Note: Shanna Honan is the Head of School at Chesapeake Montessori School where she directs school curriculum, administration, and teacher training in the Montessori tradition. In this post, Shanna is sharing a version of the presentation, “Parent Communication Made Easy: How to Build Rapport and Maintain Lasting Relationships with Parents” that she and teacher Betsy Gladen were invited to give at the American Montessori Society’s Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois.
This past March, Chesapeake Montessori School had an exciting opportunity to share insights, research, and expertise on the topic of parent communication at the American Montessori Society Annual Conference in Chicago. I was so thrilled to be joined by Betsy Gladen, one of our Children’s House teachers, who helped me put together our initial proposal to speak at the conference last year and celebrated with me when our proposal was accepted by the society in June.
In the nearly one year since concept to presentation, Betsy and I set out to collect as much information as we could on how best to help teachers build, grow, and nurture relationships between Montessori students and their families.
Because this relationship is so vital to children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual growth at a period in their lives where progress often happens rapidly at home and at school, we wanted to delve deeper into the many ways teachers can open these lines of communication and create a sense of community and belonging that helps both families and students thrive inside and outside of the classroom.
Understanding What Parents Want to Learn
Our presentation focused on parent communication from three different perspectives:
- The parent’s perspective
- The administrator’s perspective
- The teacher’s perspective
To get parents’ input, we sent out an anonymous survey to all the parents in the Chesapeake Montessori School community. We wanted to gather more information about the age of their child – were they toddlers, preschoolers, or elementary students? Did they spend their day in Children’s House? Since communication varies by level of education and the milestones that happen during these years, we wanted to be sure we were tailoring our insights in a way that was appropriate to each age group.
A few of the other questions we asked parents in this survey were:
- Do you receive a weekly communication email from your child’s teacher?
- Is this communication valuable?
- Would you like to see more, less, or the same amount of information you currently receive?
- If you want to receive more or less, what information would you like to be included?
At Chesapeake Montessori School, every teacher is required to send home a weekly communication – but the type of information within varies depending on the age group of the classroom.
In Children’s House, for example, our teachers send out general emails about what the class has been working on together. Parents might hear about what topics are being discussed in circle, such as parts of a plant or how photosynthesis works. The parents of younger children, however, are getting more individualized information about how their child is making friends, if they’re following the rules, and socializing, before sharing more about learning progress in letters and numbers.
Responses were different, depending on the child’s age and level of education.
While the parents of toddlers and preschoolers craved more information about their individual student, such as developmental milestones, day-to-day events, and socialization, elementary parents said they like to have more communication from specialty teachers, for example, in courses like Spanish. They wanted verification that homework and other assignments were being completed, and that the student – and the class – were working in harmony. For subjects like art, music, and physical education, they revealed that they wanted more of an understanding of the curriculum, what was being taught, and how students were absorbing that information. Parents of older students wanted to know more about their responsibility in helping their child learn, complete assignments, and applying daily lessons to life at home.
In addition to this survey being part of our research, we were pleased to realize that this provided a learning opportunity for us as administrators, to put a finger on the pulse of what parents wanted more of and how we could deliver that information to them.
Understanding How Parents Learn
After understanding the depth and type of information teachers should be sharing with parents according to student’s age group, we identified four different parent types based on the responses we received from our survey.
Betsy and I then developed parent “personas” to help teachers and administrators learn the best style of communicating, as well as the best information to communicate. We found that, in addition to understanding what parents wanted to learn, we had to understand how to deliver that information to them based on their style of communicating. We identified four of these personas:
The easygoing, approachable parent
These parents are easy to talk to and love to learn about how their child is doing in the classroom, however, it can be easy to cross a line between friendship and professionalism. These parents may want to be your Facebook friend, or text you about non-school related topics to know that you’re always available to them.
The always-on parent
These parents want to stay in the loop at all times, and thrive when they know they have control of the conversation. Teachers should provide these parents with an abundance of information and validate any concerns. Instead of binary, black-and-white phrases, these parents do better with suggestions, such as, “Have you ever tried ____?” instead of “You should really try _____.”
The sensitive or separation-anxious parent
These parents need to be treated the same way their children are – with love, care, and lots of positive reinforcement. Teachers should help them understand more about the classroom, what their child is active and involved in, and how they can play a role in extending their learning at home.
The reserved or hard to read parent
These parents are pleased when they’re the first to be approached with new information. Teachers should seek these parents out and begin opening the lines of communication through a common interest, ideally their child, which can help the teacher learn more about how to meet their needs based on what the parent reveals. Events, carnivals, and information night are the perfect opportunities to seek them out, pull them aside, and open up a conversation about their child.
By helping our audience in attendance understand and categorize parents by these four personas, we were able to talk them through specific phrases, conversation starters, and other relationship builders that would empower them to tailor their communication styles specific to each parent’s need.
Understanding What Makes Parents Feel Heard
The last piece of our presentation had to do with dialogue and how best to verbalize information to these specific parent types. Through roleplays and scripts, we helped the teachers and administrators in attendance learn the best ways of conversing with parents in order to exchange information about each child.
The most important piece of information that we wanted to share with our peers was how crucial it is to respond to parents from a place of curiosity and open heartedness, not a place of defense. If a teacher’s first reaction is defense, the only outcome is that two parties walk away hurt and angry with little room for resolve. However, if teachers approach parent conversations with a desire to improve, absorb, and know more about how to serve their students, the outcome is almost always positive.
Sympathizing with parents, for example, is one of the roleplays we conducted with our audience. This form of communicating instantly injects empathy into the conversation, and makes the parent feel heard and the child’s struggle acknowledged. Phrases like, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” “I’m so sorry he/she is going through that,” and “I’m so sorry they feel that way,” are all ways to remove opportunities for defensiveness on both sides, and begin to open a dialogue about how best to rectify the situation.
In our presentation, we noted how relaxed and approachable body language, empathetic facial expressions, positive tone of voice, and open-ended questions, such as “Tell me what he says when…”, “Does he act this way at home?”, and “Does she try to make friends in the neighborhood?” all get to the heart of the issue without putting parents on guard.
In all of our research and in our final presentation, Betsey and I wanted to drive home an important point: how we inform and respond to parents is based on the parent’s perception, not about our reality as teachers. For parents, their perception is the reality, especially when they have blind spots that we – as teachers and administrators – can often see, but they cannot.
By practicing transparency, empathy, and positive reinforcement, each parent will be better equipped to help teachers do more of what they do best: give students the rich set of skills they need to conquer the classroom and beyond.