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October 9, 2019
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May 20, 2020

COMMUNICATE TO WIN: Six Effective Strategies State and Local School Districts Can Leverage to Engage Parents

Listen, I know parents.

Aside from my own, I have had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of parents throughout the course of my career. I interviewed scores upon scores of parents as an education reporter in Tennessee and Louisiana. I spoke with hundreds, and shared information with thousands, of parents during my time as press secretary and public information officer at a state education department. As a former education policy analyst, I used the parent perspective to help me navigate the changing public education landscape in New Orleans. As a former charter school board member, I helped shape the rules parents (and their children) were expected to follow. Even now, in my current role as a communications strategist, I’ve helped parents and guardians discover new school options, enroll their children in public school, and decide which type of school environment might be right for their child.

Each of these experiences have brought me face to face with several types of parents. I have spoken with parents who struggle to read, those who have trouble navigating the public school system, those who believe the job of educating students solely belongs to schools, those who seem to work hard to foster an adversary relationship with school leaders, those who spend their own money making sure classrooms have resources, and those who are completely and totally engaged and supportive. I have seen stay-at-home fathers, stereotypical ‘soccer moms’, and the parents who work multiple jobs to provide for their children.

Yet, despite their diverse lifestyles, backgrounds, and perspectives, there are two distinct threads that tie together all parents. The first is likely obvious: parents want the very best for their children. The second is a single desire that is often overlooked. Each parent type – from the single dad juggling work and home to the grandmother raising her grandchildren – want: clear and concise information from the institution their children attend. Unfortunately, I have learned that good, effective communication is the among the most desired, yet least practiced process for many schools and districts. To that end, because my primary job function is to help schools, districts, and other education organizations communicate to win, I’m going to share six proven strategies that best engage parents and guardians.

1) PRACTICE POSITIVITY

A few kind words can go a long way.

Everyone wants to feel like they’re doing something right. This goes for educators, students, and most especially parents. Still, it seems that many schools and districts avoid spreading positivity, and instead end up inadvertently sowing negativity and anxiety. How does this happen? It happens when schools only call parents about problems with their kids and districts only communicate to parents and other stakeholders during a crisis. It’s even worse when the only other time they hear from you is when you need something from them (i.e. volunteer for this social, particulate in this fundraiser, come to this event).

How would you feel if your coworker only messaged you when something went wrong or wanted to pile more work on your plate? You’d dread it, right? You might even avoid the coworker altogether. Now just imagine how parents are feeling. If you’re interested in engaging parents so that they become supportive stakeholders who do whatever it takes to see the school and/or district thrive, try practicing positivity. If you’re at the school level, try calling or texting or emailing parents directly when their child is doing something amazing, even if it seems small and insignificant. You’d be surprised at how a few of those calls help break the ice and build trust. If you’re at the district level, try communicating about outstanding teachers, standout schools, and star students. Invite parents to forums where they can share their experiences about what’s working (and what isn’t) in schools. These tiny gestures can go a tremendous way in keeping parents engaged.

2) SHARE OFTEN

Once you start communicating around excellence, you have to keep it up.

Don’t make one phone call to a parent at the beginning of the year, and then never call again until you want something or there’s a problem. Make a habit of sharing excellence with your parents. Put together a communications calendar for how you’ll spread positivity in your school every day, week, month, quarter and year. Maybe each day you recognize a person on a bulletin board who has done something great, perhaps you plan to share news weekly on your blog, maybe each month, you send out a newsletter, and maybe every quarter you’ll host a parent open house to share information.

3) MULTICAST THE MESSAGE

When you’re in the habit of reaching out continuously to parents, you’ll quickly discover that a one-size-fits-all approach will never work. Sure, it may be tempting to send important information in student folders and/or send an e-mail, but you miss a significant amount of your parental audience when you do. There are parents who miss the information in the student folders (for a variety of reasons) and several more who either don’t have or check email.

