The Parent-School Partnership: Optimizing Relationships and Building Understanding
January 31, 2023
Parents and teachers are like shift workers on the same job. At school, we see that students are best supported when parents and teachers are a team, coordinating to promote the social, emotional, and intellectual development of children. This isn’t an optional part of our role; for educators to have the utmost impact on students, we need to involve the parents.
And yet, while teachers and administrators are extensively trained, we receive almost no training that prepares us to partner with parents. Most of us went into education because we wanted to help young people grow and flourish, but we quickly discovered this means working with parents as well. Some of us engage with parents easily; others find the parent-school partnership elusive. Without this critical alliance, the gap widens between home and school, complicating our efforts and frustrating parents.
Over several years, I collaborated with family therapist and school consultant Sheri Glucoft Wong to write Raising Kids: Your Essential Guide to Everyday Parenting. I was motivated largely because I realized my own strengths and limitations in forging relationships with parents, and in helping my colleagues to do so. I met Sheri in 2013 when we recruited her to Almaden Country Day School (CA) to address a challenging parent issue; she’s been a regular consultant and parent educator for us ever since. In our shared efforts over the years, I saw that intentionally strengthening relationships with parents had a direct and positive impact on the shared purpose and community among teachers and parents schoolwide.
That said, it takes perpetual effort to build better bridges between home and school, with new relationships forming every year. The parent-school partnership must be deliberately nurtured; teachers are on the front lines of this effort.
Moving From “Us-Them” to “We”
The parent-teacher relationship frequently defaults to an “us-them” posture. There also can be a “blame-the-messenger” dynamic, making teachers wary about sharing student concerns with parents. And while teachers are confident about addressing the many challenging ways kids sometimes behave, most are likely to be derailed by discontented parents. Learning how to transform the “us-them” mindset into a “we” perspective is key to building a bridge between parents and school.
Let’s say a teacher’s report makes parents feel their child is misunderstood, and they ask to meet with administration to voice concerns about the teacher. Rather than seeing this situation as conflict mediation, school leaders can use the opportunity to build the partnership—helping ensure teachers share useful observations, while coaching parents on the benefits of learning how their children are viewed at school.
When parents and teachers are encouraged to collaborate in this way, parents can better connect the image their child is creating at school with the kid they know at home. It is very common for children to behave differently in each setting, responding to two distinct sets of situations, expectations, and dynamics. Helping parents and teachers discover shared perspectives builds a sense of teamwork; then, they’re collectively enabled to give children the support they need for their school days to go well. However, this partnership requires common goals and mutual understanding that teachers as well as parents may need to be coached to recognize.
On the flip side, parents are sometimes the last to know about wonderful capacities their children possess; teachers need to tell them. When parents get feedback that seems so positive it is unrecognizable—”Your child is really cooperative!” (or industrious, or enthusiastic)—it might signal the child’s getting something in the school setting that encourages positive behavior: more clarity, consistency, or structure, for example. Parents appreciate knowing this, and it helps build rapport with teachers.
The partnership also depends on parents understanding their role in their child’s school life. Fundamentally, as we explain in Raising Kids, home is the training ground for being in the world. When parents can shape an environment at home that provides social-emotional skills children need in school—following directions, taking turns, overcoming setbacks—their children are much more likely to have a positive school experience.
When parents are uncertain or confused about their role at school and become over-involved or under-involved in their children’s school life, however, it complicates the partnership. As we say in the book, “School is your children’s world away from home, so your involvement there needs to be right sized and well placed: not too much and not too little, enough to be supportive without getting in their way of finding their own way.”
Building the Partnership: Steps for Schools
Administrators must commit to building a partnership-focused school community and instructional program that both expects and supports parent-teacher teamwork. Just as school leaders can help teachers become more attuned to parents’ circumstances, viewpoints, and needs, they can help parents value teacher expertise and perspectives. In this way, teachers grow more comfortable collaborating with parents, and parents become more open to observations (along with concerns and suggestions) teachers share. When parents are primed to be receptive to teachers, they’re less inclined to see teacher feedback as criticism and more likely to accept teachers as partners in supporting their children’s well-being.
Parent education topics that hone parenting practices to support children’s growth, enrich homelife, and better position kids to prosper at school include communication, setting limits, supporting self-reliance, resilience, social development, and more. Meanwhile, teacher professional development takes different forms, ranging from direct coaching about approaches for parent conferences, to workshops centered on improving communication with parents, to trainings specifically focused on building the parent-school partnership in a particular school community.
Some of the work we’ve enlisted Sheri to lead with teachers and parents at Almaden Country Day School includes:
Building teacher communication skills. Workshops focus on ways teachers can approach difficult conversations with parents—leading with empathy, sticking to observations, inviting parents’ insights, and more—to help develop teacher confidence and enable more frequent, effective, and collaborative communication with parents. As a result, our teachers now have a “communication toolkit” they regularly use to facilitate productive parent calls and conferences.
Further, we’ve shaped a faculty culture in which administrative coaching and consultation is embedded. Teachers know that reaching out for support and skill building to manage challenging kids and parents is considered a professional strength. Administrators have grown more confident in the ability to offer support that teachers find useful and effective.
Supporting parents to develop as their children develop. We’ve learned we must help parents by understanding and reinforcing their emerging capacities as parents of school kids. We provide parent education workshops on a variety of topics, as well as articles and other resources. Fundamentally though, we strengthen our relationships with them by supporting them. We seek to ensure parents feel seen and heard, and that we understand the anxiety behind their complaints and the needs underlying their demands, whether the topic is academic, social, or anything else.
Bringing parents into the partnership. In our orientation for new families, parent education events, newsletters, and other outreach, we repeat several key messages. Teachers work with kids of the same age group year after year and become field experts on specific childhood developmental stages, and parents are the experts when it comes to who their children are as individuals. Parents can help teachers know their children, and teachers can help parents appreciate what attitudes, outcomes, academic skills, and social behaviors are in range at this childhood stage.
Central to educating children is building a sense of school community. The bedrock of that community—the foundation for supporting students—is based on relationships we shape between parents and school staff. As educators we devote ourselves to building connections with students as we motivate, teach, and advise them. By also acquiring skills to create rapport and strengthen our communication with parents, we build a partnership embodying our shared commitment to help their children thrive at school.
Olaf Jorgenson and Sheri Glucoft Wong will be presenting a workshop, “Getting on the Same Side: How to Optimize the Parent-School Partnership,” at the 2023 NAIS Annual Conference, February 22–24, in Las Vegas. See the conference lineup at annualconference.nais.org.
Olaf Jorgenson is head of school at Almaden Country Day School in San Jose, California.