Having Effective, Affirming, and Energizing Conversations with Families
Every interaction we have (or don’t have) with parents does, to some degree, reflect how much we value families’ input and the extent to which we see caregivers as our partners in educating their children. Conversations with families can be powerful vehicles for bringing the sixth guiding principle of Responsive Classroom to life in our work. Following are tips and tools to help ensure that conversations you hold with students’ families leave all participants feeling valued, useful, and energized.
Minimize Barriers to Understanding
Partnering with families requires educators to create the conditions where parents are equipped to engage as equals in meaningful dialogue with their child’s teacher. To achieve this, teachers must work to minimize barriers to understanding.
- Take time to plan how you will clearly and concisely define educational terms that you’ll refer to during the discussion (avoid using idioms, acronyms, or educational jargon).
- Have family-friendly visuals on hand to reference (like Yardsticks Guides) to help illustrate key information in print form, too.
- Provide a developmental context for topics being discussed whenever possible (psst—it’s always possible!).
Get to Know Families
Knowing families requires educators to persist in their efforts to learn more about and empathize more sincerely with all influential adults in students’ lives.
- Use names. Invite your conversation partner(s) to share how they would like you to address them and clarify pronunciation to ensure that you are saying their name(s) correctly. Try using names throughout a conversation to convey respect, build rapport, and encourage connection.
- Give the gift of a clean slate. To get to know students’ families better, resist entertaining colleagues’ narratives about families’ histories, values, or intentions and work hard to stay curious instead. During conversations, look to be surprised rather than right (when you do, you likely will be).
- Learn more by listening more. Be prepared to ask more questions and speak less. Try using open-ended questions that encourage conversation partners to share about their families’ hobbies, pastimes, traditions, hopes they have for their child, etc. Incorporate what you learn into discussions to affirm families’ values and goals and demonstrate your dedication to educating and caring for their child in ways they appreciate.
Value Families’ Contributions
Valuing families’ contributions requires educators to recognize that families are experts in their children and embrace their ideas and suggestions to better serve their children in school.
- Establish shared goals. Before a conversation gets going, take a few moments to review the topics you hope to discuss and invite families to share what they wish to cover, too. Together, look at the shared list of discussion items and reorder topics as it makes sense to do so (for example, some items may feel more urgent for families, or logically it may make sense to speak to some topics before others).
- Let go of ego. Sometimes, despite asking for advice, as others begin to share opinions or suggestions feelings of defensiveness creep in. When this happens, try engaging a silent mantra to calm down and help reopen your mind to what someone is saying. Another helpful strategy is pausing 3–5 seconds after someone has finished speaking to take a few deep breaths, settle your emotions, and collect your thoughts before responding.
- Let parents have the last word. We can show our value for parents’ contributions by allowing their words and ideas to be the last ones heard on a subject. When we resist the urge to add our own comments or opinions, especially when these are not critical to the discussion, we demonstrate our commitment to engaging in discussion as equals. When caregivers know their voices are prioritized in conversations with us, a mutual trust builds and our relationships can grow stronger. Try asking one more question before moving on to ensure families’ voices are the last ones heard on a subject.