A healthy school climate is crucial to creating a productive learning environment. But schools are finding it hard to cultivate that environment after several years of disruption and polarization. Encouraging families to engage in active listening at home will help parents feel more connected to their kids and their schools, and help everyone build foundational skills for healthier school climates.
It is no secret that this year is an especially tough season for the education community. As we approach the winter holidays, schools continue to struggle against the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Challenges ranging from academic and social-emotional gaps to disruptive student behavior to increased teacher and student absenteeism have carried over from the previous school year. And these issues are straining the mental health and psychological well-being of administrators, school staff, students, and families.
What common thread lies beneath these issues? As a collective, we are still processing the trauma caused by more than two years of uncertainty, loss, and grief. A responsive and inclusive school climate is the antidote to heal this trauma as a collective.
Encourage active listening skills at home with these resources for families.
Many schools already engage in practices on campus that contribute to a positive school climate. Student leadership councils and restorative practices are just a few examples of such strategies. But crafting supportive environments for student learning requires much more than organizing activities in the physical environment of school buildings. The reality is that schools need their entire community engaged in school climate improvement efforts, including families.
Educators often employ a variety of methods to cultivate family-school partnerships. We at ParentPowered published many resources about family engagement, including a roadmap for building connections with diverse families and expert tips for ongoing family communication. But across all approaches to family engagement, you’ll find that communication skills – specifically active listening skills – are the most important ingredient in a recipe for successful partnership.
By building adults’ listening skills – teachers, parents, staff, and administrators – school leadership assembles a united team that is prepared to create the best school experiences and conditions for student learning.
Using active listening to unlock positive school climate
Active listening skills are a game-changer for effective school climate improvement. But what exactly is active listening, and how does it unlock gains to school climate?
What is active listening?
According to the University of Rochester, “active listening” is defined as “the ability to focus on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully.” Both nonverbal and verbal cues are important for active listeners to demonstrate that they are fully engaged and connect with others.
|Verbal Cues||Non-Verbal Cues|
|Probing questions||Eye contact|
|Recalled information||Few distractions|
Why does it matter for school climate?
Research shows that there are many benefits to active listening. For example, the Center for Creative Leadership posits that active listening enables managers to better coach team members, which improves overall team performance. This skill can also help teams navigate conflict resolution and empower employees in the workplace, resulting in better productivity.
More importantly, active listening builds trust in interpersonal relationships. And for schools, trust is the cornerstone of an effective family-school relationship and the first step towards a healthy school climate.
What does it look like in education?
Active listening comes in many flavors in school environments. Most strategies available to educators are intended for use either in the classroom or on campus.
Learning Sciences International offers two simple but effective strategies for teachers to use with students that reinforces an active listening culture with classmates. The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education designed a 15-minute active listening exercise for school staff to improve their own collaboration and communication.
Some school districts go even further. One Louisiana school district established programs to uplift students’ voices on campus and encourage adult active listening in service of school climate.
However, there is a stakeholder missing from these strategies, one that is crucial for school climate: families. Schools must include families as part of the solutions towards a positive learning environment. Cultivating active listening practices throughout the school community and supporting parents to utilize these skills at home gives schools the extra boost needed to address school climate concerns.
But how do schools get started with embedding this practice across all levels of their community?
Build the foundation with school staff
Cultivating active listening skills takes time, dedication, and consistency for both schools and families to reap its benefits. Initiate the first ‘ripple’ of active listening practices among school administrators, staff, and teachers to establish the foundation for this shift.
Advanced preparation is key to successfully introducing any change to school staff. Be sure to take time upfront to reflect on the most common hurdles to active listening among teams, and develop a plan for navigating them.
Here are several hurdles to consider.
Teachers and staff are on the front lines doing everything they can to acknowledge and address parent feedback about how things are going in the classroom. But these days, viewpoints on education grow increasingly polarized, and it feels especially difficult to have productive conversations with people who hold differing perspectives.
Active listening both de-escalates and resets such tense discussions towards a shared goal of supporting student learning. More importantly, by making parents feel heard, school staff also encourage families to trust them – and this is critical to engage families as a supportive school resource.
It is normal for teams to feel nervous during change, especially when it comes during tumultuous times. For some schools, active listening may represent a major shift in culture. Consider using one of these six models of change management in education to begin building a plan for chance. This helps normalize staff’s feelings and provides them with tools for processing them. A change management plan, with a team driving it, may be just the catalyst that a school needs to embrace new listening practices.
At its core, active listening means shifting from being an expert or authority to being a listener and learner. School staff are trained professionals – they have a right to expect respect for the time and effort they put into cultivating this expertise. So it may feel uncomfortable for staff being asked to invite a lay audience to problem solve something like student learning or school climate together.
