Communication between schools and parents is more important than ever before. We speak to education representatives about the complexities of communicating effectively in an ever-evolving pandemic and parents tell us what they really want
to know about their children’s school life.

Communication between schools and parents is a crucial aspect of education. All parents want the best for their children and getting the information they need from teachers and principals helps parents support their offspring through school life.

When schools communicate well with parents, it builds trust, creates peace of mind, and can result in powerful collaborations. Our children also reap the rewards. Research shows effective two-way communication between schools and parents can boost student engagement and is a strong indicator of future success.

But how do schools ensure the information they give parents is effective and meets their needs? And are they telling parents what they really want to know? In a constantly changing pandemic landscape schools are facing new territory. With the loss of face-to-face interactions, educators are having to find new ways to fill the gap. One thing is certain — school communication has never been more important than it is now.

Choosing the right platforms
When it comes to school communication, no one size fits all. Schools approach it very differently, and utilise a range of platforms depending on the preferences and needs of their families.

School websites, social media, email, internal platforms such as Seesaw and school apps are the most common ways schools share information with parents. While the platforms are linked, they all have a slightly different focus

School websites and email are typically used as a formal platform for school-wide notices. Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are popular for celebrating student success and inspiration. Internal platforms like Seesaw, ClassDojo and Google Classroom are a direct line of communication between teachers and parents — used for admin, sharing news, video clips, advice for supporting children and Q and A. School apps are used for instant alerts relating to the whole school.

Some schools opt to use all of these platforms for different functions, while others use one centralised platform, such as the school app, where parents can find everything. The approach adopted is specific to a school and parent preferences. What works for one school might be very different to what works for another school down the road.

The impact of Covid
In the current climate, school-parent communication now fills a bigger and more important role than it has before, says New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) president Cherie Taylor-Patel. “Since the onset of the pandemic, communication has really stepped up and become a focus for schools around the country.”

Since the start of the pandemic, schools have changed their communication dramatically. Pre-Covid there was more opportunity for face-to-face and informal communication between parents and teachers. Now, schools are relying on online methods of communication to step up and fill that gap, says Taylor-Patel.

All schools have adapted to meet the changing needs of their families and these systems are constantly being refined, says Taylor-Patel. “Communication is evolving and it’s becoming more fine-tuned to the community that you serve.”

The pandemic has had a positive and negative impact on communication, she says. It’s resulted in strengthened online communication with parents, which schools have worked really hard to do. On the flip side, the pandemic has meant a loss of face-to-face connection between parents and schools. To minimise risk, parents can’t enter classrooms, drop their children off at the gate, and have lost the opportunity to have informal conversations with teachers.

Getting relevant Covid information to parents remains a focus. Principals understand the anxiety families are feeling and the role of relevant infor- mation in helping to reduce this, says Taylor-Patel. She notes that it’s important to remember that while schools want to be as transparent as possible, they’re bound by legal parameters that restrict what information they’re allowed to share.

Two HB schools
At Flaxmere Primary School, staff have adapted their communication methods to reflect parent preferences. The school uses a range of platforms including, Seesaw for classroom communication, school notices printed and posted on Facebook for key school-wide updates, the school app to push out notifications and Facebook for news and events.

Principal Robyn Isaacson says regardless of changing external factors, including the pandemic, their focus remains keeping school as normal as possible for students and ensuring parents are well informed.

Like other schools, their approach to communication has changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Facebook has become a primary communication tool, as a reflection of parent preferences. Staff regularly post Covid information on the social media site, often in the form of videos, as the number of hits they received indicated they were reaching more parents this way, says Isaacson. “For example, when we shifted phases or we shifted levels we would upload a video explaining what that means. Often there’s a lot of information and particularly on Facebook, people don’t want to read it so it’s easier to listen to a video.”

Events like prize giving are held virtually and when parents can’t be present, the school posts photos and videos to capture the spirit of the day. Since the first lockdown, teachers have maintained regular contact with families including phone calls, to check in and make sure they have everything they need. When students move into a new class, parents receive written bios of their child’s teacher in place of the usual face-to-face introduction.

The changes they’ve made since the first lockdown have paid off, says Isaacson. “That relationship has been established and it’s been maintained over that time and that’s why for us, communication is really important. We need that relationship, so we’ve worked quite strongly on fostering that and being transparent and open with our parents.”

Over at Havelock North Primary School, principal Nick Reed is reflecting on the changes they’ve made in their communication and a significant transition underway. The school uses a wide range of platforms to get information to parents — from social media to email, newsletters and the school app.

Finding the right balance is always a challenge, says Reed. The goal is to provide parents with meaningful content, without overloading them. Taking centre stage this year is the school’s app, which will become a centralised information hub. The goal is to streamline all of the platforms and provide a one-stop-shop for parents.

There’s no doubt Covid has had a significant impact on the way schools communicate, and it’s been difficult losing that community-wide engagement, says Reed. “That’s the most disappointing thing for me because as a school
we like to be really inclusive with our whānau and involve them in events.”

A number of school prize givings, sports events and celebrations have relied on livestreaming to help keep a sense of family involvement. While it’s the best option under current restrictions, there’s no substitute for in-person contact and the important connections it creates, says Reed.

