When asked what listening is or how we can listen better, I think most of us picture an individual focusing on what another is saying. But for parents communicating with our children's schools, there often isn't one individual with whom we communicate on all topics. Similarly, from a school's perspective, with a team of staff members focusing on different aspects of school services, it's not always evident who is listening to which parental needs or whether the information is finding its way to the right person or department.
Some school districts—New York City schools are a good example—have created a key position designated as liaison with parents. In NYC it is the Parent Coordinator, whose job invariably includes parent outreach, and may also encompass as great a variety of additional services to the school as there are schools in the city.
A designated person to be liaison with parents is one approach to connecting with parents. But Parent Coordinator or not, how can a school best listen to the student population’s parents, guardians, and families? Try some of the strategies below. (For purposes of this article, "parents" refers to guardians and families as well.)
Early and Often. Start listening from your first contact, when parents enroll their children in school. Welcome them and engage them in conversation not just about their child and the school, but also about their own interests and concerns. Make a habit of building on these relationships at every opportunity: school events, parent-teacher conferences, PTA meetings, or visits to the school for any reason are all opportunities for listening and relationship-building.
Full Attention. Whether talking to parents on the phone or in person, give them your full attention. It is so easy be distracted by the many other things you may have on your plate. You have class to teach in 20 minutes or a report to write about an incident or a planning meeting tomorrow morning for which you are not yet prepared. Let it all go, stay present with the parent, and truly listen.
Deep Between the Lines. Listen to what parents say with an open heart, regardless of whether they go off topic or your own expectations. When a parent repeats something a few times, that’s a good clue to what is important. It’s important to leave your assumptions at the door to do this successfully. At one meeting about an incident between students, a parent that school administrators expected to give them a hard time said three times that she wanted to ensure her child did not get hurt. She was asking the school to keep her child safe above all, but everyone was so busy being intimidated that it wasn’t clear if they heard her, and no one answered her concern directly.
Directly and Indirectly. Parents communicate by what they say and do, and by what they do not say or do. Do some parents stay away from all school events? Do some parents attend but not participate? What is the reason? Maybe they speak a different language and are uncomfortable in a large group setting. Pick up on the cues that these parents offer so you can listen intentionally to specific needs and connect with parents individually as necessary.
Translate. Find out what languages your parents speak. Translate all materials sent home and have interpreters on-hand for events with parents. Parents will appreciate it and are more likely to show up and to communicate about their needs and their concerns about their children if they truly feel like the school is doing its best to listen.
Involve the Students. Students can be your strongest allies in communicating with their parents. Find out parents’ scheduling needs from the students—they know when parents work, what family obligations and other needs they have, and what would persuade parents to come to school events. Listening to students’ perspectives and knowledge about their families empowers them to take on a role of responsibility as they share their family expertise.
Keep Track. Create a system to compile the knowledge you gather about parents so you can refer to it for your next contact with them. Remind yourself of their names and key information that you heard, then ask them about those interests or their other children: they’ll know you are really listening.
Do you have other suggestions about how to ensure your school is listening to parents? Any challenges you have yet to overcome? Share them below! We’d love to celebrate your successes and troubleshoot whenever needed.
"Listening to Parents: Strategies for Hearing Those We Serve", The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016