Imagine yourself as a parent or family member coming to the school for a meeting about his or her student. They buzz into the building to come to the front office. What do you want them to experience? What will make them walk away feeling appreciated, cared for, and an important member of the community? Now, think about your parents in the virtual schooling space. This is the reality for many schools, and it can make building a welcoming virtual school culture even more difficult.
Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp found in their research that successful school programs connect with families, invite involvement, are welcoming, and address specific parent and community needs.
In school reopening plans, there should be a clear strategy and discussion around creating a welcoming virtual school environment for students and families. Research shows that a warm and welcoming environment leads to school success, and will be even more important during this virtual schooling time where we’re not physically together. We’ve put together some tips to building a welcoming school environment based on research and experience.
Tip 1: Train Your Staff
The 2012 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” found that most school staff members have limited expertise and training in parent engagement. Due to that fact, both teachers and principals identified that family engagement is one of the most challenging aspects of their work (MetLife, 2013). The recommendation for schools is to provide professional development opportunities for teachers and school staff to foster a mindset that values family engagement, ways to build trusting relationships with families, and knowledge on how to work with diverse families. This is especially true in this climate where virtual family engagement is new to teachers.
Once school is back in-person, the main group of staff members who must be specifically trained is the front office staff. These are the first interactions all parents have and truly serve as school representatives for most parents. Going over customer service training including how to answer phones in a welcoming way, what to do if you don’t have an answer to a question, how to stay calm and positive with all parents, how to take messages for staff members, etc. Training your front office staff in depth will lead to a substantially more welcoming environment.
Tip 2: Help Parents Connect Socially
Do parents feel like they have a virtual community amongst parents? Are there opportunities for parents to engage with each other during this difficult time to build relationships? Having a parent-led “welcoming committee” takes some of the pressure off the school staff. Families can take ownership and get creative on ways to engage with each other virtually. Here are some ways to help connect parents socially:
- Host virtual parent events based on interest groups
- Put together a “New Parent Welcome Committee” to greet new parents and welcome them through emails, notes, and phone calls
- Begin all virtual parent meetings with a parent social time or “icebreaker” to get to know each other better. Breakout rooms can make this space feel even more intimate, so try that with parents for these social times.
Tip 3: Engage Parents in the Learning
This is especially important now that learning is happening at home and parents are the only adults able to provide in-person academic support. Find every way you can to link virtual engagement to student learning. This can be done in a few ways:
- Frequent communication about how to help their children at home, what their children need to learn, and how to plan for college and career. Check out our blogs on how to help parents support their students academically for more ideas on this: https://www.possipit.com/8-tips-to-help-parents-be-homework-heroes/ and https://www.possipit.com/helping-parents-help-students-succeed/
- Host Academic/Curriculum Night Events virtually to support parents in learning the fundamentals of what students are learning
- Plan virtual parent workshops based on parent needs to build their knowledge of other topics they need support with. At times, schools guess what parents need to learn, but asking the source what they need is much more effective. Using Possip surveys to ask what families need support with is a great way to do this.
Tip 4: Be Inclusive and Welcoming
Some parents may not feel welcomed due to culture, time, language, or technology barriers present during this time. Here are some tips to increase feelings of inclusivity and value the diversity that is present in your family population
- Post all letters, social media posts, and parent letters in multiple languages
- Create a virtual family resource center online where there are resources available in all necessary languages
- Utilize bilingual staff members as translators whenever needed (especially translating virtual parent-teacher conferences and for any parent communication documents)
- Purchase tools like Possip or LanguageLine to translate communications in all languages (www.possip.com and https://www.languageline.com/
Tip 5: Two-way Communication
Mavis Sanders and Adia Harvey (2000) found that two-way communication is important to building dialogue, respect, receptivity, and openness with parents. Possip believes strongly in using two-way communication as a crucial strategy for giving parents voice and improving school quality through parent engagement. Possip’s weekly ability to give parents a pulse check survey on praise, feedback, and questions is a powerful two-way communication method. This communication should be able to be sent and received in the parent’s home language. Possip is able to give and receive parent communication in 53 languages. Finding a way to create effective two-way communication empowers and engages parents as equal partners in supporting students to success. This is an extremely crucial time to get parent feedback and ideas on virtual learning feedback and how their child is doing at home.
Possip also can ask parents exactly what they want to present in a welcoming virtual school environment. This could be a “bonus question” asked to all parents to get ideas on initiatives parents want to see. Sometimes we assume we know what parents want, but two-way communication will truly get us the answer.
Tip 6: Connect Them Where They Are
This tip is especially important during virtual schooling because students and families are missing their school community so much. The school can help create opportunities for distanced get-togethers by matching families who live nearby that are willing to meet. This could be an opt-in option for families. It allows parents to meet at a place they feel comfortable in with the safety restrictions they desire.
An idea of how to do this is setting up “Zip Code Parent Groups.” Schools can connect small groups of 5-10 parents who all live in the same area of town to connect. This could be a time to build a parent community or they could plan a safe get-together with the students outside at a local park, backyard, or another area. The purpose of these groups is to foster social connections between other parents and allow students to have some socialization. There could be a parent “discussion topic” that the school provides or recommended activities the students do during the time. It could also just be spent as informal social time together.
If you have any questions or interest in using Possip at your school, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org!