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What do substantive parent-teacher relationships look like?

By Dr. Leila Rosa

Much has been written about the importance of parent-teacher collaboration. Research clearly shows that this type of collaboration benefits students by improving achievement outcomes, increasing student engagement, and allowing for more positive schooling experiences. Much more subtle is the discussion of how such collaboration should look like. Often the prescriptions for collaboration circle around parent teacher conferences, informational meeting with parents, keeping parents informed about curricular events, inviting parents for field trips and class presentations and in a less creative way calling parents when positive and negative behavioral events take place. Parent-teacher collaboration has become so much part of the conversation that often districts work hard to prove to State Departments the number and types of collaboration teachers and parents are having, by asking teachers to list dates and times of communication events and meetings. This has resulted in a systematized and superficial, often unilateral, approach to collaboration, that results in clearly defined roles for each party. That is: teacher informs, parents listen, student is rewarded or punished accordingly. More engaged parents are defined as those that help with homework.

What has not been happening is a deepening of the teacher-parent relationship. We should consider one important question: what are the requirements for the development of a deeper and more substantive relationship between teachers and parents?

What are the requirements for the development of a deeper and more substantive relationship between teachers and parents?

Teacher as a service provider

Teachers must continually reflect on their role as service providers to the students, families and community. This goes well beyond the role of curriculum presenters and lesson plan developers. Teachers must work not only on the intellectual but on the social, emotional, moral, and physical development of the student. This requires that they become full partners with the parents rather than assuming a hierarchical professional stance and engaging in rigid roles of, teacher as knowledgeable, student as learner and parent as listener and helper. Parents are much more than listeners and helpers. They hold essential information about the student and operate directly on students through their expectations, beliefs, values background histories, etc. And students are complex beings with multiple identities.

Like parents, and students, teachers have histories, experiences, beliefs, values, and ways of knowing, along with the preparation for understanding the epistemology of education. Piaget (1950) rejected the notion that knowledge as present in education is static, he rather stated that knowledge is “a process of continual construction and reorganization” (p.4). Furthermore, the construction and reorganization happen within the confines of life experiences, cultural values, and beliefs. From this perspective teachers must question their stances and intentionally develop a more equal relationship with parents and students, by recognizing the importance of background experiences that parents and students bring. Parents must be encouraged to become active participants in the relationship rather than passive pawns. Teachers must set aside their own beliefs in favor of parents’ beliefs. Teachers are trained to give priority to education. However, and for example, many parents see the development of a spiritual life as more important. In these instances, teachers should consider the ways in which education can be coordinated with the development of a spiritual life. If the objective is for the student to practice reading, why not assign individual work related to parental beliefs?

Open, bilateral communications

As service providers teachers must question (to understand) and listen (for reflection) to parents. It is often the case that teachers “tell” parents. However, for a positive communication the “telling” must be often substituted by the “listening.. Parents must feel comfortable to share their beliefs about education, expectations, and services needed. In this exchange, parents understand the importance of their own views and wants in the relationship, while teachers become more familiar with family histories and culture. This leads to the development of more congruent activities and lessons. it is important for teachers to become observers, knowledgeable of nonverbal communication devices (proxemics, Kinesics, haptics, vocalics, chronemics, etc.) as well as verbal characteristics of positive communication. It is also important that the space where the communication takes place be considered with care. Some parents may have had difficult school experiences and might not feel comfortable in a classroom. It is also notable that classrooms tend to be places of power-teacher power. In these spaces parents might not feel competent to share their views and beliefs. Moving conversation out of classrooms and possibly schools might offer an opportunity for more informal, more substantial communication by increasing parental comfort. Teacher visits to the home can be highly informative. In their own environment, parents might feel more comfortable and in control. Additionally, students tend to feel more connected to the teacher, as they interpret teacher presence at home as a sign of their importance. Teachers must make all efforts to signal to the parents their importance, and the value of their active participation.

Knowing the community

When teachers know and understand the communities they teach, they are better prepared to accept and understand parental and student positionalities. Knowing the communities we teach, also adds to our understanding of the barriers, and challenges students might experience. This knowledge allows teachers to be proactive in advocating and problem solving.

Community histories can be nestled into curricular demands, assisting students to becoming more knowledgeable about their own communities and developing a sense of belonging and pride. Understanding the community might help teachers understand situations of resource accessibility, transportation challenges, parental employment demands, health issues, student safety etc.

Recognizing how activities beyond classroom develop cognitive skills that supports learning in the classroom.

Often parents ask teachers what they can do at home to help their children perform better in the classroom. It is also the case that many parents will couch the question by apologizing for their inability to assist with homework because “today’s teachings are different from back then.” Teachers must have a clear understanding about how common activities between parents and children can support learning aptitudes. For an example family game nights offer the opportunity to engage with math in scoring activities, matching shapes, planning and problem solving. Most games, if not all, include the opportunity to develop skills related to fluid reasoning, orthographic processing, vocabulary development. Furthermore, the informal exchange between child and adult can greatly add to children’s sense of self confidence and risk- taking behaviors, which are essential in the process of learning.

Parents might be unaware that home chores also offer an opportunity for development of cognitive skills. Teachers can explain the benefits of home chores and encourage parents to develop home chores for children and young adults around separating colors from whites, or organizing cabinets (categorization skills), washing dishes (visual spatial, fine motor skills), etc. Teacher and parent can collaborate in elaborating list of chores/skills for the child. For more specialized skills, teachers can suggest activities closely related to the target skill. For example, to develop reading fluency, parents can play karaoke with children; To improve comprehension and predictability skills with reading, parents can use questioning strategies for cartoons and movies that they watch together. Activities such as singing and reading song lyrics together can also greatly improve vocabulary and connection to printed material. Role playing improves imagery. Parents can also strategically engage in what, when and how questions with children with on-time events. Teachers should develop lists of home and community activities that parents can strategically present to the children. It is important to explain to parents the wider implications in terms of cognitive skill development for each activity.

Parent-teacher collaboration looks different depending on the dyad, school climate, community characteristics. It is important that teachers suspend the expectation of what the relationship should be like. Parents must be encouraged to have control of collaborative relationships. It is important that teachers understand these relationships as ones to be nurtured and protected.

As we consider this subject, I encourage you to reflect on the following questions: Who stands to gain in this type of professional relationship? How can school administration and culture support the development of these relationships? Let us keep this conversation going.


Piaget, J. (1950). The psychology of intelligence. Harcourt, Brace.


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