How to improve school communication for all families in your district

The way our society communicates has changed, drastically! Data, that’s now over two years old, shows that 96% of Americans own a cellphone, and 81% of Americans own a smartphone. The technology available today is faster and easier to use than ever before. And now the millennials that grew up using today’s technology are the parents of children that are already entering your schools – which means their expectations of your school district’s communication are at an all-time high.

However, school districts across the country are finding themselves with similar problems: (1) Today’s classrooms contain more languages than ever before, creating a barrier when things aren’t translated into a parent’s preferred language. (2) Countless communication tools and systems have been introduced over time to meet the needs of different stakeholders, without significant consideration for how many places that families have to keep up with. (3) And with all the different communication tools, administrators have little oversight into the communication and limited data for reporting.

Many K-12 families struggle to see into the school much beyond a school event or newsletter, and have struggled for decades to get an answer to the simple question “what did you do at school today?” Considering this, let’s dive into 6 things that will improve parent communication across your entire school district.

1. Establish one source for all communication

More and more school districts’ parent surveys are revealing that school-home communication is consistently a problem area. Parents are reporting that they no longer want to go here for this and there for that. Instead, they want one easy platform for all of their communication.

Why is this happening? Over time, district offices, school offices, classrooms, and school groups have all introduced different ways to communicate with families. For example, district and school offices implemented tools for sending mass notifications like auto-dialing, emailing, texting, and sending urgent alerts; mass communications like newsletters and emails; and student-specific alerts like attendance and lunch balance notifications. Meanwhile, classrooms and school groups needed their own tools so they found free third-party apps, used mass emails and texts, or created social media pages. Plus, everyone is using a different calendar, event, and group coordination tools.

Families Frustrated by School Communication App Overload

While these all serve great purposes, it’s difficult to step back and look at what’s happening to families. With all these different communication channels, families – especially those with multiple kids in different grades and schools, are trying to keep up with 8 or 9 different forms of communication. When families need to check for school announcements, where should they go? Social media? The school website? Their email? A communication app? Even the best get overwhelmed and start checking out because they are also trying to stay on top of life at home.

Families just want one source for all communication. Implementing a communication platform that’s built to unify communication this way is the best and easiest solution. District-wide school communication platforms like Livingtree Engage allow you to get away from all the different tools you use to communicate. This allows your families to directly connect with their child’s teacher, and receive school-level and district-level communication in one place, without all of the overwhelming apps, cluttered inboxes, and lost emails.

Livingtree-Engage School Communication in One Platform
Livingtree’s Engage platform streamlines all communication in one place

2. Translate into a parent’s preferred language

Your district may contain families with dozens of different primary languages, and failing to translate messages can create a barrier between them and their child’s learning. Parents in diverse communities may be afraid to even follow up on any official notices that they don’t fully understand.

The tools that your district office, schools, and classrooms use should automatically translate messages into each parent’s preferred language to avoid confusion and keep families engaged. Optimally, you should have a communication platform that provides automatic two-way translation between families and staff. That way, a staff member can write a message in English and have it delivered in the preferred language of a parent, and vice-versa when that parent replies.

Livingtree Engage Two-Way Translations for School Communication

This will not only improve the effectiveness of your schools’ communication, but also the engagement among families that speak different primary languages.

3. Maintain oversight and data of all communication

When it comes to communication, school and district administrators should have two things: oversight and data. But when everyone is using something different to communicate with families, this can be hard to come by.

School and district administrators often report wanting oversight of the communication that their schools are sending. This insight can help schools continuously optimize and streamline their communication.

Administrators also know how important data is. Not only can communication data be used for reporting, but it can also help identify areas that need improvement. Platforms that offer communication data and reports for district, school, and classroom-level communication can help streamline this process while offering insight into platform usage, who has read what, and how parents are engaging with different communications.

This is yet another benefit to having one platform.

4. Eliminate registrations and signups – make it easy for families

When classrooms and school groups are using their own communication tools, in addition to all the school and district-level systems, families end up with a lot of sign-ups, group codes, and registrations – which becomes overwhelming year over year.

When district SIS systems already have parent contact information, school communication should be an effortless experience on the part of families. You can eliminate a lot of frustration by ensuring that your communication tools accept data from your district’s SIS system.

You can dramatically improve your families’ communication experience if you make sure that they are automatically connected to their child’s teacher, school, and district without having to deal with the sign-ups and registrations.

5. Provide easy and customizable communication

Want to improve communication for families? Make sure your communication tools are both easy to use and customizable for families. Instead of choosing how to send information to families, let families choose how they want to receive it!

With a communication platform like Livingtree Engage, you can let parents set their preferences as to how they receive notifications. This ensures that they are able to receive communication in whatever form is best for them, and streamlines communication between school and home.

6. Make it mobile – everything right in a parent’s pocket

In general, cell phones have become a lifeline for families who are constantly busy and on the go. It’s also a pretty safe bet today that while not all families will have devices like computers and tablets, most if not all will have a cell phone.

