January 22, 2021


Each EmpowerED 3.2.1 features a brief summary of my musings about and
learning from multiple disciplines as they apply to leadership in education.


Communicating with Families


As background, I write this as a teacher, a school leader, and a parent of a teenager in eighth grade. I’ve learned a few things over these nine+ months about what’s important to communicate and which methods seem to work better for families. I’ve missed my share of information by skimming emails that were too long, saying I’ll go back later when I have more time. I’ve inadvertently placed the wrong date on a calendar because it was changed three times prior to the final date. Given those and many other experiences, here are my 3 Big Ideas about communicating with families.


3 Big Ideas

  1. First, Be Empathetic
    According to Psychology Today, “Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.” The families of our students need, deserve, and want empathy in the communications they receive.  

    David Gray posted The Empathy Map Canvas on Gamestorming (See graphic); it is a method for understanding audiences, including users, customers, and other players in any business ecosystem, It gathered some positive press lately because it was featured in Alex Osterwalder’s book, Business Model Generation  a tool for discovering insights about customers. My family has always enjoyed playing board and card games, and the resources at Gamestorming are applicable for classrooms and board rooms, remote or in-person.

  2. Second, Be Consistent
    The message and the method should differ for the audience (students versus families). Busy families don’t need paragraphs of narrative text when bulleted lists can make the point. For families, keeping a predictable and reliable day of the week in a predictable format is useful.  Multiple sources report that people tend to open texts more frequently and quicker than they open emails.  I do find that there are times when a longer email with attachments is the most appropriate method. I find text alerts as reminders or changes better than email. I also find that the naming conventions used in the subject line can capture my attention and photos/videos are usually viewed. “The Importance of Parent Engagement: A List of Research and Thought Leadership,” published by Families and Schools Together (FAST), highlights several current thought leaders on family involvement. Each influencer validates the strong relationship between parent engagement and student academic success. You can find a brief summary of each author, as well as their research and practice interests, and a list of relevant articles, books and key findings. This is a link definitely worth browsing and forwarding to your family involvement coordinator.

  3. Third, Go Beyond Grades
    Yes, learning is important and yes, grades are important, but not at the expense of learning. With easy and often access to grades on the LMS, families I talk with want to also know about social and emotional skills that are not directly measurable. Affiliated with Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Global Family Project presents remarkable set of written and video resources.  

    Holding a family-teacher conference that focuses on goals and needs can give students and families a common roadmap. Regularly checking in with families is good practice and can build relationships for the future and uncover any needs or concerns and help keep the goals in vision. Given that most families care about not only academic outcomes but non-academic skills, consider sending a postcard or making a phone call in which you share about those non-academic skills. For example, the four most recent NACE job outlook reports (2018-2021) list the following ten attributes as what employers seek in job applicants. Check out that list reprinted below for what you might discuss. Personally, I’d love to get a call, email, or note from one of my son’s teachers saying that he was showing a strong work ethic and giving me an example. That would mean more than sending a grade.

    Attributes Employers Seek on a Candidate’s Resume
    (Attributes are presented in descending order)



    Ability to work in a team 


    Communication skills (written) 


    Problem-solving skills 


    Communication skills (verbal) 


    Strong work ethic 




    Analytical/quantitative skills 




    Technical skills



We must form relationships with parents and support them not only academically,
but with other services, too.

– Jon Konen, superintendent of Corvallis School District #1, Montana 



Seek first to understand, then to be understood. ”
– Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and other books


1 Question

How can and will you use the Empathy Map Canvas to better understand and support families? (See graphic in Big Idea #1.)




About the Author: Marcia Baldanza is also the author of Professional Practices, a Just ASK Senior Consultant. and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.










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