Jump to:Page Content
You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.
Beyond the Parent-Teacher Conference: Diverse Patterns of Home-School Communication
Heather B. Weiss, Holly Kreider, Eliot Levine, Ellen Mayer, Jenny Stadler, Peggy Vaughan
Presented April 1998 at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference in San Diego, California
Parents' involvement in their children's education is widely considered to have substantial potential for benefiting children's development and academic performance, for improving schools, and for empowering parents (Henderson & Berla, 1994; Winters, 1993). Evidence that directly links parent involvement to increased child achievement remains modest, but these modest results are likely to be a reflection of the complexity of the relationship between families and schools. To obtain a clearer picture of the home-school relationship, it is essential to understand the mechanisms and processes that make up diverse parent involvement activities. Qualitative research is well-suited to identify such processes.
One central aspect of parent involvement which merits such in-depth scrutiny is home-school communication, a phenomenon that comprises one category of Epstein's (1996) well-known typology of parent involvement activities. Discussions about home-school communication generally focus on formal, scheduled school activities that are offered to all parents, such as parent-teacher conferences or back-to-school nights. In contrast, this paper examines a variety of alternative communication patterns that emerged in the School Transition Study as important mechanisms for parents and teachers to gain information and make decisions about children. These patterns, in contrast to activities such as parent-teacher conferences, are often less formal and arise out of situations specific to a particular child.
This paper examines alternative communication patterns and their connection to children's successful pathways through middle childhood by considering their effects on proximal indicators of success in academic, social, and developmental domains.
As mentioned in Dr. Stipek's overview, 23 families were selected from the larger study sample for in-depth qualitative case studies. The examples of home-school communication we present were drawn primarily from semi-structured interviews with the teachers and primary caregivers of the case study children when the children were in first grade. Findings from quantitative parent and teacher measures administered to the larger study sample also are discussed, but are not central to our discussion because they mostly measured the formal and commonly offered forms of home-school communication which have frequently been examined in prior literature. The alternative communication patterns discussed here emerged primarily through the in-depth parent and teacher interviews.
Quantitative findings from the larger sample show that many parents of kindergarten and first grade students are involved with typical types of formal, school-wide home-school communication. Eighty-five percent of parents reported that they had taken part in at least one parent-teacher conference during the school year, 80% attended an open house, and 67% had visited the classroom while class was in session. A quantitative measure also addressed an informal communication pattern. When asked about their strategies for communicating with study families, the most frequent type of communication teachers reported were informal meetings with parents at the beginning or end of the school day. Teachers engaged in such informal meetings at least monthly with about half (52%) of the study families, and at least weekly with about a third (37%) of the families. Other types of informal communication are detailed in the case examples below.
Another important communication pattern emerging from the qualitative interviews is that parents and teachers sometimes utilize alternative information sources to gather information about each other and about the children for whom they are responsible. Examples of such sources are school personnel other than the teacher, extended family working in the school, and parent observations made through the classroom window.
Given the prevalence, frequency, and potential effects of these alternative forms of communication, it is important to understand the processes associated with them. The following case examples from the qualitative data introduce alternative patterns of communication that have emerged.
Tim: Varied Information Sources
Tim is a white student attending a rural school in a small New England city with a predominantly Caucasian population. He lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and seven siblings. His mother works full-time, so Tim is often supervised by his teenage sister. Home-school communication and information exchange frequently extend beyond parent and teacher to include other school personnel, extended family, and even community sources, such as the local newspaper. This particular communication pattern appears to be influenced by Tim's rural context, his family situation, and the extent of his problems. Tim's teacher reports that he has average reading and math skills compared to children his age.
Living in a close-knit rural setting may increase the opportunities for particular types of communication and information gathering. For instance, Tim's teacher learned from a local newspaper that Tim's father had been detained by local law enforcement officials. The teacher pieced together an understanding of Tim's home life by using such indirectly obtained information to supplement the information she gathered by more conventional means.
Family members other than parents also provided information to Tim's teacher. For example, Tim's sister often supervises him at home and has spoken by phone with his teacher. Tim and his younger siblings also attend the same school, and Tim's teacher has noted the closeness among these siblings as indicative of a “caring” family.
Tim's case also reflects a home-school communication pattern that involves multiple school personnel, not just the teacher. These personnel include the principal, guidance counselor, and reading specialist. The extent and type of Tim's academic and behavioral struggles appear to contribute to this pattern. For example, his guidance counselor communicated with the family about managing Tim's anger, possible referrals to community programs, and family struggles. His principal's contact with the family seemed to occur when Tim's behavior had a disruptive effect on the larger school, such as in the playground or on the school bus.
