In 2016, I sat down for parent-teacher conferences with my first preschool class. I proudly explained the child’s data levels, analyzed their letter-string level writing, and discussed the child’s use of fine motor skills in their classroom artwork. The parents were silent the entire time. Some of them never even smiled. I didn’t know what had gone wrong, but eventually I discovered that parents wanted to know things outside of the ABCs and 123s. They wanted to know their child’s eating and sleeping habits, and they valued hearing about whether their child made friends, shared toys, cleaned up, and showed social and emotional maturity.
I also came to realize that many of these parents were exhausted from working two jobs or were living in a survival mode. Many were facing adversity such as abuse, housing insecurity, and financial hardship. These types of hardships are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which include unstable housing, abuse, drug exposure, divorce, and exposure to violence. A child with a high number of ACEs is more likely to face long-term poor health outcomes and even early death. Fortunately, early intervention mitigates these adverse effects.
Preschool teachers are important advocates for families facing adversity. When teachers can build positive relationships with students and families, they can help reverse negative outcomes dramatically—maintaining great parent-teacher relationships is one key to student success. In my experience as a preschool teacher, I’ve developed the following strategies that help parents and teachers work together to support students.
5 Ways to Build Strong Relationships With Families
1. Adopt equitable communication skills: As I started to be more conscious of my communication with parents, my script changed from “Hi, how are you doing?” to “Hey, how are you? I mean, how is everyone? I heard about the new rental increases going on [or the incident down the street, the death in the family, the recent power outage, etc.]. Are you guys doing OK?” I let the family know that beyond the ABCs and 123s, I am genuinely empathetic and I want to be a part of the support team to help.
There are “7 ‘Be’s’ of good communication” for teachers: being interested, humble, respectful, inviting, a good listener, positive, and creative. Effective communication also requires anticipating and overcoming barriers. A parent may request a translator. Parents may also not have access to reliable internet for virtual conferences, so in-person meetings might work better for some families.
2. Create positive teacher-student relationships: “Powerful interactions” are moments of connection between teachers and students. These can look like good conversations, shared moments of respect, laughter, and joy. Powerful interactions in preschool include engaging in Vygotskian “learning through play” moments during free play or recess. With student growth at the center of the student-teacher relationship, parents and caregivers will appreciate the bond between their child and the teacher.
3. Make the most of your school’s resources and support staff: Communicating with parents can be a challenge, but support staff help communication go smoothly. In Head Start programs, for instance, the needs of families are addressed by social workers familiar with a family’s home situation. This contributes to the quality of the teacher-family relationship.
I built authentic connections to my class parents once I understood the hardships these families faced because of details that the school support staff shared with me. Teachers should also be mindful of how sensitive topics are approached. A social worker can help you follow up if you have concerns about a student’s well-being.
4. Be responsive to parental concerns: Teachers should reflect on the parent’s perspective as well, and be ready to provide information that parents are interested in. When a teacher uses a whole child approach to child development, the focus on both cognitive and social development builds the caregiver’s trust. Preschool teachers can use surveys to collect information about what parents want to focus on in conferences and meetings.
Teachers should also keep in mind important facts about a student’s family. For example, not all students have a two-parent household, so making Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gifts might be upsetting to some children. In those cases, making gifts for grandparents or other role models might be helpful. School support staff such as social workers may be able to provide important context for a student’s background.
5. Stay positive when delivering academic concerns: Sometimes preschool teachers deliver concerns about several areas where children are not progressing. Some of these include unwanted classroom behavior or the need for a referral to a district therapist. When building an action plan or asking for a parent’s permission to take next steps, it is important to stay positive and upbeat. Families experience stress over school judgment, especially if their child may be facing difficult diagnoses or require an individualized education program. Being mindful, friendly, and focused on the parent’s needs lets them feel freer while working as a team. I conduct these meetings as a team with support staff, and together we can demonstrate the positives that come from intervention, strategies, and professional insight.
Establishing effective parenting relationships can help teachers effectively support families from all backgrounds, including those that may be experiencing hardship.