- Identify methods for making family members feel welcome within their child’s program.
- Recognize effective practices for communicating with family members.
- Discuss reasons to communicate with families.
Communicating with others can be both simple and complex at the same time. Have you ever been surprised that someone misunderstood a message you thought you had communicated quite clearly?
Communication between school-age program staff members and families occurs during daily hellos and goodbyes, as well as in more formal activities such as family meetings. All of these opportunities require you to be aware of many of the family’s characteristics, 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 and respectful of families. Families will be eager to know how their school-age child is doing, and you can support comfortable communication by offering encouraging responses and asking for clarification if something is not understood.
Importance of Communicating with Families
Communication is key to creating family partnerships. Family members must feel comfortable asking questions, seeking information, and raising concerns about their child’s care, well-being and development. It is good to be friendly, professional and helpful when working with family members. A relationship between a staff member and a family member should remain professional and always revolve around the child.
Communication is unique in school-age programs because of the limited interactions between staff members and family. Some children may arrive or depart your program by school bus, bike, or on foot. This means you might not always have the opportunity to speak directly to a family member each day. To ensure that communication needs between yourself and the families are met, you will need to be creative in your communication methods.
Ways of Communicating 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 method is most appropriate. If you are unsure, always check with your trainer, coach, or supervisor.
Informal Communication Methods
Some examples of informal communication methods include:
These informal methods of communication are appropriate to use when there is general information of which all family members should be aware, such as the schedule, policies, or upcoming events. Phone calls or e-mails may be used to inform families of situations involving their child (such as an overdue permission slip). Whenever possible, interactions between staff and family members should occur daily. This is the first way to keep lines of communication open at your program. Informal communication methods should not be used to discuss major incidents, behavior issues, or developmental concerns.
Formal Communication Methods
Some examples of formal communication methods include:
Formal communication methods should be planned with the purpose of providing specific and important information. Schedule formal meetings at times that work best for families. Do not spring difficult information upon families at inconvenient times, such as during pick-up. When discussing a child’s behavior issues or other concerns you may have, it is important to remain positive, respectful, and helpful. You are there to explain your concern and provide assistance and resources to the family whenever possible.
The following are tips on how to effectively communicate with families during formal meetings:
Be prepared and organized
- Have specific examples, documentation and photographs available.
- Parents are busy, being organized helps keep the meeting on track and makes it worthwhile and meaningful.
- Try to anticipate questions parents may have and bring the appropriate resources.
Use the “Sandwich Approach”
- When sharing difficult information with parents, it is best to “sandwich” it between two pieces of positive information about their child.
- Be an active listener.
- Express that you are on a team with the goal being the child’s success.
- Don’t engage in arguments.
- If there is a disagreement, move on and discuss the situation with your supervisor afterwards.
Leave the meeting open-ended
- Let family members know that you are always available.
- Make sure family members have a variety of ways to contact you such as in person, by phone, or by e-mail.
- If the situation is ongoing, such as a behavior problem, set up a conference in the future to check the child’s progress.
The family conference is a great way to strengthen the family partnership. It gives family members personal attention and allows them to freely discuss their child’s development, progress, difficulties or successes. A positive family conference will create a bond between you and the family members, which may make the family feel comfortable in discussing their child in the future.
If appropriate, invite the child to be a part of the conference. Sometimes, having the child present will give you a better understanding of the family dynamic. It will also make the child feel responsible for their own actions and give them more ownership over the situation.
Finding the “Right” Time to Communicate with Families
Although communication with families should be ongoing throughout the year, you should understand the appropriate times for certain conversations with families. For example, imagine you are having discipline problems with a child. You might feel it is appropriate to discuss this at pick-up time with the family. This approach, however, almost guarantees that the parent will shut down the conversation. He or she is tired and unprepared for the discussion. You should plan ahead for difficult conversations: how will this conversation be planned? Where and when is it best to occur? Who will be involved? When you need to discuss serious issues with families, a formal discussion should be scheduled with your trainer, lead, or supervisor. This will maximize the likelihood that all parties will be satisfied with the outcome. Parent will feel respected and able to prepare in an environment that focuses on outcomes and collaboration. This kind of outcome cannot occur at the end of the day during pick up. See the handout, Sharing Concerns with Families, for additional ideas and resources.
Creative Communication Methods
School-age programs offer unique communication challenges. As children grow, the need for communication between families and staff members changes. Unlike care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, once children enter school, the communication between staff and family members becomes less frequent and often only happens when there is a problem. Part of your role is to bridge the gap between staff and families in school-age programs by using a combination of traditional communication methods and also creative, outside the box methods. Here are some examples of creative communication methods:
- Communication journals:
A physical journal or online journal that allows family members to share information or photographs of their home life, such as a vacation or deployment experience. These journals can be shared among family members to help create a bond between families or passed back and forth between staff and families to share or seek information.
- Online discussion groups:
Use an online forum to allow communication between yourself and families. This should be used for group information only, not information specific to one child. You should also check with your trainer, coach, or supervisor for any regulations regarding internet use.
Using an online blog to communicate the program’s activities with families is a fun way to share photos, activity plans and other information. Again, check with your coach, trainer, or supervisor for any regulations regarding internet use.
Watch the following videos about communicating with family members in a school-age program. In this first video, you will hear a parent and a staff member talk about communication. The second video illustrates the importance of communicating about the care of children and youth and suggests methods to do so. In the final video, you will hear from a training and curriculum specialist on creative communication.
Familiarizing yourself with a variety of communication methods will set you up for success. Remember to always be available for families to offer support, guidance, information or just to lend an ear.
- Create a welcoming environment for family members by being kind, respectful and professional at all times.
- Communicate with families each day through informal and, when necessary, formal methods.
- Plan opportunities for family partnerships throughout the year.
- Get creative when it comes to communicating. Don’t let a family slip through the cracks just because you don’t see them every day.
Communicating with family members is the first step in creating family partnerships. View and complete the Communication Activity and complete the table. Share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Creative communication is essential in school-age programs. View and complete the Creative Communication Methods: Brainstorming activity. Complete the questions and share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Staples, K. E. & Diliberto, J. A. (2010) Guidelines for Successful Parent Involvement. Teaching Exceptional Children. 42(6): 58-63.
Mayer, E. & Kreider, H. (2006) Improve Family Engagement in After-School Programs. OurChildren Oct/Nov.