As the new school year begins, teachers will likely spend the first few weeks immersed in getting to know their new pre-K through 5 students, figuring out their strengths and areas for growth, and discovering how to support them instructionally based on their unique learning needs.
Research suggests that partnerships with families can lead to higher student achievement, greater academic engagement, and improved attendance. Yet sometimes educators take family-school partnerships for granted and could spend a little more time asking questions and listening to parents and other caring adults in children’s lives.
5 Crucial Questions
Here are five questions that teachers should be asking families about their learners at the beginning of the school year and some insight on why these questions are the ones that matter.
1. When your child encounters a challenge, how do they respond? Knowing how students react to challenges is critical for teachers as they work to push students to the frontier of their skills—that sweet spot of productive struggle where the real learning happens. The concepts of grit and growth mindset are familiar to many educators as predictors of whether students will persevere through difficult tasks.
As educators, however, we shouldn’t only consider how students respond to challenges inside the classroom but rather draw on families’ knowledge about how children respond to setbacks in day-to-day life. At soccer practice do they automatically shut down when they fail to score a goal? Do they quietly seek out help when they can’t master tying shoes? Do they shift strategies quickly when putting together a Lego masterpiece? Parents and caregivers have a wealth of knowledge about how learners respond to challenges that educators can capitalize on in the classroom.
2. How does your child know they are cared for and appreciated, and how do they like to be celebrated? When my daughter turned 4, she donned a sparkly tiara and directed us to sing “Happy Birthday” to her as she paraded around the kitchen. By contrast, when her elder brother turned 6, he froze like a deer in the headlights and practically crawled under the table when the singing began.
Just like adults, children prefer to be celebrated and acknowledged in different ways. As educators, we seek to build authentic relationships with students, which is critical, as research shows that caring classroom environments translate to feelings of psychological safety. Parents and caregivers are well positioned to know how their young people feel cared for and how they like to be appreciated. Some students may respond best to an opportunity to spend more time with their teacher at a “lunch bunch,” while others may prefer small tokens of recognition like stickers or a special pencil.
3. What talents and skills does your child have that are valuable at home? At the start of the year, when many educators do preassessments and look to determine students’ baseline skills, it’s essential that teachers move away from deficit-centered views of children and instead recognize the strengths they bring to the classroom. Many of the valuable skills children bring to school are those that they develop outside of the classroom.
In Funds of Knowledge, researchers Norma González, Luis C. Moll, and Cathy Amanti discussed the idea that children are competent and have gained valuable knowledge through their life experiences. For example, do students play with or care for a younger sibling? Help set the table or do dishes? Do they translate for linguistically diverse family members? Building on students’ skills from home has been shown to be a highly effective teaching strategy.
4. Who are people in the community with whom your child has meaningful relationships? You’ve probably heard the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.” Students and families are immersed in communities they draw on for support and connection. One of the best ways to show a child that you care about them is to show you care about their community. Building strong school-community partnerships has a positive effect on student achievement and behavior and strengthens the students’ communities.
Ask families who in the community children go to for support. Does the child have a youth pastor who serves as a mentor or an after-school program provider they look up to? Educators should seek out community leaders and organizations they can connect with to learn more about the broader school community in which students are immersed.
5. What are your hopes and dreams for your child this year? So often, when we think about goals for students, we tend to focus on curriculum standards, state testing, benchmarks, and grades. But if you ask most parents what their hopes and dreams are for their children, you’re likely to get a much different response.
Sure, most parents want their kids to be reading at grade level and mastering multiplication facts, but they also want their children to make kind, supportive friends; to gain a degree of independence; and to demonstrate executive functioning skills. As educators, it’s just as important that we partner with parents and families in helping students achieve these goals.
Teachers can ask these questions at an open house, at back-to-school night, or via email, keeping the responses in a Google Form. As teachers, students, and families prepare to begin a new school year, it’s important to remember that all stakeholders bring something different to the table. Working together, educators and families can draw on shared knowledge of students in order to support their academic success and overall well-being.