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Parents and Teachers: The Possibility of a Dream Team

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Ineffective communication between parents and teachers can be a major obstacle when trying to solve problems with students, but fortunately it can be improved. Let's first examine the two major causes of communication dysfunction.

Problem 1: Judgment

Teachers judge the parents of their students all the time. They judge them based on students' language, hygiene, dress and social skills. Parents judge teachers, too, based on comments from their children. "What did you learn in school today?" is usually followed by, "Nothing." Sometimes children accuse teachers of being unfair, picking on them, being prejudiced or a myriad of other questionable treatments.

So parents and teachers judge each other constantly, and the sources of their judgments are kids, often with a vested interest. Good kids want their parents and teachers to like each other. Troubled students want the opposite. Many children can, in their eyes, benefit from animosity between parents and teachers; and they play one against the other. This is a dysfunctional form of communication.

Problem 2: "Dumping"

The second problem is called "dumping." When ineffective, frustrated or angry teachers call parents about their child, they tend to "dump" the problem in the parents' lap. They tell what offense the child committed, and state that the parent must do something about it. This is no more effective than a parent calling a teacher about a problem at home and asking the teacher to fix it. Parents dumping on teachers is also common. They claim the teacher is responsible for a child's bad grades, bad behavior or bad attitude. They demand that the teacher must change. Parent dumping is growing, reaching dangerously high levels with less respect and belief in the professionalism of the teacher. When parents and teachers blame each other and make unreasonable demands, the one who suffers the most is the child. Blame creates no winners and lots of losers.

A Shared Goal

Parents and teachers have the same goal, and therein lies the remedy for these problems. Both want the best for the student. Removing the child from parent/teacher communication process can alleviate much of the communication dysfunction. I don't mean that children should be left out totally. There is certainly an important place for the child to be part of the process. But there is also a place for teachers and parents to build a relationship of their own. Both need to talk directly to each other.

How Teachers Can Help: The Three-Call Method

As early in the year as possible, teachers need to call as many parents on the phone as possible, hopefully all of them if their load is small enough. The purpose of the call is to welcome the parent into the learning community and to establish a positive communication line.

Here's an example of the type of call I suggest. "Hello, Mr. Curwin. I'm David's teacher. I just want you to know how happy I am to have David in my classroom this year, and to let you know that if any problems should occur, I'd be happy to talk with you so we can work together to make things better." The second call is to tell the parent something good the child has done. Stay away from superficials like dress and focus on behavior, improvement and quality of work. Only after these calls have been made should the teacher call about a problem; not before. In this way, parents and teachers have already established a trusting, workable relationship that significantly diminishes blaming.

How Parents Can Help: Communicate Proactively

Parents, too, can help communication. They can inform teachers of things happening at home that might affect student behavior; a pending divorce, serious illness, birth of a new baby, a change or addition of a medication, or a parent on an extended trip abroad are all examples of things that can help teachers. Children who strongly object to going to school, hate a certain subject, are being bullied or have too much homework are other helpful things to discuss with teachers.

Become a Team

Finally, stop dumping and blaming on both sides. These tactics help no one, make the other party defensive and prevents finding possible solutions. Say things like, "Since we both care so much about David, let's work together to find a way to improve things." Become a team, not adversaries. Share your perceptions honestly. Tell the other what works at home or in class and what doesn't. Work out a plan of action to try, and be flexible enough to change it if it doesn't help. Deflect accusations by not taking them personally. It's better to say, "I understand why you might feel that way, but what we really need to do is find some solutions that we both can agree to. I'd like to hear your ideas," than to say, "That's not true, and your son is not being truthful. I've never done that."

Setting up effective communication and forming a team are very powerful tools in helping children be successful in school. Children spend most of their time at home and in school. When teachers and parents are allies and teammates, their combined influence on children is very powerful indeed.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Todney Harris's picture
Todney Harris
Middle School Teacher in Connecticut

I say the exact same thing in my book. However, I use primary source examples to illustrate the issue. Please refer to my blog and website for further information.

ParentsRImportant2's picture

There are such strong "assumptions" and stereotypes associated with some children/parents and their community and non welcoming school environments, so much so, that even with the best "dream team" the child is set up to fail.

Until we are willing to acknowledge those conditions exist we will continue to have "dumping", parents versus teachers, teacher unions versus students...

Nina Smith's picture
Nina Smith
Mentor, Teacher Trainer

Little else you say or do can change so much in the life of another human being, student or colleague, as compliments or encouragement. And the only effort from your part is the small act of kindness and choosing to use the positive words that communicate the positive outcomes. Our words clearly communicate the expectations, and I think we all know the effect of self-fulfilling prophecies like the Pygmalion effect. (Please check my blog for more information) Focusing on the positive is important because it empowers students to learn and parents to cooperate.

D. Weeks's picture
D. Weeks
CAD & Drafting Teacher

This method is another technique teachers should be adding to their "community relations" skill set, not more than ever the teaching community has to undo decades of poor relations with parents, especially the parents of those students in trouble or on the fence.

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Candidate for a PhD in Education Learning Instruction Innovation Lifelong Learner

I love the way you clearly wrote out effective and ineffective parent contact.
I refuse to call a parent about anything bad unless I have established the 1 and 2 - the Hello call and the your child is incredible because... Call!
Thank you

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.'s picture
Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist & Author of The Homework Trap

Although I agree with what the author says, I think there is one other concept that needs to be stated, and that is respect for the natural hierarchies of the home and the school. Home is home and a place where parents are in charge. School is school and a place where teachers are in charge. Partnerships and dialogue work best when this simple concept is clearly understood. The prime source of tensions between parents and teachers is over homework, and that's because it is the one activity that traverses the boundaries between home and school. If we are going to have true and effective working partnerships between parents and teachers, it has to involve a model in which parents have the final say on what happens in their homes. For sure, teachers can assign homework as they feel makes sense. But they must do it with the tacit permission of the parents, and with the understanding that parents have the authority to overrule assignments if, in their judgment, it is in their child's best interests to have the assignment waived. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.

Corinn's picture
4th Grade Reading/Language Arts & Social Studies Teacher

Building parent/teacher partnerships can be difficult, especially when you teach in a community that is historically uninvolved in education. My goal this upcoming year is to turn this idea around. The author is not the first I have heard of routine positive phone calls. I am an advocate of positive phone calls (and notes) however, I find the creating a routine of phone calls difficult as I service 60 students. A colleague once shared how she called every parent every Monday just to say "Hello! John had a great day!" I loved the idea...and then I learned that she had only 15 students in her classroom.

I mention phone calls as the "Three Call Method" is an idea that is new to me. As fresh as this idea is, it makes sense to have the first three calls be positive calls. I look forward to implementing this in my own classroom!

Tiffany's picture

Creating a positive relationship with parents really takes awareness and special care. Parents always want to hear good things about their child, so I think it is critical, as you mention, to build a trusting relationship with the parents by having positive interactions before presenting anything negative to them. I am certainly going to use the three-call method in conjunction with introductory letters when I get my own classroom. Being proactive by being highly communicative with parents at the beginning of the school year can go a long way towards having parent support when it's time to engage parents about school activities or even difficult situations with their child. Thanks! This posting is a great reminder of what a valuable resource parents can be when they are welcomed into the learning environment in a positive way.


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