The key to true engagement is multicasting. That is taking one piece of content or information and formatting it to be useful multiple platforms. Want to share news about an open house? Put the details on your calendar, then create a graphic to be shared on your social media platforms, then write a blog about it, then write a short script that can go out on the robocall system, then write a letter that can be sent to parents, do a Facebook live post with an official talking about the open house, and so on.

The great diversity among families means that it is not possible to rely on a single method of communication that will reach all homes with a given message. It is absolutely essential that a variety of strategies, adapted to the needs of particular families and their schedules, be incorporated into your overall communications calendar. Remember, it takes people between three and seven times to hear a message before they actually take any action on it. The rule I have for my school clients is that all information must be shared on a minimum of three platforms. We stand to reach more of our parent and community audience when we multicast content.

4) SHOW APPRECIATION

Here is a harsh reality: parents are not required to engage with school or district officials. When they do, tell them know how much you value their presence and participation. Like the practice of positivity, showing parents that you value them is one simple way to keep them engaged.

5) AVOID ASSUMPTIONS

I am going to keep this simple: no school or district official should ever make an assumption about a student or their family’s home life. I always encourage education officials to remember: race is not an indicator of experience, culture is deeper than language, and living in poverty does not equate to a poverty mindset.

We live in a society of spectrums. The end result of strong communication and engagement is to develop strong relationships. One way to do this is to understand that people with whom you want to be in relationship. One key to understanding parents is to realize that we all live on a spectrum and no one indicator, such as race or language, indicates our experiences. So, don’t assume anything.

A few years ago, I was working on a student recruitment project in a rural part of Arkansas. The school wanted Latina families to enroll in their program. Many of the Latina families we wanted to recruit spoke Spanish. Someone involved with the school suggested we just find other people who spoke Spanish to speak with families and enroll the students. Seems harmless, right? Wrong. Merely speaking the same language (and there are other nuances within the language) does not mean these families would have been comfortable building the relationships and trust necessary to persuade them to choose one school over another. A shared (or learned) language is not a shared culture and is certainly not a shared experience.

6) LISTEN

So, how can school and district officials avoid assumptions and build trust? It is easy – through listening.

I always follow what I call the Two Ears, One Mouth Rule. That is you must listen as twice as much as you speak. Effective communication to engage parents is not a one-way channel where the school and/or district gets to impart all of their infinite wisdom and knowledge to parents and other stakeholders.

Real communication is a two-way street. Establishing an a venue for parents and school and district officials to share information back and forth as equals increases the likelihood of student success. Inviting parents to share their experiences, ask questions, and provide feedback is essential to establishing a solid two-way communication channel. The more parents and teachers share relevant information with each other about a student, the better equipped both will be to help that student achieve academically. The more districts and parents communicate about the happenings in the district, the more parents will be ready to support the district when it needs additional resources to ensure student success.

While there is certainly a time for one-way communication, too much can make parents feel uninformed, out of the loop on key issues, and ultimately, disengaged. To avoid this, host regular open houses and/or parent forums, schedule regular parent-teacher conferences, establish parent cabinets to advise on important decisions, and solicit parent feedback through surveys and small groups.

Trust me, listening (and responding to) your parent community can have lasting positive effects on your school climate.

There you have it! 

These are the strategies I’ve used to engage parents across the South. These are the exact methods I employ today while working with schools in Baton Rouge. If you’re a teacher, school leader, or district administrator, I hope these strategies help you think more deeply about how best to reach all of your parents. If you’re a parent, I hope this helps you get a better idea of what you should expect from your child’s school or district.

Happy communicating!

Ashley Northington
Ashley Northington
Ashley Northington is an award-winning marketing communication strategist, social policy leader, and entrepreneur. The founder of DENOR Brands + Public Relations, she leverages strategic communications as a tool to battle social inequities through the lenses of high-quality public education and entrepreneurship. A champion of stories that matter, Ashley lives to craft and tell meaningful narratives that influence public policy, programs, and partnerships. Learn more about her at AshleyNorthington.com.

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