Fostering Supportive Adult Relationships to Help Students Succeed: The Parent Perspective

By Maria Waltemeyer (Chief Operating Officer for School Services, Johns Hopkins University) and Lindsay Ahlman (Consultant for the GRAD Partnership)
November 27, 2023

At a September school community meeting, a principal reads from a young adult novel about immigration to a room full of parents, many of whom are immigrants themselves. Her eyes became teary and her voice trembles a little as she reads aloud a story that mirrors her own. Her vulnerability and intentional transparency set the tone for a strong relationship between the school and parents that will foster open communication and trust.

Elsewhere, parents gather at the start of the new school year to learn more about the school their child will be attending. They haven’t yet received any emails or other communications from the school, so they are all the more eager to meet the new principal and learn how they can participate in the school community. Teachers attend the meeting, but the principal is absent. Parents in the room are frustrated, feel disrespected, and begin the school year with a distrust of school leadership.

At which school is a student most likely to benefit from a team of caring adults working together to support them?

Strong, supportive relationships, including those between “school adults” and parents/guardians, are one of the four key components of student success systems. Students benefit greatly from parental involvement, including parents’ relationships with principals, teachers, counselors, and IEP team members. When school and home adults trust each other as equal partners in supporting a child’s education, the solutions they develop to support a child can be informed by a holistic picture of the student – one that includes context from both in and outside the classroom.

On the other hand, when relationships between school and home adults are characterized by distrust and antagonism, teachers and school leaders cannot benefit from the strengths of a parent’s perspective, nor the potential resources they could bring to the community. In short, students suffer when school/parent relationships suffer.

MEJA (the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance) is a coalition of organizations led by students, parents, educators, school staff, and concerned community members who are directly affected by public education in Massachusetts. The GRAD Partnership is collaborating with MEJA to lift up student success systems, including their role in fostering strong relationships between parents and school communities.

Two parents working with MEJA recently spoke to the GRAD Partnership, and offered their perspective on ways schools can cultivate adult relationships that support students.

School Leadership Sets the Tone

School principals play an essential role in setting the tone of a relationship with parents, including signaling a desire and willingness to listen, learn and partner with them. And first impressions matter. Principals can set a positive tone that sets a foundation for mutually supportive relationships by intentionally communicating trust, openness, and authenticity. Teachers and support staff also take their cues from principals – a leader who engages with parents signals to all school adults that parents are valued members of the school community, and signals to students that adults are working together to support them.

“We all know that the principal has a lot of things they have to do, just like the teachers…parents know that. As long as you can say “This is how you can get in contact with me, and these are the best times to contact me,” just showing that you welcome the parents into the school because you want their help…It gives the parents a sense of safety and trust, that I can trust you with my child. You know who I am, you’ve seen my face, I’ve seen yours, and we both have the same understanding. And now my child sees us interacting, knowing that we’re a team, that helps the child know we’re all working for one goal, and that’s for the child to move forward.”

Ms. Chantal, parent advocate in Worcester, MA

Start with Respect

Mutual respect is the foundation of any healthy relationship, providing space for honest communication and collaboration. Respect starts with the basics, like using affirming and welcoming language. One place to start is by asking parents how they’d like to be addressed – some parents may not appreciate being referred to in the third person as “Mom” or “Dad;” many parents are professionals and may appreciate formal recognition; others may prefer first names.

“Respect should be given from the very beginning. It shouldn’t be something that you’ve got to fight to earn. If I’m giving you respect, the expectation is that I’m also receiving respect. But it took years to get there.”

Mildred, parent advocate in Holyoke, MA

Trust the Parent’s Perspective

Having a holistic understanding of a student is the first step in understanding any root cause of a child’s struggle at school. This requires both teacher and parent perspectives, which when brought together can help guide a meaningful strategy for providing needed support. Just as teachers see things at school that parents don’t, parents know things about their children that teachers don’t; both are equally valuable. Parents may know about medication and other personal issues going on in a child’s life that can directly impact how a child engages at school. Without the context that a parent’s perspective brings, teachers and counselors at school will be at a disadvantage. To best support students, schools should seek out and then trust parents’ perspectives on both root causes and ideas for strategies that address them.

“Why aren’t we working together? Why aren’t the parents or the guardians being looked at as an equal so we can both work together for a resolution?”

Mildred, parent advocate in Holyoke, MA

Meet Parents Where they Are

Not all students live in households where English is the primary language; not all parents have reliable access to email or to smartphones that are capable of accessing the apps some schools use to communicate. As part of establishing an intentional and trusting relationship with parents, school leaders should make sure they understand the best way to communicate with each family, and then work to meet those needs. This includes providing all materials in languages families understand, and communicating through all channels that are available. Family resource nights, which can offer a wide range of programming including mental health, nutrition, and employment workshops, are a great way to meet parents where they are by providing not only space for building trust but also providing key resources and information.

“If the material has to be provided in another language, figure it out. Are you going to go to the doctor’s office and sign a consent to treat form that’s not in your language? If they’re cutting off your leg, you want to make sure you can understand which leg is going to be taken off, you’re not going to sign something in English and not know what you’re signing. The same thing goes for the families with any paperwork you give them – if it’s a suspension, if it’s an IEP meeting, if it’s an assessment, if it’s the big packet for the field trip. Provide it to them in the language they understand.”

Mildred, parent advocate in Holyoke, MA

Ask Parents for Help

There are many ways schools can help parents, for example through family resource nights; there are also many ways parents can – and are eager to – help schools, including by advocating for needed resources. But parents can only help if they know what’s needed. School leadership may be reluctant to be transparent about areas needing improvement or support, but hiding challenges makes solutions harder to come by. A healthy, trusting relationship between parents and school leaders, intentionally cultivated at the start of the school year, can make asking for help later on easier.

“We want to make sure that the school has what it needs. And we can advocate for the school at the same time, but if we don’t know, we can’t do anything. And then, by the time we do figure it out, now it’s too late, because school is almost over.”

Ms. Chantal, parent advocate in Worcester, MA

Student success systems provide a framework for understanding the relationship between school engagement with parents and a child’s educational success. Just as students are best supported when schools have access to real-time data on predictors of success – and use that data to take strategic actions – student success requires schools to intentionally create space for parents to participate in the educational community. Building any type of meaningful relationship is a process in which open and ongoing communication is critical; relationships between school adults and parents/guardians are no different. But the work is essential, as students need – and deserve – a team of adults all working together to address their challenges and celebrate their successes.

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