“It’s much more powerful when it can be done in an authentic way with parents in classrooms and those face-to-face conversations. Those relationships between home and school are just so vital.”

What do parents want?
In a nutshell, we want to know our children are safe, happy and learning. New parents of school children want to know how the school works, routines, key people and systems. We want to know who our children’s teachers are, how the class programme works and what our children do in their day. When it comes to their learning, we want to understand how subjects are taught and assessed. What can we do to support our children’s learning?

Most importantly, as parents we want to know about the emotional and physical wellbeing of our children. Are they happy? Are they forming friendships? Are they safe at all times?

Parents spoken to for this article were generally happy with the communication they receive from their children’s schools, with some suggested adjustments.

At Te Mata School, a number of different platforms are used to communicate with parents, all with different functions. Parents spoken to generally liked having separation between the platforms and the different functions for each. Parents liked being able to message teachers directly though the Seesaw app.

Parents were supportive of the various platforms and planned move to a centralised school app at Havelock North Primary School. “I hope it will bring cohesiveness to the communication and be the place to go when you want to know something,” says one parent.

The school has worked really hard to understand what parents want to know and to deliver, says parent and member of the Havelock North Primary School Home and School Committee, Jess Cranswick. Due to current restrictions, they provide new parents with a welcome booklet instead of the usual parent evenings. The school sends out regular, detailed emails with Covid information, which were really appreciated during a stressful time, says Cranswick.

At Mahora Primary School, parents were supportive of the school app as the main information hub. “I find this is an excellent way to communicate as you get the alert straight away, you can choose which information to receive alerts for and it’s on my phone,” says one parent. The school also sends a Friday newsletter which covers school-wide updates and uses its Facebook page to show photos and videos of school events. School reports are twice a year and very holistic, says the parent. “As well as the usual literacy and maths progressions, there is emphasis on relationships, behaviour, problem-solving skills etcetera … I find the reporting systems very reflective and more aimed at what parents want to know.”

Several parents across different schools suggested a move from printed newsletters to digital, to reduce the environmental impact and keep things progressing. Some also said they’d like written school reports to include interpersonal skills such as social skills, problem solving, negotiation etc., as well as traditional information around reading, writing and maths. A few parents said too it can be hard to decipher what information is urgent and needs to be dealt with now and what can wait, without reading everything fully.

Some parents commented that the number of platforms and duplicate messaging across various platforms was frustrating at times. However, often schools explained that duplication was often necessary to ensure they capture everyone as not all parents use every platform.

In spite of schools’ best efforts, for many parents the impact of Covid has left them feeling robbed of key moments and events in their child’s school life. A parent from Iona College says not being able to get out of the car on school grounds or going to all of the usual school events has been a “major disappointment”. “For us, school is a significant part of our community and the school events are as much an opportunity to bond with other families as it is knowing what our daughters are doing at school.”

Striking a balance
Parents want to feel informed, but it needs to be relevant and regular, without becoming overwhelming. Finding that balance is a constant juggle for schools.

In the Ministry of Education’s latest Parents, families and whānau and their information needs report, parents outlined two key areas they wanted schools to focus on in their communication. These were access to independent, comprehensive information and having regular communication that showed their child’s progress and any wellbeing issues.

Research for the report involved parents of students ranging from primary through to high school, and particularly targeted Māori and Pasifika parents. Feedback from parents said they needed school information to be accessible, relevant, easy to under- stand, up-to-date and presented in a range of methods including, texts, email, phone, online, hard copy and face-to-face.

When it came to content, parents indicated they want communication about their child that is:
• Specific to their child, but allows them to understand how their child is doing compared to what they should be achieving and other students;
• Broad and comprehensive;
• Objective, balanced and fair;
• Gives them an excellent insight into their child’s learning progress, achievement, next steps and wellbeing.

While these things were important to parents, they also did not want to compromise teaching and learning by increasing teacher workload.

The pandemic continues to impact the way schools and parents communicate. Families we spoke to emphasised the need to feel involved in big school events and to have access to videos and photos if they couldn’t attend for any reason. Having these resources available makes parents feel part of key moments in their children’s lives, when they can’t be there in person.

Getting parent feedback about what they really want to know about their child’s school life is invaluable. In Covid and non-Covid times, schools need to engage with parents in a meaningful way, says Cranswick. “I think communication is effective when it’s regular and consistent.”

Effective communication creates a dialogue between the parents and schools, and is a strong indicator of the child’s success, says Taylor-Patel. “It’s got to be pertinent, succinct, but with enough detail to be useful, and ongoing.”

There are examples in our region of schools and teachers being proactive, frequent, innovative and comprehensive in their communication approach and of the significant value this represents to parents.

Engaging parents in the education of their children is much more than
a nice-to-have. When parents are involved and engaged in their child’s learning, it’s a strong indicator of future success. Carefully planned, regular and well executed two-way information between schools and families therefore benefits everyone.

Schools are continuing to navigate Covid restrictions and better under- stand the ways parents want to be engaged with beyond the pandemic. We need to keep moving forward, says Taylor-Patel. “In the last two years the ways we communicate with parents has changed. It has strengthened and it will continue to evolve as we go forward, beyond the pandemic because there’s been some really great gains that we don’t want to lose.”

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