The Four Cs of Building Trusting Relationships with Families
12/8/2021 | Erin Weisman
For many educators, interacting with other adults is the most challenging part of our job. We are experienced professionals when it comes to tantrums, physical discomfort, social-emotional turmoil, and much more. When we face these pain points in the classroom, we reach into our teacher toolbox and find effective strategies to help our young friends. However, when a child’s primary caregiver dumps all three pain points in our email inbox, we often struggle with how to move forward and wonder how we could have prevented this.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs teaches that we must feel safe and cared for in order to internalize new information and push ourselves to explore outside of our comfort zones. This is true for students, colleagues, and families. Often, families and teachers feel like adversaries when in truth, we are all on the same side: we all want the children to feel loved and comfortable in their learning environment. The Hierarchy suggests that if a person’s primal needs are not met (ie. getting enough food and sleep, etc.) they are incapable of identifying and fulfilling personal potential.
For example, when I don’t get enough sleep, I tend to have less patience the next day. Every interaction I have is affected by how tired I feel. I do not have access to my typical critical thinking or problem-solving skill set because my body is focusing on the fact that I need sleep. When I get enough sleep, I am more easily capable of empathy and professional activity. Our students’ behavior is affected the same way, and their caregivers’ as well. The following strategies help educators feel powerful and empathetic when building trusting relationships with the families in their classroom community.
The families at your center are sharing their most precious thing with you every day they come to your class. This act alone is an act of deep trust. When designing your communications, keep this in mind. It is not them vs. you, but rather together creating safe and loving opportunities for learning and exploration.
Share special moments that occurred throughout the school day. Caregivers want to know not only that you see their child but also that you understand their child. When writing your regular communication to the families, ask yourself, “What is important to my young friends?” and include short anecdotes that showcase the answer.
Educate families about the developmental explorations with which their children engage in the classroom. To an adult without early childhood education training, receiving a loose piece of paper covered in scribbles may seem useless. To an educator, it serves as an important example of growing fine motor muscles and an experiment in spatial reasoning. Pointing out these developmental areas in tandem with examples of joy and exploration will help you pull back the curtain for families. It will remind them that play is the work of children. It will also remind them that you are a professional who cares about their children’s love of learning as well as their academic and physical development.
You are an expert in building community among your students. Many of those strategies can help build community among your families as well. Learn the names of caregivers you see every day at pick-up and drop-off. Remember that families can look very different. You may see Mom every day for one child, and Grandpa for another. You may notice that a child in your class has a “village” of caregivers that all serve as important sources of love in their life. When addressing families in your communications, avoid specifying that this information is for Parents. Some families do have two parents, and others do not. All forms of loving families are valid. When we use inclusive language like caregiver or family rather than Parents, we help all families feel like true members of our community.
Often when a primary caregiver receives an email from their child’s teacher, it is either a large-group communication or anxiety-inducing information about unwanted behavior or injury. Try to send quick notes to individual families throughout the year just to share one positive observation. This strategy will alleviate the instant belly ache caregivers may have every time they see your name in their inbox. These emails can be as simple as two sentences, “Today I noticed your child laughing and smiling when she made it across the monkey bars. She has been working so hard to accomplish this and we are very proud!” When you train families to look forward to your communications, they are less likely to enter a conversation expecting conflict.
Meet families where they are. When a caregiver comes to you in anger, take a moment to empathize. Does that caregiver have a community of support at home or do they feel overwhelmed? Could this family have a history that makes a certain topic triggering? When we put ourselves in their shoes, we can more effectively find ways to help them. We can also separate possibly hurtful tones or words from what is actually being communicated.
In the classroom, teachers rely on routines and rituals to help children feel safe and supported each day. As we learned from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, when their primary needs for safety are met, they can then challenge their previously held understandings and explore new perspectives. Adults require consistency for the same reasons.
When your regular communication arrives around the same time every time, the adults awaiting them feel calm when it pops into their inbox. When this communication is formatted in the same way each time, the adults reading them effectively receive the important information you need them to assimilate. Conversely, if families never know when or what they will hear about their children’s school experience, negative feelings of anxiety and mistrust form. Protect yourself and set your families up for success by offering them the same opportunities for consistency that you use to support your students.
Commitment to your boundaries
Set clear boundaries with your families at the start of your relationships. This could look like a time of day when you no longer check your email. This may be that families notify you in advance if their child has a scheduled absence. Maybe it is significant to you to share your pronouns. Take stock of what is important to you and what will help you maintain a work-life balance. When people know what to expect, they are less likely to react negatively.
For example, in my first year of teaching, I was eager to please every adult in my class community at almost any cost. When I received emails at 11 pm I would answer them immediately. I assumed that quick response time was most important for building trust with my families. However, it is impossible to be available to respond to emails at all hours every night. Ultimately, caregivers never knew when I would read their notes and got angry if they sent a note late in the evening and didn’t get an instant response. The disparity in when I was available left their primary needs unmet.
With this in mind, the next year I shared with kindness and clarity that I do not check email after 7 pm, but will respond to all notes within 24 hours. This strategy offered consistency and reasonable expectation to all parties. Families can (and do) email my team at any hour, but now with confidence that their note will be read even if not right away. This firm boundary protects me and offers a sense of reliability to my community.
We cannot always control how much sleep we get, but when we focus on setting up relationships for success, there is enough trust to fortify them against those cranky or triggering days. Your families will be happier, you’ll be happier, and your students will greatly benefit from the harmonious community you have built.
Playground makes it easy to meet families where they are and communicate with private messaging, announcements and posting activities, photos, or videos to the app timeline. Click here to learn more and schedule a demo today!
Erin Weisman has taught in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Copenhagen, and is currently in Washington, D.C. She is always working to honor and prioritize her young friends’ perspectives when learning in the classroom. Her favorite student compliment was from a child who said, “Good for you, Ms. Erin!” when she finished a big salad at the lunch table.
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