Families in the Fold

Sobson, Lorraine - Off the Shelf

Families can play an important role as collaborators in a child’s education, but collaboration between families and schools is sometimes tricky. A number of variables can complicate effective communication and partnership when well-meaning educators reach out to family members.

Because each interaction can be different, I turned to scholar and educator Wendy Murawski to learn more about interactions between schools and families. Wendy is the editor of the book, “What Really Works With Exceptional Learners,” which offers a wealth of information on topics that range from math and reading instruction, to universal design for learning, to use of technology—and culturally responsive teaching. Wendy coauthored a chapter in the book on the importance of home–school partnerships.

L: You encourage teachers to avoid assumptions about families. In some ways this seems obvious. For example, we shouldn’t assume every child comes from a two-parent household with a father and a mother. But I gather it’s more complicated than that. How do stereotypes come into play?

W: I’m glad you asked. Stereotypes are not our friends, and they can pop up when we don’t expect them. For example, it can be helpful to know that individuals in some cultures defer to educators or don’t like to use strong eye contact, but it can work against educators if we assume that a student or family from a particular background will share those characteristics. Just as all students are different, so are their families.

L: That makes sense. But it also seems like a double-edged sword, where a teacher can make a misstep while trying to be culturally sensitive. How can teachers avoid that?

W: The best thing an educator can do is ask questions—lots of questions and in many different formats. Provide surveys and questionnaires for family members to fill out through email, hard copy, and at back-to-school night. Ask students to complete short surveys or ask them directly about their families’ preferences regarding communication, technology, collaboration, and interactions. Through questions you can discover the family story instead of making assumptions about it.

L: I like that idea of a family story. Can you tell us more about what that is?

W: Family stories are what help us understand our students as people, not just bodies waiting to be filled with information about math or English. Knowing that a student’s family is from a war-torn country and has endured many struggles to get to the United States, or learning that a student is particularly proud of making Eagle Scout, or hearing a student share how he communicates using assistive technology with his nonverbal sister—all this helps us as educators get to know what makes our students tick. Our job is not just to teach content but to motivate, engage, and inspire. One element that can help us do that is knowing the family story.

L: Another way of inspiring and motivating kids is to encourage families to be “shared educators,” correct? What is a shared educator and how can we promote that role for families?

W: “Shared educator” refers to the way a family member can support the work of school at home. There are so many ways that educators and family members can collaborate to ensure that students, and especially those with exceptionalities, are getting their needs met. This includes working together to help students academically, behaviorally, and socially.

The best way to engage family members as shared educators is to simply give them a chance. This is another area where we can err by making assumptions about family members. If we assume they aren’t interested, are too busy, or lack the skills needed, then we’ve ended the interaction before it’s started. It’s important to remember you don’t have to be an academic to be a shared educator. Family members have a unique view of their child and can help with generalization and maintenance of many skills and behaviors. We need them on our side as much as they need us on theirs!

L: So what’s the best way to open up communication? Can you offer any first steps for teachers who want to reach out to families?

W: Yes! For some general guidelines, I’d say try to have an open mind, use clear communication skills, avoid jargon and assumptions, and have a willingness to reach out multiple times and in different ways to connect with students’ families.

But also, be willing to show vulnerability. Sometimes we’re so caught up in disseminating information such as grades and meeting dates, we inadvertently give the impression we have all the answers. If families only see teachers sharing and not asking for information, they may feel there isn’t a real desire for true collaboration. On the other hand, if a teacher shares that he or she doesn’t have all the answers and needs the support of the family, that shows a vulnerability and a true desire for support. Families need to know their input will be welcomed, embraced, and actually put to good use. Offer a variety of ways for families to collaborate. Remember, we all have different strengths and ways to support one another!



Lorraine Sobson
Editor and Manager, CEC Professional Publications

About the author:

Dr. Wendy Weichel Murawski is the executive director and Eisner Endowed Chair for the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Michael D. Eisner College of Education at California State University, Northridge. She is the author of four books on co-teaching, collaboration, and differentiation, and the editor of a three-book series on what really works in education.

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