- Teach staff members the importance of strong communication skills.
- Model good communication strategies with staff members and families.
- Observe and provide feedback on staff members’ communication with families, including during conferences or meetings with families.
The Importance of Communication
Positive communication is perhaps the most powerful tool that staff can use with families. Good communication helps to inform, reassure, and engage families. A single conversation, positive or negative, can set the tone for a family’s opinion of classroom staff, so it is essential to emphasize the importance of effective communication.
Positive communication and relationships with families help to build trust. Trust is an important part of helping to make sure that you (a) maintain partnership with families and (b) work as a team with families to help children meet their goals. Trust between families and staff makes parents feel good about the program and its ability to meet their child’s needs. In your role, you should prioritize creating and maintaining trust with all families.
Within your program, there should be a specific plan as to how to engage families throughout the year. Though families’ participation is voluntary, it is your job to make them feel welcome by actively encouraging involvement. Program activities should reflect families’ interests and motivate them to participate. Additionally, your program may have a family involvement committee. This committee is composed of family members who encourage communication and involvement with the goal of strengthening and supporting the well-being of children and families. This committee is a resource and asset to your program and the staff as families may discuss issues or concerns and suggest changes to improve family satisfaction and involvement. Refer to your program’s policies to determine your role in creating a plan to increase family involvement.
A strong partnership between staff and families is built on positive communication. Positive communication skills help to make sure that (a) accurate information is shared, (b) expectations are shared, and (c) trust is established. As a trainer or coach, you will need to help staff develop communication skills, which are especially important when concerns arise. There are two important things to consider when helping staff and families resolve concerns: the level of urgency of the concern and the ability of the people involved to communicate well. Even when the problem seems small, if families and staff are not able to communicate effectively, the problem can be difficult to resolve.
When issues come to your attention, you will need to gather as much information about the concern as possible, so you understand what the true problems are and how to support communication between those involved. You may need to meet with families, staff members, and administrators. A meeting with the family and staff members can allow everyone to share their feelings and agree on a plan for resolution.
When family members voice a concern that is not easily resolved, necessary paperwork must be completed. You will need to help staff learn how to complete this documentation and remind them of this responsibility when concerns arise. Classroom staff may need administrative assistance. Some staff members will be more likely to seek help than others, and it will be important for you to communicate appropriate times to bring a matter to your attention. You are in an important position to not only help resolve concerns between families and staff members, but also to help teachers gain skills to use in the future. When you have the opportunity to talk with staff members about a concern, help the staff member (a) process his or her emotions, (b) think about the family’s position on the matter, (c) think about the causes of any misunderstandings, and (d) to empathize with the child and family.
Finding the “Right” Time to Communicate with Families
Although communication with families should be ongoing throughout the year, you should help staff members understand the appropriate times for certain conversations with families. For example, imagine staff members are having discipline problems with a child. The staff members might feel it is appropriate to discuss this at pick-up time. This approach, however, does not allow the parents to prepare themselves for the conversation. Talk with staff members about planning ahead for difficult conversations: how will these conversations be planned? Where and when are they best to occur? Who will be involved? When staff members need to discuss serious issues with families, a formal discussion should be scheduled. This will maximize the likelihood that all parties will be satisfied with the outcome. Parents 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.
Conducting an Individual Conference
At times there will be a reason for staff members to have an individual conference with a family member. This may be to discuss a child’s development or behavior issues or just as a routine check-in. Whatever the reason, remaining positive and respectful are crucial for staff members to conduct conferences. Your role is to prepare staff members before conferences and to provide support throughout, in some cases you will be involved in the conference and in other cases, you will not be present. You should help staff members in the following ways:
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 staff members and the family members, which may make the family feel comfortable in discussing their child in the future.
You are a role model for staff. Your communication skills can make a difference in your program. Some things you can do to promote good communication include:
- Provide specific and factual information (example: I saw Pedro sitting quietly during circle time today!)
- Ask questions (example: Are you concerned about something?)
