Often, attempts at connecting with families can seem like just one more thing to add to the long list of responsibilities teachers have at the beginning of the school year. That being said, I invite you to pause for a moment and ask yourself: What are my deepest hopes for my students this year? These might include developing a strong sense of belonging, building healthy relationships, becoming more self-regulated, or succeeding academically.
In order to accomplish any of these, teachers must weave families into the fabric of our classroom communities. Here are some ideas about how to involve parents in elementary school classes.
Simple Ways to Connect Families and Classrooms
1. Request a letter: One of the first things I do every school year is invite parents to write a letter telling me about who their child is as a person. What makes their child tick? What do they love about their child? How does their child best learn? If you word your questions from a strengths-based approach, you may find that parents delight in sharing the joys they experience with their child.
Even in asking about areas of growth, you can include questions such as: How does your child respond to challenges? What is one strength you hope to see your child develop this year? After you collect the letters, take some time to sit down with your favorite beverage in the morning and savor the responses from families as you get to know your new students.
2. Video conferencing: The pandemic gave us online conferencing, and that is here to stay (whether we like it or not). A huge benefit of these platforms is that it makes meeting with families very simple and time-efficient. Either before the school year begins or early on in the semester, set aside a few hours in which you can schedule 10-minute welcome meetings with families and children.
This is a time to introduce yourself, answer any burning questions, and establish a positive relationship right from the get-go. We often don’t get a chance to meet many families until well into the school year. Everyone will feel more at ease on day one having already made that initial connection.
3. Family corner: Often, the pipeline between home and school flows one way: Teachers send artifacts and anecdotes home, but there is rarely time for that flow to go in the other direction. A simple way to bring families into the classroom is to have a space where children can display photos, letters, or special items from their own families and cultures. Students and families receive the message that they are welcome and valued in the class community.
Every year in my kindergarten class, we decorated paper frames for photos of our families to hang and kept a basket of photo books that the children could read and access at any time.
4. Bring them in, literally: I know not everyone is comfortable bringing guests into the classroom space, particularly as many school districts still have strict Covid protocols and some schools or districts have regulations that make it difficult to bring people in. You will need to check with your school leadership about policies. Also, not all families have the means and ability to spend time in the classroom, so you need to assess if this tip is right for you. That being said, there is nothing more beautiful than that look of pride and love on a child’s face when their family member becomes a part of the classroom life.
How exactly might families contribute to your classroom? In the past, I’ve had people volunteer to be mystery readers, lead a small cooking group, teach a craft or special skill, or share about a family or cultural holiday. You can also ask the family members if they have any ways they wish to be involved. If they understand that this is a genuine invitation, people may have ideas of their own about how to connect to the classroom. Online scheduling tools are helpful to ensure that the timing of guest visits works with your daily flow.
5. Ask me about...: We know the drill. Children come home. Families say, “How was school?” Children say, “Fine.” Parents are left to wonder what the child did all day. Enter a simple hack: Every so often, send home a sticky note that prompts a conversation about something that happened at school.
For example, the note could read: Ask me about...
- the tall tower I built,
- the new math strategy I discovered,
- the new character in my story,
- the new game I played at recess.
These prompts could even come in photo form. You could email parents or send children home with a photo from something interesting in the day, which would provide them with a visual reminder of what they could talk about with their families.
6. Something good: After writing you an introductory letter and meeting you at the beginning of the school year, families want to know that you see their child’s unique strengths. Make it a habit to regularly send “something good” emails home. These only have to be a line or two, but those short sentences go a long way toward showing that you notice and value each child.
Schedule a regular time to write one or two of these emails, and keep a checklist of whom you have written to. If you have a child that you haven’t had a chance to write about yet, it’s time to get curious. Be a detective and spend time observing those children in particular to get to know their strengths. Those small moves go a long way.
Most teachers have found themselves in that unfortunate situation where the first time we speak with a family, it is about a concern over the student’s behavior. This year, small steps to include families in your class community early on will have big payoffs for your students and your relationships with their families.