All Articles Education Updates SEL and student success, Part 3: Parent interactions

SEL and student success, Part 3: Parent interactions

Coming back to school after time away can affect how parents view teachers. What can educators do to improve parent interventions?

8 min read


two adults talking SmartSummit parent interactions


SmartBrief’s recent Back-to-School 2022 SmartSummit covered social-emotional wellness and student success. Education Director Kanoe Namahoe talked with Rosemary Anderson, a licensed mental health practitioner who has worked in numerous settings including schools, courts and nonprofits. She’s passionate about integrating trauma-informed care and social-emotional learning practices into our daily lives as a way to reduce stress. We were curious about what teachers can do to improve parent interactions and build a cohesive classroom and community culture.

This is Part 3 of our three-part coverage of the webinar. We’ve edited this Q&A for length and clarity. (See Part 1 on student red flags and Part 2 on classrooms and teachers, and view our other education articles or subscribe to our free newsletters.

Do parents now have different views of teachers?

SmartBrief: Families have been kind of cooped up together for the last two years. Has that improved some of that communication between some of the students and their parents?

Anderson: My greatest hope is yes. But my greatest concern is that parents may not have the tools to talk about this in a transformative way and then help us bridge back into the school setting. 

We have to talk about what is our new kind of normal? What does that look like? How do we create safety, security, structures, procedures and operations for a new normal? We have to be able to acknowledge that there will be different ways and frame it positively as an important part of stabilizing student wellness.

SmartBrief: That can be a tough conversation and makes for awkward parent interactions. How do you have productive conversations with a parent who’s a bit defensive?

Anderson: One of the things is relationship-building with parents and really unearthing the whys behind what we see as a behavior. What is going on for that particular parent where they are unable to process around the routines and the structures at home? Is there a mental health issue with the child? Is there a mental health issue with the parent? 

All of us need to support the particular professional who has the best relationship with the parent and is being the voice and helping to support that parent. We create boundaries and silos, but we’re still a community, and we’re all living, breathing organisms experiencing [things]. So when our parents don’t feel connected or they feel vulnerable, they feel like they might be judged. They will not be willing to say, “Hey, I’m going through something in my life that is impacting me.”

Parent partnerships that break down barriers

SmartBrief: That’s a tough thing: to extend compassion and try to convey to somebody, “I’m really not judging you.” Let’s talk about how to partner with parents and families.

Anderson: During the pandemic, parents got to be participants in their children’s education and see the intensity and the work that goes into working with children each and every day. That shared experience, I believe, created [for parents] a certain level of empathy and emotions [toward teachers] around the routines, procedures and educating of their child. 

SmartSummit SEL teacher parent interactions
Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

Creating parent engagement activities is a part of a parent’s finding ways to connect. I saw a teacher using closed social media pages for classrooms as a way of connecting parents, school, students and classroom community. What was so cool about it was that the teacher was able to really connect around wins, celebrations and successes. The parents loved it.

The teacher had recognized that so many parents lost friendships during the pandemic, or they were working nights, or they were not able to do all of the parent involvement things that some parents would typically do. So the teacher shared all the great things happening in her classroom and made that connection with parents.  

SmartBrief: How do we help parents and families feel like they can participate?

Anderson: We have to use language that really fosters the idea that we are a school committee. One strategy is the idea of administrative visioning of what the school committee could be like. Innovation in that is very important. Because if I’m in a school community activity, the engagement is really around a family and really understanding all kinds of people in our families, the different perspectives. We care about each other, and we create a safe, orderly environment where we are socially and situationally aware; we’re not ignoring what we’re seeing and observing because we are a family and we look out for each other. 

The innovation in the activities and programming shouldn’t be in alignment with an administrator vision. It should be about creating an environment where parents feel like they can come to share. 

The community can jointly create strategies and norms: What are the rules of our community? What are the norms of the values of our community? How do we live that every day and what can we do in a shared way to address issues?

Partner with parents to help students figure out who they are

SmartBrief: Working with different families, even pre-pandemic, what are some of the ways that educators have been able to knock down some of those barriers, foster parent interactions and really bring parents or individuals who were resistant or reluctant or didn’t feel like they had a place in the school? How can we get them comfortable with participating?

Anderson: In many cases, administrators are creating a safe, orderly environment and articulating that structure so all constituency groups, as well as staff, are clear on what that is. Clarity and communication across the board.

A safe, orderly environment is one of the most important things when you’re creating a trauma-informed environment. Safe, orderly, predictable environments create less stress, can create less anxiety. In classrooms safe, orderly environments are created through predictable activities and processes. No matter what, students know this is what’s happening. 

Next, no judgment is important. I think the next thing is this idea of no judgment. And high expectations in the sense that “I want more for you, but I’m not putting you into the box. I’m creating a frame around what you can be, and then I’m allowing you to develop the way you should.” 

We need to understand behavior to development. I’m a big proponent on is Erik Erikson’s “8 Stages of Development.” It’s one of the premier tools that anyone can use to ask: “What are the key skills that a young person should master? What’s mastery in a particular area?” 

In adolescence, one of the most important things is to answer “Who am I? Who am I outside of my mom, my dad, my family — whatever they want me to be?” 

Many times, the challenges we face in our classrooms for some students at high school, in middle school level, have this idea challenging you because the teacher isn’t letting them be who they are.  

Teachers can do something simple, like give students a chance to really learn by doing and feel empowered to learn something through a process that will actually result in less behavioral issues than in a rigid classroom. When teachers deliver the curriculum in a way that has social-emotionally value, the student feels, “Wow, I learned something! I learned it on my own!” 

And so it’s very important for us to look at tools that help us scaffold how we’re delivering our academic information, and how we’re treating students socially and emotionally so that they can be present for us.

Addressing the uninvolved parent

SmartBrief: An audience member asks: “How do we engage families that claim they don’t have time to participate in school-related activities that involve their children?”

Anderson: The idea is probing on “don’t have enough time.” We can’t make assumptions. Does “don’t have enough time” mean parental stress? Could it mean socio-economic hardships that are happening right now? 

If my student is saying, “My parents are saying they don’t have enough time,” it may mean that there’s some there might be some kind of need there for that student. One strategy for addressing that could be, “Hey, can we do lunch? I’m having a few students come for lunch.” Just small connections, real things we can do to engage that can actually mean a lot to a student. If you can’t get to the parents, you can still keep pressing on with these tactics.

Read parts 1 and 2 for complete coverage of the SmartSummit on Social-Emotional Wellness and Student Success. In Part 1, the discussion centers around recognizing student red flags. In Part 2, Anderson shares her views on what teachers can do to help students succeed

Diane Benson Harrington is an education writer at SmartBrief. Reach out to her via email, Twitter or LinkedIn


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email ASCD newsletter to see the latest hot topics in education. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.