- Describe and use active listening techniques.
- Describe formal and informal methods of communication.
- Recognize methods to improve creative communication with the families of school-age children.
- Identify ways to build partnerships within the community.
The information in this lesson was adapted from the School-Age Family Engagement Course. Refer to the VLS Family Engagement course for more extensive discussions on various topics related to engaging and working with families in your program.
Close your eyes and picture the qualities you want in your communication with families. What do you notice about the words you use, tone, pace and the feel of your everyday actions and routines? Ask yourself, “What am I doing to honor communication and relationships with families?” Families are important partners in your work. It’s helpful to find a common understanding, rhythm and approach to family communication. The enrollment process, for example, can be considered the beginning of relationships. Future daily interactions are then supported by ongoing communication, systems and policies that invite multiple opportunities for communication and collaboration.
Throughout this lesson, we use the term family to refer to important people in children’s lives. These people can be parents, siblings, guardians, extended family members such as aunts or cousins, and other individuals who are involved in children’s lives.
Communication is a key aspect of your role as a school-age staff member. You will communicate with school-age children and youth, their families, and sometimes their school or other community partners. When communicating with families and other professionals, it is important to remember the importance of being clear and meaningful in your message and seeking clarifications when needed.
Importance of Establishing Relationships and Communication with Families
Several research studies show that positive relationships between teachers, children and families are essential to learning (Shonkoff, et al., 2000). Relationships can be built and strengthened through communication between caregivers and families that occurs during hellos and goodbyes, as well as in more formal activities such as a planned family meeting.
All of these opportunities require you to be aware of many things, including tone, choice of words, and nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and body language. When you are aware of these characteristics, you can better communicate in ways that are most supportive to and respectful of families. Families will be eager to know how their child is doing, and you can support comfortable communication by offering encouraging responses and asking for clarification if something is not understood.
You can also ensure that each moment offers sensitive communication, active listening and opportunities for making connections. Developing relationships and communicating with families can help bridge the home and school-age program settings. Additionally, research says:
- Programs that demonstrate and support partnering with families tend to have families that feel more confident and comfortable in supporting their children’s development (Wilcox & Weber, 2001).
- When services incorporate practices that promote partnerships with families, outcomes for family and children are improved including parenting capabilities and positive child behavior and functioning (Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Dunst, Trivette & Hamby, 2008).
Establishing & Maintaining Ongoing Communication with Families
Sharing information about children in ways meaningful to families is critical to maintaining ongoing communication. Whenever possible, use data (e.g., program observations) to convey information about school-age children with families. Data can help family members understand that the information you are sharing with them is based on instances where you observed and generated information in an organized manner, as opposed to sharing things based on your personal views or opinions. Along the same lines, invite family members to spend time volunteering in the program or encourage them to drop in to observe their school-age child in the program. This can help families understand the experiences their school-age child has as they navigate between home, school, and the school-age program.
Families will also help set the pace for their communication with you. It is important to acknowledge it can take time for families to feel safe, comfortable and friendly. Different forms of communication or ways of communicating can play an important role in easing the process. Using a combination of communication styles, or forms, with families might work best in meeting their needs. It’s also important to keep in mind there are likely to be a variety of factors that create challenges to communicating with families such as conflicting belief systems or overwhelming family problems and crises. Take a moment to think about and list a few of the barriers that you have faced when communicating and building relationships with families. The next part of this lesson covers two important strategies for communication: active listening and building partnerships with families.
Listening and Responding with Purpose
When working with others, you must practice active listening. Listen closely to truly understand an individual’s position, interests, or motivation. This shows that you are hearing and comprehending what is being said, but it also gives you the opportunity to ask questions and clarify information to ensure you are both on the same page.
According to the book, Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality, several strategies are crucial to active listening:
- Furthering responses. These are simple ways to let people know you are listening. Furthering responses include nodding your head, saying “Uh huh” or “What happened next?” and using the speaker’s words in brief encouraging statements.
- Restating the speaker’s message. This is also known as paraphrasing. You might say, “Let me see if I understand correctly…” and repeat what you heard in your own words.
- Reflecting the emotions of the speaker. An important part of communication is reading and reflecting emotions. You can show staff or family members that you are listening and connecting with them by reflecting their emotions back to them. Simple phrases like, “I can tell that really upset you…” or “I can see that really pleased you…” can encourage the speaker to continue sharing.
