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Family engagement tools

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Nuts and bolts of communication with parents and families

Kathleen A. Olson, Colleen Gengler, and Jo Musich, Extension Educators — Family Resiliency; and Madge Alberts, Program Coordinator — Children, Youth and Family Consortium

Reviewed October 2014 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success.

School staff can do many things to increase and improve communication with parents and families. Here are some ideas to consider when working with families.


Express confidence. Provide an optimistic message to parents so they can be encouraging of children’s learning. Provide an atmosphere of respect for children and parents. Consistent with solution-oriented approaches to consultation and conferencing.

Request parental assistance. Understand that children develop in multiple contexts (i.e., ecological orientation). Create an opportunity for dialogue and empowering parents. Reflects that schools can’t solve many concerns alone. Consistent with two-way communication.

Encourage a role for parents. Emphasis is on giving a coordinated message to student and the student’s awareness that parent and teacher are communicating (i.e., sharing information and resources to solve the concern). Underscores the importance of working together as well as the importance of input from both systems.

Engage in perspective taking. Listen for parents’ needs. Use this golden rule as a guideline: Treat parents as you would like to be treated. For example, ask yourself:


Be clear about teacher expectations. Reflect this in first day objectives, such as discipline and homework policies.

Be clear about and be sure school expectations reach all parents. Back to school night information must reach non-attendees.

Listen for parent roadblocks and react with sensitivity and understanding. Use statements that express concern for the student and state the problem. These are more positive and inviting than the ones that do not. Which of these would you rather hear if you were a parent?

“Mrs. Smith, I’m calling because:

  • “I’m not at all pleased with Ted’s progress."
  • “Linda’s behavior in class is getting worse and worse.”


  • “I’m concerned about how little work Ted is doing.”
  • “I’m concerned about how Linda gets along with the other students.”

Here are some strategies you can try. Examples include:


Develop a regular and reliable communication process. Communication needs to begin where families are. It should center on their interests, needs, and capabilities, not where you want them to be. For example, you could:

Promote two-way exchanges of information. Consider whether you are communicating at mutually convenient times. To increase the potential for two-way communication:

Employ a variety of communication strategies.

Here are some things to keep in mind about your communications.

Employ a variety of strategies to enhance individual and personal communications.

Remember the value of personal communication. Personal contact (home visits, phone calls, and personal notes) has been found to be most effective in reaching uninvolved families. There are many reasons why personal communication might be a better strategy to use with parents.

If you use this strategy, it is important to emphasize interest in the student and provide an optimistic message to parents.


Christenson, S. L., Lehr, C., & Havsy, L. (1998). Resource manual for schools' engagement of families. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Check and Connect Project. Not published. [Adapted by permission.]

Related resources

Effective communication — Explore these guidelines and practices that school staff can use for effective communication.

The eight 'P' philosophy for effective school-parent partnerships — Enact these eight “P”s in your school to help build effective school-parent partnerships.

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