Connecting With New Families Early in the School Year
“Students experience greater success in school when the adults who care for them and help them learn and grow have a collaborative relationship that allows them to welcome and value one another’s questions, ideas, and thoughts.” — Jane Cofie, Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership
Although it is summer break, it is never too early to begin forming relationships with your new families. Caregivers and children alike have anxiety about the uncertainty of a new school year. Any steps you take to alleviate this anxiety can serve as a proactive measure toward building positive relationships. Here are some ways you can connect with new families both before the school year begins and at its outset.
During Summer Break
- Introduce yourself. Children often meet their new teacher at the end of the school year, but for families the new teacher is usually little more than a name on a sheet of paper. Sharing an introductory newsletter with information about you and your grade level goes a long way. Consider adding personal information about your family or hobbies. Also include information about the new school year that can help students get excited and parents feel comfortable.
- Reach out to families. Along with a welcoming summer letter, invite your new families and students to respond to you. Proactively seek out information about them to begin the critical work of building positive relationships. For example, have children select photographs that tell about themselves (which can also be a fantastic first bulletin board!). Or have caregivers complete a family interest survey. (See below for examples.)
- Hold informal office hours. On a day when you are setting up your classroom, invite families to stop in to meet you. Preface your invitation by saying, “I will be working on setting up our classroom.” That way there is no expectation for picture-perfect bulletin boards or for students to find their new seats. This initiation can serve as a powerful way to show your investment in their children and to allow for initial connections to be forged.
After the School Year Begins
- Respect schedules and means of communication. Ask families for their preferred day, time, and method for you to contact them. Taking the time to check in on these preferences communicates to families that you value what they have to say and want to connect with them.
- Reach out to every family early on. Make a point to contact every family individually with good news in the first few weeks of school. Whether it is enthusiasm their child exhibited for an activity or something the child said, letting families know that you observed a positive aspect of their child’s school day early on sets the stage for collaboration.
- Involve families in goal-setting. Invite families to share their hopes and dreams for their child. Asking for caregivers’ social, emotional, and academic goals for their children provides enormous insight as to their expectations and worries as they enter a new academic year. This also allows for meaningful conversation opportunities at home so that children can share the hopes and dreams they created in the classroom.
- Hold an adult Morning Meeting. Use your school’s open house as an opportunity for families to experience the power of Morning Meeting. Model each component and incorporate a low-risk greeting and activity. Also make sure to provide important grade-level information for the sharing and morning message components. If the open house is not conducive to having Morning Meeting, consider inviting families to join the class for an in-school Morning Meeting instead.
The Importance of Listening
Parents are the experts on their children. With few exceptions, teachers who know their students well rarely know them for more than ten months. Families witness their children going through beginning-of-the-year jitters, vacation excitement, teacher adjustment, and developmental changes every summer and school year. When making initial contact with families, I have learned to change my talk-to-listen ratio. I now hear a lot more from families. Allow time for families to share with an additional pause. A question on a survey such as “Is there anything else you think I would benefit from knowing?” or asking “How is everything going?” over the phone can yield enormous dividends. These gestures can provide answers to questions that we teachers may never have thought to ask.
Wherever you are in your journey of communication with families, remember that a little goes a long way. Without a doubt, spending a little additional time at the start of the school year to foster connections with families goes a long way in helping to build strong relationships. Doing so contributes to a team mentality so that you can work together with families toward a common goal of helping children have a positive school experience for the new school year.
To find out more ways to strengthen connections with families, read “Keeping in Touch with Families All Year Long” and “Strengthening Your Community: Continuing to Connect With Students and Families”; watch our free webinar “Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership”; and check out our parent guides for elementary, middle, and high school parents in The Bridge Forward.
Katie Bass is a consulting teacher for Center for Responsive Schools and a classroom teacher in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.