The involvement of additional school personnel in home-school communication may be linked to its content. In several instances of reporting problems to Tim's mother, the principal did not enlist the mother's help in solving them, saying instead, “The problem is ours ... I don't want you to do anything at home.” A similar pattern emerged in communication between Tim's mother and teacher. The teacher excluded the mother from problem solving because, “[I] felt really badly for [Tim's mother] ... it's tough to cope with a big family and be all alone and trying to do it.”
Martin: Intensive Problem-Focused Communication
Martin lives in a large northeastern industrial city with his mother and her fiancé, who serves as a father figure to Martin. The family is African American and recently moved from public housing to a predominantly White neighborhood where Martin is experiencing overt racism and the loss of his old friends. He has above average verbal and academic skills in school.
Home-school communication between Martin's mother and teacher has been problem-focused, consistent, and collaborative. The mother did not attend a single parent-teacher conference, but she spoke frequently with the teacher by telephone, and her fiancé sometimes visited the classroom during school hours to check on Martin's progress. Moreover, Martin's great aunt works in the school and provides his mother with important information about school activities and resources, such as which teacher would provide Martin with the best education.
Telephone conversations between Martin's mother and teacher were an effective form of communication, leading to a collaborative intervention for addressing what the teacher defined as disruptive behavior. When Martin acted out, the teacher would call the mother at work, the mother would speak with Martin on the phone, and this enabled Martin to “settle down” and comply with expected classroom behavior. This pattern of home-school communication was uniquely facilitated by the mother's initiative and availability during work hours, the teacher's flexibility and dedication, and the family and school resources that permitted unscheduled phone communication. This type of respectful, bi-directional, and consistent communication pattern appeared to afford an effective collaboration.
While Martin's mother and teacher collaborated to address his problems, they did not fully communicate with each other regarding their differing perspectives on the source of these problems. Martin's mother viewed his anger and defiance as stemming, at least in part, from his recent experiences of changing neighborhoods, losing friends, and being the target of racism. She also had a substantial awareness of his strengths. In contrast, the teacher seemed to lack this contextualized understanding of Martin's behavior. Despite the teacher's high regard for Martin and his family, her communication with the family focused on Martin's classroom behavior problems and did not reflect the influences of relocation and racism on his behavior.
Lorraine: Child as Intermediary in Communication
Lorraine is a Latina girl living with her mother and two siblings in a large western city with a substantial Latino population. She performs below children her age in reading and math skills, and communication between home and school has been almost nonexistent. Her mother missed two scheduled parent-teacher conferences and a third rescheduled one. The only contact between mother and teacher for the entire year was a progress report sent home and a brief face-to-face chat one morning.
Although direct communication was extremely limited, a pattern of indirect or third-party communication arose in which Lorraine served as the conveyor of information from teacher and mother. The mother described Lorraine as saying things like: “Mom, the teacher told me that you have to help me [learn] how to read.” Lorraine also took it upon herself to try to close the gap between home and school: “Good mothers help their children with their homework, and good mothers go to school and meet with their teacher.”
Several factors apparently contributed to this communication pattern. First, Lorraine's mother had no car and does not walk her daughter to or from school. Second, she reported feeling uncomfortable going into the school and considers the teacher “too serious.” Third, the teacher reported that she had not made persistent outreach efforts to the mother. In the midst of these circumstances, which mitigate against more conventional patterns of communication, Lorraine took initiative in conveying information from her teacher to her mother.
Unfortunately, this child-mediated pattern of communication, at least in the form that emerged in this case, has not resulted in substantial changes to the mother's home-based or school-based involvement in Lorraine's learning. Teacher and mother agree that Lorraine needs more help learning at home, but her mother feels she lacks skills and confidence to help her daughter with schoolwork, and the zealous efforts of a seven-year-old are not enough to replace dialogue between adults.
The findings from these case examples suggest dimensions of communication between families and schools that have important implications for research, practice, and professional development in education. Rather than teachers contacting parents of all children uniformly in pre-planned circumstances, we see a multitude of school personnel and family members engaging in many types of communication under diverse circumstances. At this point in our research, this diversity cannot be neatly characterized with a single conceptual label, but an emerging category of “informal” or “targeted” communications is taking shape that contrasts with the more formal and universally disseminated contacts that often characterize discourse about home-school communication. The case examples suggest contexts in which these types of communication can arise, the content of the communication they may engender, and the roles they can play in children's pathways through middle childhood.