Throughout this process, gently remind the team and yourself that their knowledge is valuable – and that active listening compliments, not diminishes, that expertise. You can also reinforce that it is okay not to give advice, directions, or insights in all discussions. This helps staff welcome families’ voices, in partnership with educator expertise, to collaboratively discover solutions that improve negative school climates.
Time and effort
Everyone’s schedules are packed. And at first glance, active listening may appear to consume more time and effort than available. However, the upfront investment in developing these skills is worth it for the long-term benefits. Gains such as improved communication, trust, and collaboration among staff ultimately save time, too!
Try introducing simple listening practices during dedicated meeting times, such as staff meetings. Then layer on additional exercises or communication norms in other touchpoints. Little by little, school leadership can help staff integrate active listening into existing routines, without adding significant time or effort to everyone’s schedules.
In the beginning, these shifts may be challenging for leadership, administrators, staff, and your teachers to adapt. Again, that’s okay! It is important to honor that difficulty and create supportive relationships among your staff to navigate through these changes.
Expand active listening to family-school partnerships
Once the foundations of active listening are in place among adults on campus, it’s time to expand these practices outward into family-school partnerships. Ongoing communication is key to developing deep, positive relationships with families, which in turn improve student outcomes. By integrating active listening into family communication strategies, school leaders establish trust with vital stakeholders necessary to supportive learning environments.
Audit your listening opportunities
Begin with reviewing your school’s existing communication methods with families, and examining how they may support active listening. Here are several guiding questions to get you started:
- How are staff currently listening to families? For example, what does listening look like during parent-teacher conferences, policy councils, or school workshops?
- How often do we send surveys to our families? Are there other ways we gather feedback beyond live meetings with families?
- Do parents, caretakers, and guardians know about these listening opportunities?
- Are we designing listening opportunities in a culturally responsive way? Are they accessible and welcoming to all families?
- Have I set the stage for my staff to be able to listen? For example, do we have interpreters or other language resources necessary in these opportunities so we can hear from families?
As you review these questions, identify the most important changes needed and develop solutions for those areas first. This sets the stage for using active listening between school staff and families.
Close the feedback look with parents
Receiving input is only one part of active listening. It is just as crucial to share back with families how their insights impact the school community.
When communicating about new programs or changes with families, be sure to reference what information played a role and where it came from. Perhaps informal conversations with parents during Open House or Back-to-School Night revealed an opportunity for improving an after-school program. Or maybe the latest family feedback survey highlighted an emergent concern about bullying interventions. Make sure to highlight these sources when announcing to families about your school’s plans for responding to their feedback.
Watch Family Feedback from Afar to learn more about how surveys impact family engagement.
Surveys are a particularly easy way to collect family insights and share data back with families. Check out our webinar Family Feedback from Afar to learn more about how surveys can improve school-family communication.
Develop easy routines for parents to communicate
In addition to occasional surveys and school events, educators can create more regular routines for parents to send information from home to the classroom. The goal is to get families in the habit of communicating beyond live conversations with staff and reinforce families’ connection to school culture.
For example, try adding a notepad and pen to students’ ‘take-home’ folders to encourage parents to share their thoughts and comments back with teachers. Other creative, non-academic ideas to engage families include asking them to share a meaningful artifact from home, a cherished book in their home language, or a favorite family recipe. All of these methods give families non-verbal ways to express who they are and what they value with the school community.
Whatever routines of communication you establish, just remember: the more consistent they are, the more comfortable parents will become with sharing back with schools. At the end of the day, you are using your school’s active listening practices to strengthen connections between school and home.
Take active listening beyond the classroom
Active listening among all adult stakeholders at school supports both student success and a healthy school environment. As your staff and families become more practiced in these methods, the school community can shift its focus to bringing active listening home.
Schools play an important role in empowering families to develop active listening skills with their children beyond the classroom. This is especially important for families with teenage students.
During these pivotal years, communication changes greatly between a parent and child. It may be challenging for families to collect crucial information about students that support their learning.
The more tools parents have to actively listen to their teenagers, the more insights they are likely to have about how their child feels about school, friends, etc. This empowers families to be ready and able to exchange this information with school staff. And this in turn enables school staff to better understand and address students’ needs in the classroom.
ParentPowered developed a new resource for parents, especially those raising teenagers, all about how to practice active listening. You can download the resource here to share with your families or reference for your own learning.
Active listening helps the entire school community
Active listening is a critical skill that strengthens the most essential adult relationships surrounding a student. When active listening becomes part of the school climate improvement process, a pathway to connection opens for the entire community to process the traumas of the pandemic. And when family-school partnerships are strong, the school climate receives a boost – one that is much needed to heal during this difficult season in education.