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Schools and Families—A Vital Partnership

By Kathleen M. Minke

You are hurting my child!” He was red-faced, shouting, and pointing his finger within an inch of my face. I thought he was going to hit me. And I was angry, too. Lots of people had hurt this child, including his father, but why blame me? I was just the messenger that the boy still needed special education services. And I certainly wasn’t in the business of hurting children! How could he even think such a thing? Not surprisingly, the meeting ended poorly and due process proceedings were inevitable.

This incident occurred at an IEP meeting about 25 years ago. I remember it well because it was something of a turning point in my young career. At the time, I couldn’t figure out how things could have gone so badly when everyone in the room wanted what was best for the student. And I never wanted to have a similar experience again. I became interested in how these kinds of difficulties arise and how they can be avoided. These questions continue to guide my work today and are reflected in the presidential theme this year: “Positive Relationships – School Success.”

Looking back, one root of the problem was that none of us trusted the others to know what was “best.” The parents distrusted the motives of the school administrators, the teachers distrusted the parents’ ability to act in the child’s best interests, the administrators distrusted the competence of both the teachers and the parents, and I thought that everyone involved was completely irrational. Not exactly a good basis for working together. But it brought home to me how important trusting relationships are in our work and that we need to attend to these relationships well before difficulties arise with a student.

What do trusting relationships look like? The literature suggests that respect, competence, warmth and regard, and integrity are key elements. Because these relationships can only develop over time and with repeated contact, we need to find ways to reach out to families, learn from them, and communicate effectively with them. A comprehensive approach that attends to the values, views, and beliefs of both families and educators is needed.

How can we as school psychologists help build these relationships? A crucial first step is to examine our own approaches to families (and teachers as well). Although we recognize the importance of taking a strength-based approach, it is all too easy to focus on deficits and what is wrong with the child, the family, and the school rather than trying to figure out what strengths and resources each brings to the situation. I once worked with a family that had just about every strike against them that you can imagine and I was making no progress. Frustrated, I went to a supervisor for help. He asked me a simple question: “Do you believe this family can change?” I had to answer no. He responded, “If you don’t think they can change, why should they believe it?” I never forgot that lesson. Respectful, but persistent questioning almost always yields information that will guide a positive approach. Drawing from the brief, solutionoriented counseling literature, we can routinely ask parents, teachers, and students about how a student learns best, what his or her most positive quality is, and what their hopes and dreams are for the student. We can ask what each person has already tried to address the problem. Have they discovered anything that helped even a little or for a short period of time? What ideas do they have that they haven’t tried yet? This kind of questioning conveys respect for the knowledge that each individual brings to the situation and conveys a belief that positive outcomes can be achieved.

It is also important that we model (and teach) good communication skills. School psychologists know how to listen empathically, construct clear messages, question effectively, and defuse conflict. Teachers rarely receive training in these areas but we still expect them to be able manage difficult, emotional interactions with parents. Sharing our knowledge of helpful communication and problem-solving strategies through inservices or newsletters may assist in the development of positive family–school relationships.

Finally, we can examine the existing practices in our schools designed to encourage parent engagement and seek ways to make these more effective as relationship building opportunities. Christenson and Sheridan (2001) offer numerous examples of ways to modify typical “parent involvement” efforts so that they contribute to a collaborative family–school relationship.

I wish I had been more skilled in these areas back at that IEP meeting. Many of the problems could have been prevented and a more positive outcome could have been obtained. I am grateful to that family for what they taught me, and the path of continuing professional development that our interactions set in motion. If you are interested in learning more, here are a couple of resources that might help:

  • Christenson, S. L., & Sheridan, S. M. (2001). Schools and families: Creating essential connections for learning. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Murphy, J. J., & Duncan, B. L. (2007). Brief interventions for school problems: Outcome-informed strategies. New York: Guilford.

Kathleen M. Minke, PhD, NCSP, is a professor of education at the University of Delaware.