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The Whole Child
Establishing Strong Family-School Communication

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The development of positive interaction with children depends on how well we, as teachers, communicate with their families. In this unit, we're going to look at the importance of maintaining stable, quality relationships with children's families and what we can do to keep the lines of communication open between school and home.
        First of all, it's important to be available to parents when they're at school. Informal chats during drop-off and pick-up times can do much to build relationships of trust. Verbal or written messages about things that have happened at school mean a lot to parents and let them know that we really care. Don't forget to keep family members updated on the good news as well as any problems you may want to discuss. Group parent meetings and social events are also very helpful in creating a climate of families and teachers working together. Regularly scheduled parent conferences are a good time to listen to what's going on at home.

Active Listening
Listening skills are the basis of communication and active listening is an essential skill to develop. When we assume the role of an active listener, we're communicating to whoever is speaking that we've heard them correctly and understood what they've said. Most importantly, our attention means we care. The four skills necessary for active listening are attending behavior, paraphrasing for facts, paraphrasing for feelings and questioning.
        Good attending behavior includes facing the family member and maintaining good eye contact while listening. Make sure that the family member has your full attention and you are not distracted by the telephone, the work on your desk or your wrist watch. Be sure the family member has time to say what is on her mind without interruption.
        It's important to let the family member know that you understand what he is saying by paraphrasing, or listening and re-phrasing, what they say. Restating the family member's words with words of your own is paraphrasing for facts and verifies that you're listening. Start by looking at the situation from the family member's point of view. Keep the discussion focused on the child and the family member. Then, restate the main ideas using your own words.
        Paraphrasing for feelings is very similar to paraphrasing for facts, except you're focusing on what you think the family member is feeling rather than on information. Identifying and paraphrasing how you think the person is feeling is the key, but remember to be tentative. It's uncomfortable for the speaker and the listener when the wrong feeling is identified.
        Attending behavior and paraphrasing for facts and feelings show the family member that we are there for them, both physically and mentally. But often a well-placed question can help someone express themselves more completely. The difference between poor and effective questioning is subtle - it's really more a matter of listening carefully and asking open-ended questions. Here are some examples of productive questioning:

  • To begin a conference: "Well, what's new?"
  • When working together to solve a problem: "What have you tried so far?" "When did you first notice her doing that?" followed by "Was there anything else out of the ordinary that happened at the same time?"

Dealing with Anger
How do we talk with parents about something we know will upset them? How do we respond when parents are angry with us? Just as teachers sometimes blame the family for a child's misbehavior, parents sometimes blame us. Once again, the key is keeping lines of communication open. There are ways of coping with angry feelings that can help you retain control of yourself and the situation. Here are some techniques for dealing with your own anger:

  • Recognize that you're angry.
  • Take a breath to regain control.
  • Paraphrase family member's feeling to show you're listening.
  • Feel and recognize your own anger but control your reaction.
  • Give yourself time before you reply.
One of the ways to maintain control is by recognizing your flashpoints. What kinds of issues or situations especially bother you when you're working with family members? It is helpful to know what your flashpoints are in advance so you can summon the self-control needed.

Families and Children in Crisis
These same skills can be applied to children, especially in times of crisis. When a child experiences a crisis at home, it can dramatically impact upon what happens in school. Teachers have to call on all the listening and communication skills they have to help children and their families get through these difficult and painful times. A family in crisis is a child in crisis. Whether it's illness, death, losing a job or a divorce, family crises present us with one of the greatest challenges of our jobs. During upsetting and difficult times, we can help children get through these events by letting them know we are supporting and caring about them.
        There are many things we can do to help children through difficult times. First of all, tell the truth. Don't ignore the situation or pretend nothing's wrong. Children always know when something's wrong and they worry more when they don't know what it is. It takes a sensitive teacher to help a child through a crisis without overdoing it or intruding too much on the family's privacy. Avoid unrealistic assurances. There's a thin line between comforting a child and promising everything is going to be all right when-from the child's point of view-it won't be. Listen to what the child is saying with both words and behavior. Help the child express his feelings and worries about what is happening. Keep in constant contact with family members in order to connect what's going on at school with what's going on at home. Play and creative activities are excellent outlets for a child to express her deepest thoughts and fears. Offer distressed children plenty of imaginative play opportunities to express their feelings and worries during a time of crisis. Support their play by providing appropriate props, ask questions and make comments about their play, and provide many opportunities to help them express feelings and relieve stress with activities like water play and finger paint.
        Don't overreact to tears and other upset behavior. It's important to remember that crying brings relief, and that it's valuable and helpful to the child. It's important to accept children's expressions of grief rather than block them by trying to distract children or telling them not to cry. When life gets too tough for children and they feel helpless, they often revert to less mature behavior such as thumb sucking or bedwetting. During such times, it can help them feel better if you give them opportunities to make simple choices so they feel like they are more in charge. This can help the child combat feelings of helplessness and panic that often accompany a crisis.
        One thing that will help us in working with families during a crisis is the daily, on-going relationships we have formed with each child's family. We can offer a lot of help and work with parents in many ways to bring about a happier life for their children.

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