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Building Parent-Teacher Relationships Can Be Hard. Positive Phone Calls Home Can Help.

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Carefree young woman smiling happily while playing music using a smartphone and earbuds. Cheerful woman with curly hair enjoying her favourite playlist while standing against a blue background.
 (JLco - Julia Amaral/iStock)

Teachers choose their profession for various reasons, from a passion for a particular subject to a desire to shape young minds. Working with parents might not top the list for many educators, according to Stephanie Antin, a communication specialist with High Tech High in San Diego. However, she said that parent engagement, defined as “the full and equal partnership between families and schools,” is crucial for teaching young students. Research indicates that parent involvement has the potential to improve student engagement and academic achievement. When families are involved, they can bring valuable networks, skills and support to the school community, Antin said.

“Building positive relationships with each family can lead to a more successful and enjoyable school year, even though it requires significant effort, especially at the beginning,” Antin said. One easy way to begin to foster parent engagement is by making quick positive phone calls to parents to celebrate their child’s achievements in the classroom. “It doesn’t take very long, but they are super, super high impact for families,” Antin said at the 2024 Deeper Learning Conference. She recommended that teachers set aside time each week early in the school year to make these calls.

Set parents at ease from the start

Positive phone calls home should start by setting parents at ease. Antin recommended introducing yourself and saying, “I’m calling from the school, everything’s fine.” This reassures parents who might assume a call means their child is hurt or in trouble. From there, the teacher can share positive feedback about the student.

Ben Simson, a special education teacher in California’s San Mateo-Foster City School District, started teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic when many students were doing distance learning. He found that positive calls home communicated to parents that he cares for their kids. “It was a time where people were extremely on edge with everything in their lives,” he said. “I knew that if I could give parents a bright moment in a very hard time and let them know that their kids were taking care of, I was going to do that.”

Focus on the positive

At first, it might be hard to notice positive behaviors, especially for students who regularly misbehave. Education is going to be filled with highs and lows, said Simson, who noted that it can be easy to focus on what is going wrong. “If we are making phone calls for positive reasons, we’re showing families that we care about their kids and that we see them doing good, but also sharing their strengths.”


Antin suggested looking for small achievements, like turning in an assignment on time or helping with classroom tasks. As teachers become accustomed to looking for things students do well, it can transform into a gratitude practice that enhances their overall classroom experience. “When you start looking for gratitude, it sort of builds on itself and then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘I’m thankful for everything,’” said Antin.

Hearing their child be celebrated is meaningful to the parents of kids who get in trouble in class often, but also for quiet students who fly under the radar. For example, one parent shared that her child never got calls home because he didn’t have exceptionally good or bad behavior, recalled Antin. Getting a positive call home brought tears to her eyes because she rarely got any updates about how her child was doing in school.

Keep it brief

Teachers might avoid making parent phone calls to parents for several reasons. “They’re scared that parents are going to blame them for things or point fingers or be too demanding,” Antin said. “Boosting parent engagement means giving up some control. A lot of things can go wrong, but there also can be a lot of things that go right.” 

Additionally, some teachers worry that making these calls will be too time-consuming. However, positive phone calls home only need to take a few minutes. If a parent tries to stay on the phone for longer than anticipated, it’s OK to politely interrupt them and set boundaries. Antin suggested saying, “Let’s make an appointment and then we’ll sit down and we can talk about that other thing when we have more time and we can really dig into it.”  

Integrate positive calls into school culture

Administrators can support teachers by allocating time for these calls. For example, school leaders can end staff meetings fifteen minutes early and encourage teachers to use this time to call parents, Antin said. Administrators can also use staff meetings to allow teachers to share their experiences with these calls. Recognizing, valuing and making time for this work can motivate teachers to continue these efforts and inspire other teachers to follow suit. 

Positive phone calls home also can be the foundation for exploring other schoolwide opportunities to deepen family engagement. For example, back-to-school night, parent-teacher conferences or open house can be opportunities to further develop relationships, rather than just giving out information, according to Antin. Parents can get more out of these events when relationships with teachers have already been established. “You have to have that trusting relationship built so that the families know that you’re all on the same team,” Antin said.

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