Parent Outreach for Busy Leaders

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Teachers are encouraged to reach out early and often to their students’ parents and families, and with good reason. If children are to succeed at school, teachers need to get to know and establish genuine partnerships with families. But what about school leaders?

Shouldn’t school leaders, too, be proactive in getting to know the parents of the children in their schools? Shouldn’t they be actively engaging with parents as important and valuable partners? True, school leaders have more parents to connect with than any one classroom teacher—sometimes hundreds more. Still, there are everyday things school leaders can do that don’t take much time, but that can pay big dividends in building better school-home understanding and engagement.

These small, seemingly routine actions can have a big impact. Here are eight things busy school leaders can do. You don’t have to do all eight at once. Even starting with just one, two, or a few will make a difference.

1. Be visible when parents are coming and going.

Be visible and accessible before and after school when parents are coming and going with their children. Put yourself at the main entrance, the pickup and drop-off area, or wherever the main pedestrian traffic is in your school, and engage in brief conversations with parents. Even a friendly “good morning” signals that you’re genuinely pleased to be with their child for the day. If a parent wants to have a longer conversation about something, invite a later phone call or email.

2. Make a special effort to connect with parents you don’t know well.

During school events (Open House, curriculum nights, special programs), be proactive about connecting with parents you know less well, or not at all—and especially those whose culture, language, or background may be different from yours. Modeling a welcoming, inclusive approach with all families in informal settings lets everyone know that your school welcomes and includes each child and each parent.

3. Show interest in families’ interests.

During even the briefest of encounters, try to get to know parents a little better and show them you care about the things that are important to them: births of children or grandchildren, a new job, personal struggles and successes, dreams and concerns they have about their children, the different cultural celebrations they honor. “How’s your son enjoying the robotics competition?” “I saw your anniversary notice in the paper. Congratulations!” Something this brief and simple will go a long way toward building strong, positive relationships between the school and home.

4. Make good news phone calls.

Call parents when students accomplish something unexpectedly well or different. Let parents know you know their child, and that you notice and appreciate individual student growth and accomplishments. Since teachers are likely to share good news from the classroom, school leaders can notice and share successes and accomplishments from schoolwide settings: a kind word or act toward a discouraged classmate on the playground, an invitation to a newcomer to sit together at lunch, a proud sharing at an all-school meeting.

5. Greet new families personally.

Have an understanding with your school’s secretaries and receptionists that whenever a new family comes to school to register, they should find you so that you can personally greet and welcome the new family into the school community, even if ever so briefly. A warm and friendly “Welcome!” from the school leader can be just the reassurance that an anxious child or parent needs to hear.

6. Invite parents for coffee or lunch.

Change your daily routine every once in awhile by inviting parent volunteers, or parents you happen to be chatting with, to stop in for coffee or join you for lunch with some students. Let parent volunteers know you appreciate their time and contributions. This doesn’t have to be a fancy, formal event. The idea is to extend a friendly “come on in for a while” invitation.

7. Invite parent input—but go beyond the usual circle.

Ask for parent input on issues that they have insights and knowledge about. These might be simple things like whether pickup and drop-off procedures need to be adjusted, or what new playground balls their child would enjoy. Or they might be more complex topics like student placement in next year’s classrooms or the new health curriculum proposal. You’ll be the best judge of what to seek parent input on.

Whatever you decide, expand the circle of parents you consult beyond those you know best (for example, beyond PTO officers and regular volunteers). Getting a broad sampling will give you a more representative perspective on issues that matter to families. One simple way to do this is to directly ask parents for their opinions when you’re engaged in conversations with them: “One other thing: We’re thinking of changing our pickup and drop-off procedures. What do you think would make for a safer, more efficient system?” Or, invite some parents to stay a short while after a school meeting or event to share their thinking about an issue at hand.

8. Go to after-school and neighborhood events.

Go to sports events, dance programs, the local public swimming pool, or the favorite neighborhood breakfast joint. When you occasionally stop by the places where parents and families are, it’s so obviously appreciated by the students and parents. School families will understand that you can’t be everywhere and can’t support every child’s outside interests, but showing up once in awhile is one more way to make important connections with parents and let them know that you care about more than what happens during the school day.

This is important work. School leaders are usually far too busy to do everything they want to or should be doing. That comes with the territory. But carving out moments here and there to make connections with families is important school leadership work. It enriches leaders’ understanding of who their students are while building stronger, more positive partnerships in the school community.

Ed Barnwell has been a principal and a coach to other principals for over thirty-five years. He is now a Responsive Classroom consulting administrator and the part-time principal of Sudbury’s Country School, a small public K–6 school in rural Vermont.

Responsive School Discipline: Essentials for Elementary School Leaders, by Chip Wood and Babs Freeman-Loftis
Experienced administrators offer practical strategies for creating a positive school climate, reducing problem behaviors, and building behavior management skills.

“Every elementary school leader should read this book.”
—Roger P. Weissberg, President & CEO, CASEL

Tags: Family Connections, Working with Families

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