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How to Have Collaborative Conversations with Families about Sensitive Issues

Ms. Perry, a first-year teacher to second graders, is anxious about calling the home of one of her students, Ismael. Ismael is consistently falling asleep in class, and Ms. Perry suspects it may have something to do with Ismael’s at-home routines. She doesn’t want to come across as blameful, but she’s concerned about Ismael’s school success if the pattern continues.

Mr. Espinoza, a school dean, needs to push deeper for solutions surrounding Elise, a seventh-grader at the school. Unfortunately, Elise was involved in incidents of school bullying. The guidance counselor had previously reached out to Elise’s aunt- her primary caretaker- but the conversation hadn’t gone smoothly. Meanwhile, reports of Elise’s bullying behaviors persisted. Mr. Espinoza recognizes that he’ll need to take a different approach in the follow-up conversation, and he’s hopeful that Elise’s aunt will be more receptive.

Scenarios like Ms. Perry’s and Mr. Espinoza’s aren’t unique. School staff make critical decisions about engaging with families around difficult conversations and situations every day. Whether the subject is academic performance, mental wellness, or behavior, bringing tough talks to the table can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.

But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, with the proper groundwork, moving from uncomfortable and even confrontational to collaborative isn’t only possible- it’s probable.

Start yesterday.

If you’ve ever waited to open communication until you need to share difficult news with families, then you know this isn’t a great strategy. Waiting until a problem arises to initiate contact positions guardians on the defense and sets the stage for tense interactions. Similarly, if a guardian’s first school visit is to discuss something upsetting to them or their child, they’re likely to enter on the offense- a challenge for collaborative problem-solving. Both circumstances erode trust and undermine a school’s efforts to build a welcoming and inclusive culture.

Moving toward measurable results in family engagement is a process that starts before the first day of school. How easy or difficult is it for prospective families to learn about the school? How are families greeted on the phone or in the enrollment process? Is the building a welcoming place to enter? How invested is your school in its efforts to communicate with families?

As you map out your year-long approach to family engagement, look beyond guardian-teacher conferences. Building a relationship with the school community creates a basis for communication before you need to connect. For example, consider hosting an International Night to showcase your school’s multilingual and multicultural strengths and use this time to connect with families directly. Combined events- like an art showcase in the lobby of the middle school musical can also draw different groups together and expand opportunities for meaningful interaction.

This same approach can be taken on classroom and individual staff levels. Teachers, related service providers, and other school staff should be approachable and welcoming of communication from families. If there is a family they haven’t met with by the end of the first month of school, they can reach out for a quick but meaningful introduction. And having a clear system of communication in place can ensure that families know their opinions are welcome. 

Lean into the right tech for your school.

Now more than ever, effective tech-based communication is essential to a school’s relationship-building efforts. In addition, it helps overcome or address the barriers many families face, including access, language, and adult literacy challenges. Apps specifically designed to facilitate communication with families, like SchoolCNXT by CNXTDigital, can take outreach to the next level.

A right-fit adaptive technology solution serves several important purposes. First, it opens doors to meet families where they are- at the time, place, and level of interaction that’s best for them. Consistent interactions through an app like SchoolCNXT also create a sense of predictability and ownership over learning outcomes- both essential to greater relationship and trust-building efforts.

If your goal is to make conversations more equitable and functional, adaptive tech helps here, too. Well-designed platforms invite multilingual and new-to-English families into conversations in dynamic, integrative ways. High-quality translation capacity, talk-to-text features, and visual support are important to look for in a product that can meet the unique needs of your diverse student and family population.

Step in with a strategy

Take the time to map out difficult conversations in advance. Then, think carefully about how the space, the greeting, and your body language can effectively escalate or deescalate the exchange. 

In advance of the meeting, think about questions the family or guardian might have. Draft brief, constructive responses and organize any supplemental resources. Also, consider the family’s cultural or linguistic background. What things may be seen differently from their cultural reference point or might be “lost in translation”?

It’s also important to honor families’ complex lives outside of the school day. By making an effort to work with a family’s scheduling needs, you’re saying: “I value you as a partner in your child’s school success and appreciate your willingness to engage.” And, if a family isn’t able to meet in person during operating school hours? Then thank goodness your adaptive tech tools are already in place!

As an educator, you’ve likely hesitated to reach out to a student’s guardian to have a difficult conversation — and you sure wouldn’t be alone! Communication with families can sometimes feel uncomfortable. However, having the right approach and tools in your toolbox can influence positive outcomes when it comes to having difficult conversations with families. Start early, ensure a welcoming space, and lean on adaptive technology like Snap! Connect and see how tough talks can become collaborative, solution-seeking chats.

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