Often the relationships that develop between parents and teachers are negative. On the teachers’ side of the relationship, Ellen Galinsky (1989) notes that in the teachers’ lounge parents are often spoken of negatively; if the word “black” or “woman” were substituted for “parent,” many of the comments would seem racist or sexist. On the parents’ side of the relationship, many parents enter school assuming that teachers will ignore their concerns and alienate them from the classroom. This article will focus on four main topics: 1) why the family-teacher relationship is important, 2) the barriers to a better relationship that require attention, 3) valuable methods of communication, and 4) how teachers may embrace differences among families.
Importance of the Family-Teacher Relationship
Family-teacher relationships can be complex and include many different areas such as the teacher’s relationships with the children; the teacher’s relationships with the children’s families; the teacher’s relationships with colleagues; and the teacher’s relationship with the community. Often, early childhood teachers attend only to their relationships with the children. Yet, our ability to teach children expands past the children and includes family, colleagues, and our own community. By involving all of these components we create a rich environment for our children and serve as models for the children to create positive relationships with other people.
Family-teacher relationships are essential for learning about the children from an additional and valuable source, promoting children’s emotional health, and helping children deal with difficult problems that may have lifelong consequences.
Learning About the Children From an Additional and Valuable Source
Families and teachers each have unique knowledge about a child. How will the teachers and families see the “whole child” if they never hear the unique perspective that only the other can provide? Lillian Katz defines seven distinctions between the mother and the teacher that are beneficial for the child (Carew, et. al., 1980). For example, the parent unconditionally loves the child as an individual, but the teacher gets a chance to view the child in terms of a whole group.
Promoting Children’s Emotional Health
Gonzalez-Mena (2000) reminds teachers that when children come to school, it is important that the child does not lose her own culture while becoming part of the mainstream culture, since cultural identity and family connectedness are crucial for emotional health. How will teachers of young children learn about the children’s family and culture if there is no relationship with the families?
Helping Children Deal with Difficult Problems that May Have Lifelong Consequences
When there is a secure relationship between the family and teachers, they may inform one another; this information may have lifelong effects on the child. For example, children that are sexually abused need many adults in their world looking for indicators and providing support. Good (1996) shows how parents and teachers might work together on a difficult issue such as this. She outlines for teachers a multitude of references that they may provide to parents.
Barriers to Positive Family-Teacher Partnerships
A number of issues need to be addressed so a family-teacher partnership can be formed. Some common obstacles to a better partnership include:
- Differences in backgrounds. The family and teacher come from different cultures, languages, and socio-economic statuses.
- Stress. There is stress for both families and teachers. For example, long hours and little flexibility at work reduce the time available for teachers to work on family communication and for parents/caregivers to relate to school.
- Differing Values. The family and teacher lack a mutual set of values.
- Differences in viewing roles. Differing views of the role of the school for the child between the teacher and the parent or caregiver.
- Types of experiences. Prior experiences with families/teachers have set up differing expectations.
- Notions of openness. Lack of openness to outsiders entering their territory (home or school).
- Differences in experiences. A parent’s experience in school (positive or negative) sets up some expectations for their own interactions with school/teacher for their own child.
- Communication abilities. Teachers or families lack the ability to identify and communicate key experiences, ideas, or issues.
- Communication discomfort. Families or teachers are uncomfortable about communicating their needs, or do not have enough fluency in the language.
- Need to feel valued. Parents and teachers perceive that their perspective and opinions are not valued.
- Differences in viewing child’s needs. The school views the child (her learning and development) differently than the family does. The school’s philosophy differs from the family’s view of appropriate child rearing. For example: The family equates teaching with telling, and the teacher equates learning with doing. Or, behavior issues are handled one way at home and another at school (spanking at home, explaining at school). When the school clearly explains philosophy, families get a better sense of the match between home/school expectations.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to address each of these issues individually, teachers should be alert to these issues to help them readily recognize potential blocks to productive home/school relationships when they come into play. Once the teacher is aware that this is happening, the communication techniques described in the rest of this article can help.