To reach all families, you should ensure that all your communication is accessible via mobile devices. With communication platforms like Livingtree Engage, you can provide families a single source of communication that is quite literally in their pocket. That way families get access to class updates, school notifications, and other communications right on their phones.

Key Takeaway:

The expectations for modern communications that meet the needs of families is only intensifying. And while school districts want to check every box and reach families in as many ways as possible, this can actually cause problems if families are inundated with communication.

Sure, communication channels like social media have their place in public relations for serving and addressing the broader community. But at some point, more communication is not always better. Better communication is better. That’s why it’s important to consider how families are receiving communication from all of the different stakeholders in your district – at the district, school, and classroom levels.

Use a platform to improve every aspect of communication

As we’ve covered, the right communication platform can unify all communication in one place for families, and provide beneficial features like automatic translations, data and reporting, customizable preferences, and mobile access.

Schools and districts across the country are using Livingtree’s Engage platform, and have made significant improvements to the communication experience of their staff and families. Interested in learning more about Livingtree Engage and whether it’s the right platform for your school or district community?

Visit the Livingtree Engage page to learn more or request more information below:

You can also download our free guide for finding a better way to engage families:

Family Engagement Technology Guide

What is Family Engagement? 8 Things You Should Know

“Family engagement means more than simply informing parents about their child’s progress or challenges” [IRIS Center]

When it comes to one of the most important components related to student success and school improvement, it’s mission critical to understand family engagement, including a commonly understood definition of what family engagement is, why it’s important, and approaches for improving it.

While much has changed over the years related to how we as a society interact, communicate, and maintain relationships, the fundamental principles of family engagement remain unchanged. Therefore, most family engagement research needs to be applied using up-to-date approaches.

This article is not as in-depth as many of the research reports you can find about family engagement. Instead, it will help you understand the 8 things you should know right now.

Let’s get started. As an overview, here are the 8 things you should know about family engagement:

1. What is Family Engagement?
2. Why is Family Engagement Important?
3. How Do Schools Improve Family Engagement?
4. How Can Schools Improve Communication with Families?
5. What Should Schools Do to Engage Disengaged Families?
6. Family Engagement is Not All About School Events
7. How to Engage Families at Home? Help Families Ask Better Questions
8. Involve Families in the Decision-Making Process

1. What is Family Engagement?

Family Engagement in the context of K-12 education refers to the process of schools and families working together around a child’s learning in a collaborative and supportive manner to promote the child’s development and wellbeing. In the past, family engagement has been referred to as parent involvement and parent engagement. However, family engagement is now widely accepted as the term used to describe this practice.

The above definition of family engagement is derived from the U.S. Department of Education, NAFSCE, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The term “family” is inclusive of all adults who interact in school systems in support of their child, including biological, adoptive, and foster parents; grandparents; legal and informal guardians; and adult siblings.

2. Why is Family Engagement Important?

Family engagement is based on decades of research that demonstrates that families play an important role in students’ development and learning. Importantly, it has proven that when families are meaningfully engaged in learning, students demonstrate better grades, test scores, attendance, and behavior. It also has a positive impact on teachers, as there are typically improvements in teacher satisfaction and retention.

Here’s a short clip from one of Livingtree’s Family Engagement webinars with Dr. Steve Constantino on the ROI of Family Engagement:

3. How Do Schools Improve Family Engagement?

While family outreach might be a common strategy, oftentimes there is apprehension among school staff. This apprehension usually stems from either a lack of understanding, a lack of culture in the school, a lack of capacity – or some combination.

To engage families, the first step for schools is to establish a culture that embraces family engagement as a core value of the school. To do this, staff members must understand the importance and impact of family engagement on student learning.

Additionally, once staff members embrace and recognize family engagement among their school culture, they must then have the capacity to implement effective strategies and practices. Unfortunately, family engagement is seldomly covered in teacher preparation programs, leaving most teachers without knowledge about what good family engagement looks like or how to engage families.

Much like you are doing here, it is important to cover the groundwork with all staff members to build a better understanding of family engagement. Further investing in family engagement training and professional development is another way to fast-track the capacity-building of the staff members in your school or district.

4. How Can Schools Improve Communication with Families?

Family engagement research indicates that two-way communication is a fundamental core process. However, there are also many barriers hidden in communication that can hinder family engagement. This can include using primarily one-way communication, failing to translate communications, and/or not communicating effectively.

One-way communication is easy. It involves sending information home. Folders, grades, newsletters, forms, school notifications and alerts – while important, don’t drive authentic family engagement. These therefore cannot be the only types of communication that schools have with families. There must be real, two-way conversations that take place where teachers and staff members invite family feedback and participation in the conversation.

One Way Communication

Additionally, communication should be delivered effectively. Families should have one place that they can view all communication from their child’s classroom, school, and district. They shouldn’t be juggling several places for bits and pieces.

Unfortunately, with time, districts often accumulate several methods for communicating with families. There are websites, emails, alerts, and mass communications from the district and school buildings, plus even more third-party apps and tools used in classrooms.

After sorting through it all, families find that they are receiving communication in 8 or 9 different ways, causing even the best to start checking out. Many districts have revealed through surveys that families want one simple source for all their communication, such as a unified communication platform.