- Asking open-ended questions. “What” and “how” questions are powerful, nonjudgmental ways to encourage staff and family members to communicate with you. These questions indicate that you are engaged and actively listening. They also show that you want to hear the other person’s opinions. You might ask, “What happened with Sasha’s plan yesterday?” or “How is Davon doing with his asthma?”
- Summarizing the discussion. Any conversation should end with a summary and a plan. You might say, “So I heard you say…. Let’s review our next steps… .”
Being clear and purposeful are important to communicating effectively with others during a conversation or a family conference, when working with community partners, or while giving a presentation. As a school-age staff member, it is important for you to communicate effectively so that partnerships and relationships are established and maintained to support the children and youth. You will also serve as a model for these skills for school-age children and youth.
Communicating with Families: Creating Partnerships
When working with families of school-age children and youth, collaboration is essential to communication. You are working together towards the same goal of the child’s happiness and success. To achieve this goal, you must establish and maintain open lines of communication with all families. To be true partners in a child’s development, you will need to not only communicate on a regular basis, but work together effectively.
The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) identified the following national standards for family–school partnerships. As you read these standards, consider how you can create and maintain family partnerships in your school-age program.
Standard 1 : Welcoming all families into the program community—Families are active participants in the life of the program, and feel welcomed, valued, and connected to each other, to staff, and to what students are learning and doing in class.
Standard 2 : Communicating effectively—Families and program staff engage in regular, two-way, meaningful communication about children and youth’s learning.
Standard 3 : Supporting student success—Families and program staff continuously collaborate to support children’s learning and healthy development both at home and at the school-age program, and have regular opportunities to strengthen their knowledge and skills to do so effectively.
Standard 4 : Speaking up for every child—Families are empowered to be advocates for their own and other children and youth, to ensure that children and youth are treated fairly and have access to learning opportunities that will support their success.
Standard 5 : Sharing power—Families and program staff are equal partners in decisions that affect children and families, and together inform, influence, and create policies, practices, and programs.
Standard 6 : Collaborating with community—Families and program staff collaborate with community members to connect children and youth, families, and staff to expanded learning opportunities, community services, and civic participation.
While reading the PTA standards, you probably noticed a trend. Communication and family partnerships are two-way streets. Families and staff members need to work together in order to establish and maintain open lines of communication. There may often be barriers to maintaining communication between staff and families and you will find that the right time to speak to family members may vary from family to family. For example, it may not be the appropriate time to try to discuss something that happened that day at pickup, when a family member is in a hurry, or doesn’t have much time available. It is best to contact families in advance to more effectively discuss concerns or other topics. Choosing the right setting, time, and method of communication can strongly influence the outcome of your conversations with families. Consider these examples of ways to communicate with families (Council on Accreditation, 2015):
Guidelines for Communicating with Families
Treat families with respect
Support family involvement
Share information with families
Each program will have a variety of communication methods, both informal and formal. Depending on the situation or information being shared, you will need to determine which type of method is appropriate. If you are unsure, always check with your supervisor. Many of the communication methods described below are the responsibility of others (i.e., your manager, administrative team, etc.), but it is important to know about all the ways families receive information in your program.
Informal & Formal Communication Methods
Family information boards
Family Information boards provide updates and information for family members in a central location, often in lobby or a place parents pass frequently. Boards may contain schedules, menus, upcoming events, and general program news. This can also be a good spot to post parenting resources.
Informal daily conversations are the best way to discuss daily events, the child’s general progress, and ask if the family member has any questions, concerns, or requests.
A printed or digital newsletter contains general information that affects all families in the program. Generally, all staff members will contribute news to the publication. Family members and children and youth can also be involved by gathering information and writing articles about what is going on at the program. This is a good way to share a project the children and youth have worked on or tell families about an upcoming event.
A phone call to the family member may be necessary when informing them of a minor incident or injury, reminding them of a scheduled meeting or event, or when seeking specific information.