What is the context of communication?
The contexts in which informal and targeted communication patterns arise are diverse. Based on our examples, three contextual factors that may influence these patterns include family structure, school accessibility, and the parent's level of trust in the school.
In Tim's case, communication patterns are influenced by having multiple caregivers, siblings in the school, and complex issues calling for the involvement of the guidance counselor, principal, and reading specialist. Accessibility is a major factor for Martin's mother, whose work schedule prevents her from visiting the school, but allows her the flexibility to receive frequent phone calls from the teacher. For Lorraine's mother, communication is apparently limited by several factors including lack of transportation and feelings of discomfort in the school. [Consistent with this finding, the main study sample showed a modest but significant relationship between parents' comfort level in the school and their involvement in school activities (r=.22, p<.05).]
What is the content of communication?
The content of communication also apparently relates to different communication patterns. In Tim's case, the content is problem-focused and largely excludes the family from discussion of potential solutions. The involvement of so many school personnel in Tim's education may leave Tim's mother out of the problem-solving loop.
In Martin's case, informal communication is also problem-focused, but centers mainly on behavioral issues. It also involves timely and collaborative problem solving between his teacher and mother and agreement on some of the sources of Martin's behavior. However, important aspects of understanding Martin's behavior, such as the racism he is experiencing in his new neighborhood, are noticeably missing from these conversations, an omission that could relate to a difference in race and ethnicity between teacher and parent, the brief and informal nature of their phone calls, or other contextual factors.
Lorraine's wish to increase her mother's engagement and close the gap between home and school may influence the fact that she conveys messages to her mother that seem meant to encourage her mother's involvement in her learning. Also, the complexity of communication which can be conveyed verbally by a young child is limited, and being the sole link between parent and teacher is a weighty responsibility for a seven-year-old child to carry. The teacher might have been able to capitalize more effectively on Lorraine's initiative by sending home materials with Lorraine and instructing the mother about how to help her daughter with homework.
What is the role of communication?
The case examples also shed light on the role of informal and targeted communication in children's development. School personnel that tend to report problems to Tim's family are probably sympathetic, well-intentioned, and successful in the short-term, but may prevent the family from building strategies to address future academic and social challenges that will surpass the school's capacity for support.
Martin's teacher and mother have both initiated informal communication in response to his problems, which suggests that both of them perceive the role of communication as problem-driven. Both also view this communication as a strategy for collaboration and mutual problem-solving, which has been successful for addressing Martin's behavioral issues in the classroom. However, discussion does not seem to permit sharing of Martin's strengths and potential.
Lorraine's case introduces the function of the child in home-school communication, specifically in supporting parents to become involved in their children's education. Her case also demonstrates how a lack of direct communication between family and school might help shape a child's school experience and academic progress. It should be noted that for Lorraine and the other case study children, many factors beyond home-school communication affect their success.
Questions for Future Research and Practice
Given the widespread and frequent nature of these alternate home-school communication patterns, it is important for them to be more explicitly examined in educational research and practice. Further consideration should be given to questions such as: who is communicating, what circumstances are required for the communication to occur, and how can different patterns of communication influence child outcomes. By answering such questions, we can work toward constructing our communications more effectively and capitalizing on a variety of communication events.
This work has been supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Pathways Through Middle Childhood. We would also like to thank School Transition Study ethnographers, Kim Friedman, Carol McAllister, Jane Wellenkamp, Jane Dirks, and Gisella Hanley, for the case study data collection and their analytic insights, Hannah Kim for additional analyses and review, and the Steering Committee for the School Transition Study, Deborah Stipek, Walter Secada, Penny Hauser-Cram, Jennifer Greene, and Jacque Eccles, for their feedback throughout our data collection and analysis. We would especially like to thank Jennifer Greene for her guidance on our mixed method analysis. Lastly, we thank our project families and school personnel who gave so generously of their time to share their stories with us. Their names and identifying information have been changed in this paper.
Epstein, J. L. (1996). Advances in family, community, and school partnerships. New Schools, New Communities, 12(3), 5-13.
Henderson, A., & Berla, N. (Eds.) (1994). A new generation of evidence: The family is critical to student achievement. National Committee for Citizens in Education.
Winters, W. G. (1993). African American mothers and urban schools: The power of participation. New York: Lexington Books.
Free. Available online only.