Families Frustrated by School Communication App Overload

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to family communication. Because this section could stand alone as it’s own article, here are some quick tips:

Start the year off with a phone call, and check in throughout the year (direct two-way communication!). Use questions to try and exact valuable information about the student and their family.

Don’t only communicate when something is wrong. A family’s first thought when they see their child’s school calling shouldn’t be “oh no” or “something must be wrong.” What does that say about their relationship and expectations with the school? Communicate often and share positive feedback.

Communicate what will happen, not what already happened. Letting families know about a grade on last week’s test doesn’t promote engagement. Families can’t engage with (or fix) things that happened in the past. Instead, provide families information about things ahead of time that are going to happen.

Ensure that families can receive classroom, school, and district communication in one place. School districts often have different methods of communication at the district-level than they do at the school and classroom-levels. As a result, families are going here for this, and there for that – and eventually it becomes frustrating. Instead, provide a way for families to choose how they are notified and receive everything in one place. You can do this with a district-wide or school-wide communication platform.

Eliminate language barriers by ensuring that families can receive all communication in their primary language. You can do this by ensuring that your school’s or district’s communication platform translates everything into a family’s primary language.

Bonus info: Get the Family Engagement Technology guide for the 4 capabilities your engagement platform must have and the best practices for school districts to implement a unified solution.

5. What Should Schools Do to Engage Disengaged Families?

When families are disengaged and not involved or participating, you can’t just do things at school – you must go to them. There are a number of reasons why you might not ever hear from a student’s family, but continuing to reach out from your school site and expecting engagement is ineffective.

Instead, you have to get out into the community in order to reach and build trust with the families who are disengaged. A common saying is that before they come to you, you must go to them.

Here’s Todd Nesloney’s take on this idea from one of Livingtree’s Family Engagement webinars:

Here are a few ways you can “go to” families:
• Conduct home visits
• Host events out in the community (cookouts, family fun nights, car parades)
• Hold school meetings in the community (at places of worship, community centers, public libraries, etc.)

6. Family Engagement is Not All About School Events

A common misconception is that schools must host events and get families to physically attend school functions. While events are a great way to bring families together and provide different resources to those who need it, events and event attendance are not correlated with, nor a measure of family engagement.

Research has shown that the most powerful family engagement that best promotes student learning happens outside of school. The most authentic engagement between a parent and a child happens in the car, on the walk to the bus stop, at the kitchen table – away from school.

The challenge for schools is to focus less on hosting events at school, and more on finding ways to effectively reach families in ways that promote family efficacy and engagement outside of school.

Here’s Dr. Steve Constantino on one of Livingtree’s Family Engagement webinars and his take on this challenge:

7. How to Engage Families at Home? Help Families Ask Better Questions

If the best forms of family engagement happen outside of school, then the key is to empower families to engage in their child’s learning. The easiest way to do that is to help families ask better questions.

Too often, the extent of the conversation about school is (get ready, bet this sounds familiar!):

Family member: “What did you do at school today?”
Child: “Nothing.”
Family member: “Do you have homework?”
Child: “Not much”

The goal is to change that scenario so that families don’t have to ask, and instead already know. One of the best techniques is to provide families with effective questions to ask their children at home. Take this example:

“This week in mathematics we will be learning about the order of operations. This is simply the order in which students should multiply, divide, add, and subtract in their math equations. Ask your child about the following:
What acronym did you learn to remember the order of operations? (Answer: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”
What does the acronym stand for? (Answer: Parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction)

Quizzing your child on these questions will help them memorize the concept and successfully use it on our test next week. Please let me know if there are any questions or struggles.”

Think about how much more well-equipped a family member is with that information and how much easier it is to be engaged in their child’s learning.

8. Involve Families in the Decision-Making Process

Involving families in the decision-making process of a school or district is important. Not only does it build trusting relationships with the school system and staff members, but families also become more supportive of the school or district.

When families feel as though they have a role in the school, the school becomes more communal – where they feel like they can refer to it as “our school.” If families aren’t involved in any decisions, they don’t feel like they have a role at the school and it simply becomes “the school.” So it’s extremely beneficial to give families the ability to provide feedback and engage in decisions that impact their children.

Here are just a few areas that you can involve families in the decision-making process:

• Inviting families to attend and participate in school improvement meetings
• Creating an open and accepting process to invite family concerns and complaints
• Gathering family input on testing dates
• Gathering family input on the types of events that will be held throughout the year
• Gathering family input on event dates and times
• Gathering family input on how conferences will be conducted
• Gathering family input on field trips

Conclusion: Remember, Family Engagement is a Partnership

Family engagement requires teamwork. Family engagement is a strategy that requires families and school staff to work collaboratively in order to benefit the student.

Regardless of whether you’re approaching this for the first time, or a seasoned veteran looking to further enhance family engagement, hold on to this: both sides care. Teachers and school staff members care about their students and want them to succeed. Families also want their children to succeed simply due to a common desire among all parents for their children to exceed them in their quality of life.

If you remember that, and apply those 8 pieces of knowledge about family engagement, you can make a difference.

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