Teaching in Traumatizing Times: Fostering Parent-Teacher Collaborations

We know that collaboration between parents and teachers is critical for a student’s academic achievement. We also know it’s a difficult task, and one that may feel even more unattainable right now. Both teachers and parents are feeling overburdened and burnt out. In a world where time is limited and stress pervasive, how do we build a collaborative relationship between home and school? This blog, as part of our Teaching in Traumatizing Times series, hopes to answer this question.

Let’s first focus on the most common reason for teachers to contact parents…the student is struggling in some way. I imagine many of you have had the experience of calling a parent and hearing, “What did my kid do?” Negativity and criticism seem to permeate the parent-teacher relationship. And that can set up a negative cycle…

Teachers may become frustrated or resentful over constantly having to give bad news, while parents may feel shamed, judged, or defensive. The most common feeling between the two parties is a sense of helplessness. Both sides are looking to the other to solve the problem, yet both feel incapable of doing so.

What does this mean for that student? When a teacher calls home, does the student’s behavior improve? Do they become more motivated to do schoolwork? I’m betting the most common answer is “no.” Why? Because it’s likely that this student is also stuck in that helpless feeling.

The reality is that when there are continuous struggles occurring at school without parents and teachers coming together around solutions, we often see increased misbehavior, decreased self-esteem, and loss of academic motivation. So how can we foster collaboration in this relationship and support the child’s learning?

Collaborative problem-solving is key!

Parents need to know what is going on with their children at school, but the context is just as important as the misbehavior. When you have to make that dreaded parent phone call, try clarifying what is happening in the classroom when misbehaviors occur. Is it during independent learning or group activities? Is it only during reading, writing, or math lessons? Are misbehaviors occurring at the beginning or end of the day? Do they only happen during transitions? All of these questions are important for you and the parent to better understand the child’s misbehavior. Then, together you try to identify commonalities between home and school. Maybe mornings are chaotic at home and the child is bringing that into the classroom. Creating a space for collaborative exploration of the misbehavior with the parent may diminish defenses and increase productive dialogues.

Remember, together is where change occurs. Simple phrases like, “Let’s think through this problem together…” can send a powerful message. They pull in the parent, give them a voice, and promote collaborative thinking. Ask parents, “Are there things you’ve tried at home that help?” or offer suggestions that you’ve found useful. There will inevitably be parents that genuinely don’t know or are too overwhelmed to collaborate, but leave the door open for future communication.

Feelings matter…let’s not ignore them within ourselves or in others.

As people we all have a right to our feelings, regardless of the role we are in. As teachers, you have a right to feel frustrated, stressed, overwhelmed, and helpless…and parents do too. What if instead of hiding from these feelings that “we aren’t supposed to show,” we recognized them and productively used them? What might this look like?

  1. Validate and normalize the difficulty and distress in parents. This can help reduce defensiveness and shame. – “I’m hearing from a lot of parents that life is feeling really overwhelming right now, and learning that your child is struggling is just another thing to worry about.”
  2. Highlight and reinforce the parent’s desire to help, even if they haven’t overtly said it. This can increase rapport and trust. – “I know that your child’s education is important to you, and I can tell that you really want to find ways to support them.”
  3. Collaborate! – “I’m calling because I’d like to talk through some ideas/strategies to help.”

Positives can always be found if we look hard enough.

The parent-teacher relationship tends to be deficit-oriented, and that negativity can contribute to decreased parent involvement. This is the opposite of what we want! A shift to a growth-orientation where strengths and positives are highlighted can create a foundation for collaboration when problems do occur. When bad behavior occurs, there is an immediate pull to contact the parent, so why hesitate to share good behavior, too? Positive reinforcement–and praise at home and at school–can contribute to increased student motivation and facilitate the student’s sense of mastery and self-efficacy.

Find ways to be proactive.

We don’t have to wait until problems arise to address them. Developing relationships with parents early in the school year supports collaboration when things get hard. Family days allow parents to see their children in a different context. Further, it can help boost a child’s confidence to share that piece of their lives with parents.

It can be helpful to make resources available before they are needed. For example, some parents don’t have the knowledge or skills to help their children with homework. Consider making or identifying “How-To Videos” for parents to watch at home that guide them in supporting children’s learning across various subjects.

Ask administrators to create/provide referrals and resources that can be provided to parents when things like respite care, mental health services, and tutoring are needed.

By starting relationships with families from a strength-focused perspective and being proactive in providing resources, we create a foundation for collaboration between teachers, administrators, and families.

  • Ashley Geerts-Perry, MS, is a Doctoral Resident at Clarity Child Guidance Center. She is currently in the final months of completing her PhD in counseling psychology with a child and family emphasis at the University of North Texas. Ashley is interested in fostering healthy family attachment systems. She practices from a trauma-focused lens and works to develop a therapeutic relationship wherein healing and growth occur. Ashley is passionate about working with marginalized and under-resourced children and families and prides herself on being an advocate for systemic change.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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