Every Friday, while her students bury their noses in books during independent reading, sixth-grade ELA teacher Kennita Ballard makes a few positive phone calls to her students’ parents or guardians.
Making time for these calls—in spite of a “to-do list that never stops growing”—conveys a powerful message to families that she’s committed to “partnering with them in their children’s education,” Ballard writes in a blog post for Teacher2Teacher. And it lets her students know that “I will stop everything, any time, any place, to call home and celebrate you, because it’s that important.”
Especially as students get older, communication with families tends to drop off, often limited to when problems arise—an email or phone call home when students are about to fail algebra, for example.
Yet research shows that when teachers raise the ratio of praise to reprimands, it can dramatically improve on-task behavior and decrease disruptions in the classroom. And in a 2012 study, Harvard education researchers Matthew Kraft and Shaun Dougherty found that “frequent teacher-family communication” improved the odds that students would complete their homework by 40 percent, and decreased the need for teachers to redirect kids’ attention to tasks by 25 percent. Class participation rates, they noted, increased by 15 percent.
For families and caregivers, a positive call home may be the only signal they receive from school about the wellbeing of their child. “I was saddened when parents would say, ‘I don’t think anyone has ever called me from school with anything positive about my child,’” writes Elena Aguilar, an instructional coach and author. “As a parent, I can’t think of anything I want a teacher to do more than to recognize what my boy is doing well, when he’s trying, when he’s learning, when his behavior is shifting, and share those observations with me.”
Here are seven educator-approved tactics for making positive home outreach—whether by phone, email, or text—an uncomplicated, sustainable, and beneficial practice:
1. Ask For Student Input: On the first day of school, Aguilar gives students a survey that includes the question: Who would you like me to call when I have good news to share about how you’re doing in my class? You’re welcome to list up to five people, and please let them know I might call—even tonight or tomorrow!
This not only helps identify the trusted adults in a child’s life—a valuable insight about your learners—but also signals to students that positive phone calls home are the norm inside your classroom.
2. Break it Down: Calling families takes time and you may feel you don’t have a second to spare. The trick is parceling it out and keeping track, teachers say.
Instructional coach Clint R. Heitz sets a goal of calling at least one family a day during the first weeks of school, and when his schedule allows, he picks “a couple of days to make multiple calls,” Heitz writes for ASCD. He keeps track of parent communication with Google Forms and Sheets.
Taking a piecemeal approach, former elementary and high school teacher Todd Finley uses a 5x5 strategy: pick five students (or fewer, depending on time limits) from your roster, dedicate five minutes to each child, cross their names off once you’re done. It’s a way to systematically ensure that each child gets focused time for whatever task is needed—reflection, a positive call home—on a regular basis.
Starting the process early in the school year helps. “My biggest mistake was that I waited to make those calls,” writes Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “If you call six homes and talk for 10 to 15 minutes, the time can add up.” Instead, Alber now makes a phone call or two at the end of the day, or during lunch. “Just take one step at a time,” she advises.
3. Keep Track: At the start of the school year, middle and high school teacher Lauren Huddleston creates a chart to keep tabs on the types of interactions and contact she has with families. She lists students’ names alphabetically, the dates when she makes contact with families, in addition to the method—email, carpool line, in-person meeting, or phone call—and the reason for the contact.
To ensure no child receives only negative calls home, she color-codes her entries on the chart—green for positive, red for negative communication. As the year progresses, Huddleston sets goals for herself, like aiming to contact half of her students’ families with a positive note by Thanksgiving.
“By setting an intentional goal to email home with a positive, personal anecdote, I make sure that no student is invisible in my classroom,” Huddleston writes. “As I scroll through my list each week, I can see which students’ families haven’t been contacted yet, and I am able to home in on those relationships and develop them intentionally.”
4. Script the Call: Writing a short script for yourself will help keep the call on track and ensure you hit all of the positive observations you’d like to share.
Aguilar suggests keeping it concise: Hi—is this Mrs. _____? I’m calling from _____ school with great news about your child, _____. Can I share this news?
Some families may view a phone call home as being reserved for bad news only, so introducing yourself and the intent of the call as early as possible gets the ball rolling on a positive note. “If I didn’t immediately blurt out the part about ‘great news,’ sometimes they’d hang up on me or I’d hear a long anxious silence,” Aguilar says.
5. Align Calls to Classroom Goals: Have a student who has been staying after school to get help with new material before a big test? A student showing small improvements on meeting homework deadlines? Any time you see them taking small steps or strides, keep a positive phone call in mind.
“If I have a student who’s been struggling with engagement in the classroom, for example, and we hold a student-teacher conference to create a plan of action, I immediately make the call home the moment I see the student making changes,” Ballard writes. “I might say, ‘I just want to recognize the work that your student is putting towards making positive choices, moving toward positive habits. That’s not easy to do!’”
6. Make it a Schoolwide Effort: At Riverdale Elementary School in Thornton, Colorado, classroom teachers aren’t the only ones making positive phone calls. Principal Kristin Golden collects feedback from teachers about positive student accomplishments, then brings students into the office to celebrate the good news with a call to their family.
And at Paul L. Patterson Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon, students get to sign the Patterson Great Wall when principal Jamie Lentz makes a positive phone call home to their family, providing a bit of incentive to keep up good work.
7. Recognize Small, Quiet Actions: A high grade on an assessment isn’t the only type of achievement that might justify a call home. Keep an eye out for the development of soft skills or quieter, less overt displays of positive behavior, Huddleston suggests, like a student acting as a mediator to a disagreement in group work, pairing up with a lonely peer, or showing empathy to a fellow classmate who is having a rough day. Even a student arriving right on time for class or asking an interesting question during a discussion are great opportunities to celebrate the positives you notice.
“Their behavior need not be exceptional; I have sent notes about students habitually coming into the classroom and following procedures, reliably completing homework, and tackling difficult tasks with a positive attitude,” Huddleston says.