-household

School spotlight: Hollin Meadows. (2009, April). Responsive Classroom Newsletter. Retrieved from www.responsiveclassroom.org/article/school-spotlight-hollin-meadows

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