When looking at how best to communicate with parents, it’s useful to start by considering the difference between the seemingly similar concepts of ‘communication’ and ‘information’.
The American journalist Sydney J Harris once described the distinction thus: “The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. ‘Information’ is giving out; ‘communication’ is getting through”.
In our busy and complex school lives it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply ‘informing’, rather than ensuring our messages have actually got through and been understood, with recipients feeling duly empowered to react, respond and reply accordingly.
Communication is a great tool for empowering parents, helping them to feel engaged and better able to support their children. Communication is also invaluable for bringing parents on board with what the school is trying to achieve, thus helping to avoid much unnecessary misunderstanding and conflict.
Handle with care
Ideally, your communication policies should form part of your wider school development, with particular consideration given to the who and why of communication. As well as the strategic elements of communication, there are many operational decisions to be made on how best to communicate with stakeholders, and especially parents.
After recently conducting a small poll, I discovered that more than two thirds of school business managers believed text messages to be the best way of communicating with parents. Text messages are indeed useful for quick, short, messages, but with no opportunity for reply, they technically inform rather than communicate. An extensive communication study carried out by Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA found that just 7% of our communication happens through the words we use. 38% of communication is down to the way we say those words, while a significant 55% takes place through facial expression and body language.
Shortened messages sent out via an SMS service provide little opportunity for explanation, and carry a high risk of misinterpretation. Add to the mix the growing number of parents with EAL or literacy difficulties, and communication for schools becomes ever more challenging.
Even email, which provides far more flexibility when it comes to cautiously couching messages, should be used with care. Whatever form that message home might take, invest time in ensuring that it’s:
- Unambiguous and jargon-free
- Accurate in terms of its content, with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar
- Necessary for each recipient (and not just thoughtlessly dispatched via a ‘send all’)
An SBM should recommend that all messages are handled centrally, in order to rationalise the number of messages that parents receive, avoid duplication and ensure consistency of style. If one were to go by the conclusions of Professor Mehrabian’s research, then the most effective way of communicating with parents is face-to-face. That might not always be practical, but it’s useful to know when you have particularly difficult, or potentially contentious messages to communicate.
Flip your thinking
To improve their parental communication, schools might need to flip their thinking. The traditional business prerogative will often be based on affordability and functionality, but that misses the very essence of communication – how to get through to people.
It makes sense for schools to ask parents how they would prefer the school to communicate with them, but at the same time they should be careful of going with the majority or consensus view. Schools are most likely to hear from those parents who will readily engage with the school irrespective of whatever communication system the school ends up going with.
Communicating successfully with hard to reach parents will require a more careful consideration of their particular needs. One of a school’s most important communication tools is its website. As well as providing statutory information it effectively serves as the school’s ‘shop window’, so keep it fresh, up to date, exciting and clutter-free.
Use it to show the school in the best possible light, perhaps by including pictures of children’s work; photos taken during group trips or short news bites. You might even be able to post special offers from local traders.
Many schools now use app platforms that send out notifications containing hyperlinks to school news and messages in the website direct to parents’ smartphones, at no cost to the end user. According to the provider of one such system, ContactGroup (the-contactgroup.com), “61% of UK adults have a smartphone, and the average smartphone user picks up their device 221 times a day.”
That sounds compelling – but if your school is tempted to rely entirely on apps for sending out important messages to parents, note that the aforementioned quote suggests around 39% of adults do not have a smartphone. In some areas, that figure may be even higher, so do your own research among your school’s parents first to find out what will work best for them.
Even now, many schools still shy away from communicating regularly via social media. This reticence is understandable, but should be placed within the context of your parents’ demographic profile. The majority of parents nowadays regularly use some combination of Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram, plus other services; using these services will allow schools to go to where the parents are, rather than the other way around.
There are risks wth doing this, of course – especially when you inevitably encounrer that particularly vociferous and difficult parent getting their teeth into something. Yet as one SBM once told me, “At least I can see what parents are saying. If they really have a beef about something, I’d prefer to know so I can try to do something to resolve it. For our school, the benefits outweigh the risks.”
When communicating with parents there’s a choice to be made: ‘don’t communicate’; ‘communicate badly’; or ‘communicate well’.
If, like most schools, you have hard to reach parents, you’ll need to find a communication method that suits them, rather than you or the majority.
While recognising the benefits of good communication, it’s important to also understand the risks posed by failing to communicate properly. As the naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson once observed, “The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation.”
From the inbox
What SBMS say
- Text messaging (closely followed by email)
- Parentmail (which brands itself as the ‘UK’s Best Parental Engagement System’)
- Weduc – a system that can combine texts and email notifications with website updates
We don’t like:
- Companies that won’t adapt their software to the school’s requirements
- Systems where staff can individually messages parents – there needs to be centralised control
What parents say
- Messages that are short, to the point and relevant to us
- Hyperlinks to website notices
- Emails (a popular view among working parents)
- ClassDojo – an app that lets us see what our children are doing in school
We don’t like:
- Information overload – lengthy emails, too many texts
Nickii Messer is a school business leadership consultant and trainer.