by Chip Wood and Babs Freeman-Loftis
an adapted excerpt from Responsive School Discipline: Essentials for Elementary School Leaders, published in the
As educators, we know that communication between school and home is hugely important to a child’s success in school. When school leaders, teachers, and other school staff respect parents* and share information with them openly and frequently, parents are more likely to trust and work with the school to support their child’s learning.
Leading the effort to build strong, trusting relationships with parents is a crucial task for school leaders. Having good lines of communication with parents already in place can make a huge difference when a school is working on discipline issues. Here are some strategies school leaders can use to build positive relationships with parents at the beginning of the school year.
Examine your school’s beliefs about parents
Observe how adults at your school talk about and behave toward students’ families. Do their actions convey their belief that all parents want the best academically and socially for their children? Do they understand that the school has much to learn from parents about how best to teach their children? Do they appreciate families’ diverse backgrounds and cultures?
You can deliberately address staff’s beliefs about families by:
- Modeling respect for parents in your own speech and actions
- Holding conversations on the topic in staff meetings
- Reminding staff of parents’ positive intentions for their children
Send a letter before school starts
Reach out with a letter that welcomes families and conveys that the entire school community cares about their child’s success. Encourage teachers to send similar welcoming notes to their students’ parents. Teachers might introduce themselves and invite parents to share a few insights about their child. You can make this easier for teachers by supplying ready-made postcards or notecards that they can customize.
Keep reaching out
From time to time throughout the year, send additional letters to parents. Doing so will keep the lines of communication open and remind parents that your school cares about their child. In your letters, always extend an invitation to parents to share their opinions and concerns.
A couple of topics you might address:
- Academic and social growth achieved by the student body as a whole
- Schoolwide events and activities that support further academic and social growth
Encourage teachers to share positive news and invite parent input throughout the year. Support them by suggesting simple ways to connect with parents, such as quick phone calls or brief notes. (For more ideas, see "What’s One Way You Communicate With Parents?")
Schedule conferences during the first weeks of school
Holding conferences early in the year helps establish good communication and trust. The goal of these first conferences should be for teachers to start building a positive relationship with parents. Teachers should use this time to gather information that could help them teach each student well.
For instance, they might ask parents to share:
- Their hopes for their child’s year
- What their child likes or is good at
- Insights about how their child learns best
- Family hobbies or special skills they could share with the class
Listen to parents
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this point. When school adults listen, parents feel respected and known, and the school gets important information. All of this paves the way for successful school-home collaboration on discipline issues and other matters.
Whenever you meet with parents, aim to listen more than you talk, and advise teachers to do the same. You might also consider a time-honored idea: the suggestion box. Placing suggestion boxes at key locations throughout the building (front lobby, main office, family resource room, etc.) gives parents a low-pressure way to communicate their ideas and concerns.
Talk about your school’s approach to discipline
The better parents understand your school’s discipline approach, the more fully they can help support positive school behavior in their children. Plan to communicate frequently—and leave plenty of room for questions. For example:
Describe how expected behaviors are taught
First, name the goals of your school’s discipline approach and its schoolwide rules. Then highlight the practices that school adults use to support children in choosing and maintaining positive behaviors. For example, if your school uses Responsive Classroom practices such as interactive modeling and positive teacher language, you could mention those. Describe how teachers use community-building practices in classrooms, and how those practices are extended throughout the school.
Explain how staff responds to misbehavior
Give parents an overview of your school’s responses to misbehavior. Here are a few points you might want to emphasize:
- The immediate goal is to stop the misbehavior so that the learning environment remains safe, caring, and supportive.
- Consequences aim not to punish, but rather to help the student regain composure, repair any damage to relationships or property, and return to productive learning.
- Preserving the child’s dignity is always a top priority.
Use various methods of communication
Highlight key aspects of your school’s discipline work at PTA/PTO meetings and publish an overview of your school’s approach to discipline in the parent handbook. (See a sample of such an overview from the book Responsive School Discipline.)
In addition, look for less formal communication opportunities throughout the year. For example, Matt Miller, principal of Roundtown Elementary in York, Pennsylvania, holds coffees where he and parents converse about aspects of school discipline. You might also write short articles about discipline in your school newsletter.
Varying your means of communication helps avoid subjecting parents to information overload. You’re also more likely to reach parents with different preferred ways of receiving information if you use a few different ways of communicating.
Communication with parents will help ensure effective discipline in your school. As a leader, it’s up to you to model good communication, get it going early in the school year, and keep it going all year long.
* About the term “parent”
Students come from a variety of homes and family structures. Many children are raised by grandparents, siblings, other relatives, and foster parents. “Parent” is used here to refer to and honor anyone who is the child’s primary caregiver.
Chip Wood has been an elementary school teacher, principal, district curriculum director, and teacher educator during his forty-year career in education. A co-founder of Northeast Foundation for Children, Chip is the author of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14 and Time to Teach, Time to Learn: Changing the Pace of School.
Babs Freeman-Loftis taught elementary physical education for fourteen years before moving into administration as an assistant principal for nine years. She now provides coaching and consultations to schools and districts using the Responsive Classroom approach. She is co-author of The Responsive Classroom Assessment handbook.
What is Responsive School Discipline?
Responsive School Discipline is an approach to creating a school climate that enables optimal academic and social growth in students. Just as teachers use the discipline practices of the Responsive Classroom approach to support children’s positive behavior and productive learning in their classrooms, school leaders use the Responsive School Discipline approach to ensure that positive behavior and productive learning take place throughout the school.
Bring positive behavior to your school. Two experienced administrators offer practical strategies for creating a positive school climate, reducing problem behaviors, and building behavior management skills. Each chapter of Responsive School Discipline: Essentials for Elementary School Leaders targets one key discipline issue and starts with a checklist of action steps. For comprehensive discipline reform, go through the chapters in order. For help with a particular challenge, go right to the chapter you need.
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