Welcoming Families from Day One

Two ways to kick off the school year with strong family-teacher partnerships

August 17, 2017
A photo of a mother kneeling next to her son and teacher in a school hallway

Strong family-teacher partnerships are key to student success. Families make sure homework gets done and kids are ready for school each morning. They are critical to children developing a love of learning. And perhaps most important, families have unique insight into their children: how they thrive, where they struggle, and what they know.

And a crucial element of these partnerships is timing. In the same way that teachers plan strong, positive messaging to students for the first day of school, they should start the year with a plan for strong and positive communication with families.

“Our children need to know that our goals and expectations for them this year are deeply rooted in the hopes, dreams and expectations of their families, that home and school are not two separate worlds.”

“Your initial conversations and interactions with families are critical for setting the tone of your relationship for the entire school year,” write Karen Mapp, Ilene Carver, and Jessica Lander in their useful new book, Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success. If the first a father hears from his daughter’s teacher is bad news — for instance, an email that she hasn’t been doing her homework — he may not want to listen. Parents can grow defensive about their children’s behavior, and, especially in low-income or minority communities, many families may have years (if not decades) of negative associations with school systems.

Starting the year off with positive interactions can shift this narrative.

Here are two effective ways to establish strong family-teacher partnerships from day one. These strategies are among the book's many tangible ideas for maintaining relationships over the course of the year — ideas that Mapp and her co-authors source from their research, their own experiences, and the perspectives of parents and other educators.

A Welcoming Phone Call

A welcome call before the school year begins, or just after, can build the foundation for this partnership. Calls home generally have a bad reputation, but they don’t have to. An introductory phone call can open the door to collaboration and trust, demonstrating to families that teachers value their insight on their children and expect their engagement throughout the year.

Questions teachers can ask:

  • What can you tell me about your child that will help me be a good teacher for him or her?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for child?
  • What’s the best way and time for me to contact you?
  • What’s your preferred language for you to communicate with me?

Other points to mention:

  • Here’s the best way and time to contact me
  • Expect to hear from me throughout the year
  • Always feel free to contact me with concerns or good news — I want to hear from you!

If a family speaks a language the teacher doesn’t speak, they should enlist a translator — and they can also try to learn a few key phrases in the family’s home language, in order to further demonstrate their caring.

Making these calls may make teachers anxious, but they’re worth it. “Honoring and acknowledging parents as their child’s first teachers will send a clear message that you hope to both learn from them and work with them throughout the year,” write Mapp, Carver, and Lander.

A Letter of Hopes and Dreams

By restructuring the fall Open House so that teachers are learning from families, rather than just talking at them, teachers can continue to foster partnerships. One activity to try is a “hopes and dreams letter,” in which parents write a letter to their children and teachers make that letter a part of the classroom culture.

Teachers will need:

  • Letter-writing paper
  • Writing utensils
  • A phone or other camera

What to do:

  • During Open House, set aside time for families to write a letter to their child expressing their hopes and dreams for the school year.
  • Encourage families to write in whichever language they are most comfortable. If they’re uncomfortable writing, offer to transcribe their thoughts.
  • Take a picture of each child with their family.
  • Afterward, hang the pictures and letters together in the classroom “as a reminder to the children that their families are a critical part of the learning community.”
  • If your students are teenagers, who might be embarrassed by the letter or photo, ask parents to seal the letter in an envelope and address it to their child. Let students open it halfway through the school year.

Write Mapp, Carver, and Lander, “Our children need to know that our goals and expectations for them this year are deeply rooted in the hopes, dreams and expectations of their families, that home and school are not two separate worlds.”

Best Practices for Family Engagement
  • Build relationships with families before plunging into program work.
  • Collaborate to get to know kids' needs, passions, and knowledge.
  • Work together and make projects interactive.
  • Provide support to develop families' capacities to assist their children.
  • Link it to learning. Focus conversations on academic content and strategies, rather than rules and expectations.
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.