Valuable Methods of Communication
Berger (2000) describes two major categories of communication between teachers and families—two-way communication and one-way communication. Two-way communication occurs when there are interactions between parents and teachers that go both ways. One-way communication occurs when the school informs the family of something.
Interactions between schools and families should be continuous and ongoing. The most valuable interactions are those that go in both directions—teachers learn from parents and parents learn from teachers (Galinsky, 1989). These two-way interactions make sense. Both teachers and parents are concerned about a child’s growth and development. It makes sense that teachers and parents would work together in the best interest of the child.
When incorporating two-way communication in your program, it is important to remember that not all parents can come to the school at a prescribed time for a conference. A mother or father, for instance, may have difficulty taking time off work or may lack the transportation to make a mid-day visit. It is critical that parent-teacher meetings and other events have flexibility. Parents care about their children, and they usually want to participate in their child’s education. They may just need the school to be a bit more accommodating. Surveying the parents can be very helpful in determining when families can meet and what types of meetings they would find beneficial. Turnout is always stronger when teachers listen to the parents and schedule events according to the information gathered from the survey. Among the types of two-way communication that teachers have found helpful are:
1. Email. If the parents have access to a computer, email can be a very fast and easy form of communication. Surveys sent via email are easy for parents to complete and return.
2. Phone conversations. When a teacher calls home, parents immediately think there is bad news. It is helpful if teachers take the time to call with good news about each child within the first few months of school.
3. Leaving recorded messages. Parents should know that they can call and leave messages for their child’s teacher. Teachers should establish when messages will be returned (e.g., emergencies will be attended to first, all other messages will be responded to within 24 hours) to help make communication priorities clear.
4. Personal visits. Sometimes it is helpful to visit a family on their “turf.” However, it is critical that families are told the purpose of the visit. You might say, for example, “Mrs. Smith I would like to visit Sarah in her home surroundings. I think Sarah would feel more comfortable learning about me in a familiar and comfortable setting.” For those parents who do not wish to have a teacher in their home, suggest alternate places for these visits, such as a local park, a favorite restaurant, or grandparent’s home.
5. Group visits. Taking field trips to family members at work/home communicates to parents that getting to know families is an important part of the agenda for the teacher, the school, and the other children. The effort of the visit is often rewarded with additional positive feelings about the school valuing the family, and positive feelings from the child about the importance of her family.
6. Opportunities for family members to be part of the classroom. Volunteers and visitors in the classroom build a sense of community. When this method is used, it is essential that teachers communicate the expectations before the visit by giving specific invitations such as offering parents the opportunity to have lunch with their child.
7. Social events. Invite families and school personnel to get to know each other in a social setting such as a breakfast event. The provision of food and child care promote attendance, since these make the event less taxing on the parents and caregivers. Teachers should look for creative ways to make the event as useful as possible to those invited. For instance, the event could be held on a day when the school washing machine would be available for use, if this is something the population needs.
8. Parent-teacher conferences. In the book, Parent-Teacher Conferencing in Early Childhood Education, Lawler (1991) gives teachers suggestions for dealing with different situations, different types of families, and different models for these meetings. Traditionally, these meetings consisted of the teacher telling the parent how the child is doing in school. It is essential, however, that parents’ concerns are heard during these meetings.
Although two-way communication is essential, one-way communications can also play a role. Parents are excited to hear about what is going on at school, even when this communication is one-way. The joy of learning about classroom activities was clearly communicated by one kindergarten parent, Irene Hannigan (1998) who referred to her first newsletter from her child’s teacher as a “gold mine.” Thoughtful communication helps parents know what the school’s expectations are and gives them some notion of what is happening in their children’s classrooms. Thus, the classroom does not exit as a partitioned part of a child’s life. The following are some examples of effective one-way communication provided by Berger (2000):
1. Newsletters. Newsletters can include items such as quotes from children, children’s artwork, book suggestions for families, words to songs or finger plays, photos showing what the children are doing, recipes, and calendars.
