School system leaders can draw lessons from small pandemic learning communities to better support their students’ well-being and learning.
Building Effective Relationships with a Teacher-Family-Student Triangle
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust parents into a new role with their kids: helping them organize their days and weeks, tracking what assignments are due, and providing instructional, social-emotional, and technical support.
For schools to have effective working relationships with parents as co-teachers, they must look beyond the traditional teacher-student relationship, and they must manage the teacher-family-student triangle more closely than in the past. Family-school relationships have always been important, but now that parents are taking on new roles, collaboration and family support is paramount.
We interviewed 33 parents about their family-school relationships, including 7 of whom are also teachers. The 7 teacher-parents we interviewed shared insight into both the teacher and parent roles in this triangle.
The teacher-parents we spoke with told us that they have seen indicators of positive change. “I think this has honestly brought people closer together,” one told us. Relationships are stronger than ever before “because we [teachers] are not just seeing the student. We are seeing the students and the parents,” often together on a virtual call.
All parents—not just the teacher-parents—related the importance of collaboration and partnership with family, and how strong relationships are vital.
But what does it take for this to happen during a pandemic? What if these strong relationships were not already in place? What if communication breaks down and schools are not providing the support that families need? Parents need appropriate tools and support, predicated on good communication, if they are expected to be effective co-teachers. If schools do not provide support, parents will be overwhelmed and the triangle will break.
In CRPE’s nationally representative sample of districts, some—such as San Diego Unified School District—are family oriented and accessible. San Diego Unified has a “Parents as Partners” webpage that is geared specifically to parents and includes tips on how to support children at home, and resources for life skills and family culture, family support and basic needs, and parent and child wellness and self-care. It also includes a “Day in the life of” page, where parents and teachers share personal videos about their experiences with remote learning. San Diego Unified also has parent survival guides, checklists, and weekly Facebook Live updates.
More often, school and district websites lack key features, such as clearly outlined expectations for school, student, and family and training videos or other detailed support on topics like “remote learning expectations” and “how to navigate their child’s learning platform.” A better scenario is districts using a continuous feedback loop for families to understand what is working and where families need more support. Without clear information and support, families are left to figure things out on their own.
As schools plan for reopening, they must find ways to support families in new and creative ways. We offer some ideas for schools to consider:
Support teachers as they support families.
- Assign teachers to be mentors to parents. Teachers can check in on families regularly with the goals of identifying family needs, ensuring families feel like valued partners in their children's education, and that families receive needed support.
- Outline clear intervention strategies for teachers working with kids and families who are hard to reach. Schools should be clear on who is leading the efforts to contact families, what to do to reconnect with families when home visits are not possible, how to support students and families who did not participate in remote learning in the spring to help catch them up, and how to talk with families about their needs.
Provide direct support to families.
- Hold town halls for families so parents have a venue to ask questions of administrators, give feedback to schools, and build community when face-to-face, in-person interaction is not possible.
- Help parents share their talents and stay engaged with the school. Give them opportunities to volunteer virtually (offering a parent who is in a math profession to be a virtual guest on a math lesson, inviting parents to read books virtually to an elementary class).
- Conduct family surveys to identify barriers to student engagement (i.e., parents say their children have lost motivation due to lack of clarity in grading and attendance policies) and use the data to inform solutions. This spring some districts were using feedback from families to inform future phases of remote learning. But too many were not. As the year comes to a close, we see more family surveys being launched to help inform fall planning, and in some districts, parents are included in “reopening task forces.”
Encourage family-to-family support.
- Find ways for parents to share “best-practice stories,” similar to what San Diego Unified created with their “Day in the life of” web page. Schools could support online chat rooms for parents (e.g., virtual coffee hours) to casually engage and connect with the school community and other families.
- Create more intimate “buddy groups” among parents with a teacher as moderator, allowing parents to connect with each other—as if they were seeing each other in the school hallway and during drop off or pick up.
If the teacher-family-student triangle is managed well, a lot of good can come of this difficult situation. When communication between home and school is strong, and the teacher, student, and parents are all on the same page, families may feel more comfortable sharing their needs, will feel valued and supported, and may become more directly engaged in their children’s education.
Family-school partnership and student academic achievement are closely linked, and involving families in education leads to social and academic success. Families have a major influence on their children’s academic and social achievement. Because of the recent pandemic, the parents we interviewed reported an increased need and desire for school engagement. This is an opportunity for us to find new ways to bridge the gap between home and school, strengthening school communities, and helping families feel like valued partners in their children’s education.
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