Communication with parents is a two-way street

08/21/2013  |  By DR. JONI SAMPLES
Administrator Resources

The “Encarta” dictionary defines communication in part as: an exchange of information, a message, rapport. As I look at the definition, it sounds very much like a two-way engagement, a conversation, a two-way street.

We educators often take a one-way street approach to communication with parents. We know what we want to say. We’re familiar with the language we’re using. We can clearly express the thoughts we have, and we do so either verbally or in writing. However, we may be surprised when what we’re so clearly communicating is misunderstood or not heard at all. It’s easy to get frustrated with those on the other side of the communication, the parents. Why don’t they “get it?” What you said was very clear.

Yes, it is clear to those who understand “educationese” and who are interested in what you have to say. I speak “educationese” well, so if you tell me you want at IEP (Individual Education Plan) for my son for consideration of a RSP (Resource Specialist Program) to help with English Language Arts vocabulary and comprehension, I will understand what you’re saying. To say that I’d be interested is putting it mildly. I may have a great deal to say about what you’re proposing, especially if this is the first time I’ve heard about some of the issues. For a parent who doesn’t speak “educationese,” your message could be ignored from lack of understanding, or you may get a very strong reaction with a great deal of interest, but again, little understanding of what is involved. We then began to believe they’re just not interested.

I would like to propose that the reason you might not be hearing from parents is not from lack of interest on the part of the parent about their child. I have led hundreds of parent workshops and talked to thousands of parents over the years. I have yet to talk with a parent who isn’t interested in their child’s success. Often they don’t know how to help and when I look more closely, the parent may be going in a totally different direction down a different street than I am. She’s headed for the mall while I’m headed for the university. The child and the parent are off to the ball field, and I’d like them at the library.

So what can be done to create a different scenario, one in which communication is clear, one in which there is an exchange of information, and one that leads to learning for a child? We talk in education about building capacity. Often we think about building the capacity of the parents. In this case I’d like to address building the capacity of teachers and parents to communicate clearly with each other. One of the techniques I like to use to work for communication both at a staff level as well as with parents is a modification of a system called “Compassionate Communication from Words Can Change Your Brain.”* The steps are relatively simple.


We educators multi-task — doing all kinds of activities at once — watching Susie tie her shoe, making sure Jimmy doesn’t take the fish out of the fishbowl again, and checking for everyone’s lunch ticket. We’re good at juggling. We have to be. However, when having a conversation watching Susie, the clock, and your conversation partner at the same time is self-defeating. Relax. Enjoy the time together. The other stuff will get done when you can turn back to it.

Let’s say you’re having a parent conference day. This is your fourth parent in the last hour that you want to talk with about reading skills and this one could be tough. This child may even need special assistance. Take a breath. Relax. Think about how well this boy, Jason, is doing in class. Think of the things he’s learned in the last few months. Know that this is going to be a good conference session. Remind yourself to relax. Relax. Now meet with the parent. It will go a lot better when you’re at ease.

Stay Present

Be aware of where you are and what’s happening right now. It’s hard not to bring up the fight on the playground yesterday or the play production next week, yet this time is the only moment for this discussion about the topic at hand. Stay focused on the moment and the topic.

You’re talking about reading and the conversation is about Jason. It’s not about Susie or the last parent session. It’s about Jason and what he is doing now. Yes, he was struggling the last time you met, but now he’s gotten most of those sight words. How can we work together so he’ll learn those last words? Share what you’re doing to help Jason. Ask what mom is doing to help? What else might you both be doing? Focus on what’s happening now.

Cultivate Inner Silence

The voice in your head is always telling you something. I’m sure you’ve heard it, “She forgot to close the door when she came in. Pink doesn’t look good on her. I wonder if we’ll be through with this before lunch. I’m getting hungry and there’s not much time ...” The voice will go on and on. When you can create a silence, you can begin to hear the other person as well as what you are really thinking about the topic at hand. Although we won’t get that far in this article, the last step in this series is to listen deeply. You can’t listen to the other person or yourself if you are allowing the voice to speak.

Jason needs the sight words as well as comprehension skills. What are the best ways to help Jason get those skills? You know the answer. Listen for it. Listen to yourself because the answer is in your awareness. The answer is in your understanding of Jason and of learners like Jason. Listen in the silence of your mind for the answer to help him. Share what you know with his mom.

Increase Positivity

I’ve had more than one person resist this one. I believe one of the responses was something like, “You mean I have to do that happy crap?” Yes, because it works. If I am thinking negative thoughts about anything and especially about the person I’m having a conversation with or her son, the likelihood of that conversation going well is not very high. If I’m aware of what’s right in this situation, what’s working, what can be done rather than what can’t be done, I’m going to get a better response.

For example, if I’m thinking, “Jason is a real pain. I didn’t want him in my classroom in the first place, and now I have to deal with his mother,” the likelihood of this being a pleasant meeting is probably going to be below basic, maybe far below basic. If I can focus on reasons why I like Jason and his mother the conversation will be much smoother. Thoughts like, “Jason’s really made progress this term. His reading fluency has increased tremendously. I’m so glad he’s in my class this year,” will make it easier to have a conversation with his mom.

There are actually 12 steps to the Compassionate Communication model, but you can see just from the first four how a different look at communication might affect your relationship with a parent, a staff member, or even a spouse. Communication as the definition states is really about exchanging information. How you exchange that information is as important as what you communicate. Consider communication with parents as you would a conversation with a friend where you are present, positive and participating. If you’ll look at communication as a two-way street, perhaps one going to the ball field and the library, you will see a tremendous change in your relationships with both parents and students.

Dr. Joni Samples is the Chief Academic Officer for Family Friendly Schools, Dr. Joni provides workshops and materials for schools and parents to support a collaborative effort resulting in better, more supported learning for children. She is the author of six books on family engagement.Reference: 2012*Newberg, Andrew and Waldman, Mark Robert, Words Can Change Your Brain, Hudson Street Press, New York, NY.
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