2. Handbooks. Parents should have a copy of the school policies clearly outlined. Having handbooks in languages appropriate for the families (or even on audiotape) helps to reduce misunderstandings, such as when a child is too sick to be at school and why.
3. Family bulletin board. Teachers can use bulletin boards to post pictures of what occurred at school that day. Other examples include displays with photos of all children and their families or perhaps displays that also include teachers and their families.
4. Notes. Notes from the teacher may be formal or informal. Why not send artwork home with captions, child’s words, or other information that give context to the piece?
Embracing Differences among Families
When the teacher and parents share the same culture, there is a greater chance of understanding the nuances of a situation and understanding the significance of unspoken interactions with parent and child. Thus the interactions with the child in the classroom contain less of the potential threat of misunderstanding or misinterpretation (Lightfoot, 1978). Many of the basic goals of parenting are common across all cultures and classes, with differences only in emphasis or the means of attaining these goals (Caruso and Fawcett, 1986).
Many teachers are female, white, and middle class, while many of their students are not. This reality may or may not provide schools and teachers with additional challenges to overcome in finding common ground on which to base relationships. This section will give three suggestions for early childhood teachers: 1) Realize diversity is an issue worthy of attention; 2) Ask the parents for help; and 3) Develop appropriate curriculum.
Realize Diversity Is an Issue Worthy of Attention
Classroom populations are becoming more diverse. Hildebrand, Phenice, Gary, & Hines (2000) show that there has been a steady increase by major ethnic and racial groups (they document the increase among Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians) in the last twenty years.
As Gonzalez-Mena notes, “Culture is learned very early, and early childhood theoreticians and practitioners can’t afford to ignore this fact” (p. 9). Thus, the importance of Slavin’s recommendations to educators (1997) regarding dealing with inequities is significant. He advocates that children begin learning about different cultures as early as possible, and that their teachers remember that all the children come to school with promise.
Ask Parents for Help
Caruso and Fawcett (1986) stress the efforts of parents as valuable resources. Parents can share their own cultural heritage with children or with staff in a variety of ways, and can also be involved in helping to solve problems stemming from differences. Multicultural education helps children, parents, and teachers learn.
Teachers that have families in their classroom that differ in culture and ethnicity, and who speak a second language, need to view these differences as beneficial in that they help teach children about diversity. As Scherer (1999) states, the fact that schools today mirror the world, a multicultural, multiethnic world, children will live in as adults, should give us hope for erasing inequities. Parents can help teachers construct “stronger mirrors.”
Develop Appropriate Curriculum
Pictures and posters displayed on the walls (often with Caucasian features) in “traditional outfits” do not teach children about cultural and ethnic differences. These displays don’t accurately portray the diverse populations in the classroom or in our society. We must address Janet Gonzalez-Mena’s (2000) question “What does it do to people who are different from me to have those differences ignored?”(p. 8)
For example, in the writing area, it is common for teachers to post pictures of houses or houses drawn by the teachers, themselves, for inspiration. Most often the houses are the “traditional” type, with a square body, triangular roof, a few windows, and a chimney on top. How does this picture of a house include children that are homeless, live in apartments, or live in shelters? Drawing houses is a fine activity, but the activity could be extended to being more inclusive of differences. Welihousen (1996) shows how teachers may obtain background information about children’s homes and build a social studies unit that helps children understand that there is no one right place to live.
Family-teacher relationships are vital for the optimal care of children. They help strengthen adult’s knowledge, build children’s emotional health, and provide more support systems for children. Successfully building positive relationships with parents requires that teachers take note of barriers and utilize a variety of communication techniques to overcome them. It is through communication that acceptance of others occurs. We advocate that teachers need to make a paradigm switch from seeing families as annoying (or even obstacles) to seeing them as partners in the education of their children. As teachers welcome families and their experiences into the classroom, it becomes a richer place for everyone.
Amy Sussna Klein, Ph.D., is president of ASK Education Consulting. She can be reached by email atAskeducation@cs.com.
Marian Miller, M.Ed.,is a faculty member at Lesley College.
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