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How to Build a Better Parent-Teacher Relationship

Research shows that healthy communication between parents and teachers has a positive impact on student learning.

By Dr. Courtney Zulauf-McCurdy and Sydney Parker

A preschool age boy watches quietly as his mom and his female teacher smile and laugh during the parent teacher conference.

Decades of research demonstrate that parent-teacher relationships have an impact on child well-being. But who is responsible for building that relationship, the parent or the teacher? The answer is both. Parents and teachers both have an important part to play in opening lines of communication and connection with one another.

As the school year ramps back up, we asked Dr. Courtney Zulauf-McCurdy, a clinical psychologist and a faculty member at the University of Washington’s School Mental Health Assessment, Research, and Training (SMART) center (among several other appointments) for her best research-based tips on building positive parent-teacher relationships.

Dr. Zulauf-McCurdy’s research is focused on discovering ways to reduce mental health disparities for young children of color. She has completed several studies that have explored why Black boys are being removed from their classrooms at alarmingly higher rates than their white peers.

Her findings indicate that the expulsions are at least in part related to teachers’ perceptions of parents. In her current research supported by foundry10, Dr. Zulauf-McCurdy is partnering with educators, parents, and local early childhood centers to develop and test an intervention to strengthen parent-teacher relationships in preschool, with a particular focus on supporting children of color and their families.

Read below for Dr. Zulauf-McCurdy’s tips for teachers and parents looking to create or improve their relationships.

Connect Early and Communicate Often

Communication is key to any type of successful relationship. However, many parents and teachers wait to communicate once there is a concern about a child’s development or behavior. I recommend communicating early and often. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 limitations, you may not get as much face-to-face contact with each other. As a result, it may take a little extra work from both teachers and parents to set up mutually-beneficial communication channels.

  • Teacher tip: Set up a system for communication with all families at the start of the school year. This can be through an app (e.g., ClassDojo) or writing and sending home daily notes that request a parent response.
  • Parent tip: Communication is a two-way street and teachers would be more than excited to hear from you! If you can’t physically make it into school, try emailing or sending a note to your child’s teacher to let them know how things are going at home and if you have any questions or concerns.

Build a Respectful Partnership

Children are most successful when their parents and teachers can work in harmony. Strong partnerships must be grounded in trust and mutual respect.

  • Teacher tip: Incorporate questions into your start-of-the-school-year paperwork that ask about families’ preferred styles of communication, what they value in terms of their child’s education, and what supports they may need throughout the year.
  • Parent tip: Remember that your child’s teacher also has a life outside of the classroom. The pandemic has hit everyone in different ways and this includes teachers who are not only juggling changes in the classroom but potentially changes outside of it as well. When you can, ask how they are doing, send words of encouragement, or ask how you can help.

Don’t Run from Healthy Conflict

Developmental and behavioral concerns are common. However, sometimes discussing these topics can be challenging and even anxiety-provoking for parents and teachers. You might expect the other will react poorly, fear getting blamed for raising a concern, or feel your perspective won’t be heard or understood

When expressing a concern or having a difficult conversation, I suggest starting by focusing on positive observations before diving into the issues. Make sure to ask the other person about what they are seeing and really listen to them. If you’re not seeing eye to eye, don’t get defensive, but rather try to find common ground and a path forward for working together.

  • Teacher tip: Go into difficult conversations with an open mind. If a parent responds in a way that you weren’t expecting or isn’t agreeing with you, don’t take it personally. Be aware of how your body is feeling and try different relaxation strategies to stay present in the conversation.
  • Parent tip: You are an expert on your own child but your teacher may see a different side of your child in the classroom. If your child’s teacher expresses a concern, it does not mean you are a bad parent! Try to keep an open mind and find common ground with your child’s teacher.

Give Yourself Special Time

Regardless of whether you are an educator or parent, you deserve to take care of yourself! We are better caregivers, partners, and friends when we are less stressed and more relaxed. I recommend that all adults take five minutes each day for their own “special time.” I know you may already be saying, “well I don’t have time.” Make it! This can be as easy as listening to music while you are cooking dinner, lighting candles in your house, or sitting in your car for a few minutes alone before entering the house.

Dr. Zulauf-McCurdy is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor with a dual appointment in the department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Division of General Pediatrics at the University of Washington. She is also a faculty member at the Center for Child, Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s and the School Mental Health Assessment, Research, and Training (SMART) Center. Her research is focused on discovering ways to reduce mental health disparities for young children from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

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foundry10 is an education research organization with a philanthropic focus on expanding ideas about learning and creating direct value for youth.