Email can be utilized similarly to informal phone calls as a means to inform family members of a minor incident or injury, to remind them of a scheduled meeting or event, or to seek specific information. (Check with your program’s email policy)
Individual conferences or group meetings
Formal communication methods, such as individual conferences or group meetings, should be planned with the purpose of providing specific and important information. When discussing a child’s behavior issues or other concerns you may have, it is important to remain positive and helpful. You are there to explain your concerns and provide assistance and resources to the family whenever possible
Some of these informal methods of communication are appropriate to use when there is general information for all parents to know, such as the schedule, policies, or upcoming events. Others, such as phone calls or emails, may be used to inform families of more private matters, such as minor incident situations involving their child or an overdue permission slip. Whenever possible, interactions between staff and family members should occur daily. Daily communication is the most effective way to keep the lines of communication open at your program. Informal communication methods should not be used to discuss major incidents, behavior issues, or developmental concerns. These types of issues should be addressed during more formal communications like conferences or group meetings. Check with your supervisor about your program’s policies for informally communicating with families and for arranging formal communication.
Working with school-age children and their families will require you to be responsible for sharing and gathering information on a daily basis. You will need to understand the basic methods of communicating, as well as how to remain appropriate and respectful at all times. A school-age program will also offer unique challenges when it comes to communicating with families, such as different parent pick-up/drop-off times, cultural differences, and language barriers. Don’t let those challenges become an excuse for lack of communication. Be creative in how you share and gather information with your families. Here are a few suggestions for how to do this:
- Review the documents families complete to enroll their child or youth in your program. What other documents are shared with families? How are these documents shared with families? Think about the ways these documents are connected to each child and youth’s and families’ strengths and fond memories, as well as how these documents capture required information.
- Use photos of children and youth throughout the program spaces. Use photos to capture accomplishments (like designing and launching rockets during a science project) and memorable moments (like reading outside on a sunny day). Posting photos of the children and youth personalizes your program and helps children and families feel like members of a community.
- Invite children, youth, and their families to welcome new families who enter the program.
- Talk with families everyday. Have simple conversations to make sure families feel welcomed and recognized.
- Invite family members to volunteer in your program or to share talents, special interests, or expertise.
- During arrival or dismissal times, show enthusiasm and welcome families as they drop off or pick up their children. Use these times as opportunities to communicate with family members and share brief comments about their children’s time in the program. Remember, it’s best to save longer conversations for meetings when families can focus their attention. Also, be sure to talk to your trainer, coach, or supervisor before sharing information about a child’s challenging behavior. This sets the stage for more positive interactions and encourages family members to maintain communication with you.
- Honor the complexity of family life. Different parents or family members may be responsible for picking up and dropping off their child on certain days. Blended families may have multiple custodial parents. Treat each family member with respect. Avoid treating one family member as the “real” parent: give everyone a warm greeting, remind everyone about upcoming events, and invite everyone to share their talents with the program.
- Connect with families that are culturally and linguistically diverse. Learn a few phrases in the families’ home language. Ask the family or the child/ youth to teach you how to say “Hello” and “Goodbye” in their language.
- Ask families how they would like to be addressed. The first time you meet, it is a good idea to confirm by saying something like, “May I call you Mrs. Baker or do you prefer Sgt. Baker, or Cathy?” If you’re unsure (or during first encounters), it is always best to use more formal forms of address like “Mr. Jones”, “ma’am”, and “sir.” With families’ permission, you may become comfortable with first names.
Think of times when you experienced effective communication with other adults. Then think about a time in which you did not experience effective communication. What factors contributed to effective or ineffective communication in each case? What were the best methods you used? How can these experiences help you communicate with families in your program?
Use the Thinking about Communication with Adults activity to write your thoughts about effective and ineffective communication as you facilitate open, two-way communication with the families in your program. When finished, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or supervisor.
It can be helpful for you to ask families about their communication preferences. This includes how they would like to be addressed. Download and print the Family Communication Sheet and use it as a resource to gather information from families in your program regarding their communication preferences.
Clay, S. G. (2005). Communicating with parents: Strategies for teachers. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ794819.pdf
Council on Accreditation (2019). Standards for Child and Youth Development Programs. Out-of-School Time. Family Connections. Retrieved from https://coanet.org/standard/cyd-ost/6/
National Standards for Family-School Partnerships. Retrieved from http://www.pta.org/programs/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3126
Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R., Erwin, E. J., Soodak, L.C., & Shogren, K. A. (2010). Families, Professionals, and Exceptionality: Positive outcomes through partnerships and trust, 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.