- Paraphrase (example: If I heard you correctly, you are worried that the other children aren’t treating Mia nicely.)
- Encourage the person to continue talking (example: Tell me more about what makes you think Ms. Jones doesn’t like Anthony.)
- Think about the person’s point of view (example: Think “This mother wants the best for her son even though I disagree with what she’s saying.”)
- Respect cultural and family communication differences (example: Ask a parent how, what, and with whom he or she wishes to communicate.)
It is important that you also model fair behavior when talking about families when they are not around. It is easy to become defensive or critical of others. It is also natural for staff members to want to “vent” about families to someone who will understand. But staff members should hear you speak positively about families to demonstrate your respect for families. Even though you may not agree with a family member’s behavior, or you may be frustrated with a family situation, speaking negatively about family does not help the situation. Instead, you can model empathy by talking about what the concerns are and what you are able to do to help.
Family members can experience a range of emotions about events or concerns related to their children’s experience, especially when families don’t trust staff members or when there is a problem with communication. Family members may feel powerless, or they may feel like they don’t have enough information to make good decisions. Differences in race, home language, or professional status between families and staff may make families feel undervalued or uncomfortable. Staff members may have a difficult time responding to a family member’s concerns and emotions. A situation like this might be an ideal time for you to model effective communication strategies like those you learned in the Communications course. Remember that emotions are a natural part of communication. Take a moment to recognize your own emotions. Is there anything about this situation that makes you feel particularly upset or uncomfortable? Do you feel protective over the staff member? Or do you feel frustrated because you feel that the staff member has created this situation? When you recognize your own emotions, you are better able to pause and reflect on the family member’s experiences. Next practice empathy: how might the family member be feeling? What aspects of love and care for their child are motivating the family member’s response? Finally, use the strategies you learned in Lesson 2 to navigate potential conflicts: Acknowledge that this is an emotional experience (“I see this is upsetting for you”), ask open-ended questions to learn about the family’s perspective (“It would help me to hear more about the changes you hope to see”), and seek common ground (“We all want what’s best for Kamaya, but it sounds like we have different ideas about what that looks like. Let’s think together about what’s working so far...”).
Families want to be engaged and involved in your program. Watch the following videos and think about the current ways that your program engages and involves families. In your role as a Training & Curriculum Specialist work with staff members and other program leaders in coming up with strategies to continually strengthen family engagement.
Staff members sometimes struggle to remain objective and fair with families. It’s not uncommon to vent sometimes. Read the statements in Reframing Activity: Communicating With Families and then describe what you would say and do to help staff members move toward supporting and communicating with families. Compare your responses to the answers provided.
Help staff members communicate with families. You can use or adapt the Family Inventory form to help staff members gather information and open lines of communication about families’ interests. You will also find the Tips for Conferences guide. Share it with staff members as they prepare to meet with families.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). Family life: Components of good communication. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Components-of-Good-Communication.aspx
Abrams, J. (2016). Hard conversations unpacked: The whos, the whens and the what-Ifs. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Abrams, J., & von Frank, V. A. (2013). The multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate, and create community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Aguilar, E. (2016). The art of coaching teams: Building resilient communities that transform schools. Jossey-Bass.
Aguilar, E. (2020). Coaching for equity: Conversations that change practices. Jossey-Bass.
Bumgarner, M. (2016). Working with school-age children, 2nd ed. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Childcare Technical Assistance Center (n.d.). Engaging families in out-of-school time program toolkit. https://childcareta.acf.hhs.gov/ncase-resource-library/engaging-families-out-school-time-programs-toolkit
Colorin Colorado (n.d.). Tips for parent-teacher conferences. http://www.colorincolorado.org/pdfs/tips/parent-tips_conferences_english.pdf
Derman-Sparks, L., LeeKeennan, D., & Nimmo, J. (2015). Leading anti-bias early childhood programs: A guide for change. Teachers College Press.
National Association for the Education of Young Children (2014). Principles of effective practice: Two way communication. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/topics/family-engagement/principles