TIPS FOR MILITARY FAMILIES TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY WITH SCHOOLS AND TEACHERS
All families experience stressors like financial strain, illness in the family, and balancing career with family needs. Military families experience additional stressors specific to military life, such as deployments or moving for a new military assignment. In fact, military families move more than three times as often as civilian families (Hosek & Wadsworth, 2013), and a third of individuals and families in the military relocate annually (Tong, et al., 2018). Communicating With the School: General Tips to Start With frequent moves comes acclimation to new schools and teachers. Communication between the school and the family is important for each student’s success (Farrell & Collier, 2010). Military families need to establish relationships with their child’s school and teachers quickly in order to support effective communication. Schedule a brief meeting. When you move to a new area and school, consider having a 30-minute meeting with the teacher to introduce yourself. Share your military status. Be mindful that teachers and staff members may not be knowledgeable about military families and their experiences (Farrell & Collier, 2010; Garner et al., 2014). They may be unfamiliar with military culture and the family stressors specific to military life that you manage with your family. Stay connected. Follow the school’s social media accounts, read the newsletters they send home, and ensure you are on all the appropriate lists for emails and text messages. Reach out early. If you have a concern, talk to someone – bring it up before the concern becomes a bigger problem. From bullying to struggling with a math concept, teachers have to be aware of the issue before they can address it. Steps to Establishing a Strong Relationship One of the most powerful strategies for building a strong relationship with the school is for parents and caregivers to consider the relationship a partnership. Assume the people at the school care about your child and want them to be as successful as you do. Below are suggestions for how to establish a strong relationship with school personnel. Request an introduction or a tour of the school when you enroll your children in a new school system. A meeting gives you a chance to help the teacher understand your child’s needs, special interests, and talents. You can also share any information specific to being a military family. If you can't meet before school starts, aim to schedule a meeting within the first two weeks of the semester. And schedule the opportunity – rather than trying to catch a teacher or administrator before or after school – so you can have a more thoughtful interaction. Ask each teacher about their preferred communication method, write it down, and keep track of this information. Ask the teacher about opportunities for your child to make friends. Teachers can provide helpful information about the activities in which your child’s peers participate, like community plays, local soccer clubs, or after-school programs. If Something Goes Wrong At some point, you will need to meet with a teacher to address a concern. Teachers want to work with you to resolve the situation. They want all their students to feel comfortable and safe and have the resources they need to succeed. Planning Your Meeting Write down your concerns and your goal for the meeting. Try to be as concise as possible. Make notes for yourself. Determine the right person to contact about your concern. For example, if you are unhappy with how the nurse handled your child’s complaint about a medical issue or injury at school, contact the nurse first to get a better understanding of what happened. Contact the teacher (or the appropriate person) and schedule an appointment. You can ask for a phone call or an in-person visit. While scheduling, share your concerns and goals so the person with whom you’re meeting can bring any helpful information. At the Meeting Thank the teacher for the meeting and for supporting your child. Restate your concern and the goal for the meeting. This information helps the conversation stay on track and focused on supporting your child. Ask for their perspective or information. Approach the situation as if you are partners working together. If needed, say, “I’m glad you’re here with me. I want to work together to resolve this. What are your thoughts?” Most times, partnership brings resolution for a plan – but don't be discouraged if this isn't the case right away. It can often take time to communicate needs and match those needs with available resources. Share what it’s like to be in a military family. Reminding school personnel of your unique stressors, strengths, and needs will help them understand which solutions or resources should be brought to the situation. If the conversation gets heated or bumpy, take a moment to clarify what the other person is saying. This can clear up any misunderstandings and provide more detail. For example, you might say, “What I hear you saying is that you don’t see anyone near my son during recess, and you aren’t sure that someone is picking on him. Am I hearing you correctly?” At the end of the meeting, restate the plan and any next steps. Designate a time for a follow-up meeting. For example, you can say, “You’ll reach out to the counselor about the peer-lunch program. Can I follow up with you in a week about what the next steps are?” Thank the teacher for their time as the meeting ends. (Do this no matter how frustrating the interaction might have been.) After the Meeting Follow-up with the teacher as discussed. Process, regroup, and ask for help if you feel like nothing was resolved. Think about who else you could reach out to for support. The school counselor, reading specialist, or principal might be able to help. FAQs What can I do if I feel overwhelmed and scared to make an appointment? You might worry, “No one knows me. The school is so big, and I am so overwhelmed.” Remember that people who work in schools genuinely want to help the children and support their parents. When in doubt, think of someone at the school you feel you can approach and ask that person for help planning a meeting or addressing your concern. Can I send an email? Yes, you can try to resolve the concern by email. Depending on the circumstances, emails may be better than phone calls because they can serve as documentation. At the same time, be mindful that making a phone call or having an in-person meeting will likely prevent misunderstandings – especially if yours is a lengthy or emotional situation. How do I know whether I should talk by phone or visit in person? When parents first recognize a concern, it’s common for them to chat with the teacher by phone. However, depending on the situation, an in-person meeting may be warranted. The choice is up to you. However, for serious situations, try to schedule an in-person meeting. Who needs to be at teacher-parent conferences? Speaking of emotional situations, you may feel overwhelmed by injustice: “I’m so angry about the situation that the principal needs to be there. I want to call the superintendent, the school board, and the newspapers. This isn’t fair!” But before you call every stakeholder, talk to the person who knows your child best: their teacher. If after doing so things remain unsolved, or if you feel you need a third party to keep things in perspective, consider asking someone from the school administration (such as the principal) or the school counselor to join your meeting. Do I bring my child? Do I bring my other child(ren)? Consider the goal of the meeting and whether having your child or other children present will help achieve that goal. Because you’ll want to be able to focus on the conversation, it’s strongly suggested that you arrange childcare, if possible. Resources to Help You If you know or suspect your child needs special education services, check out the Exceptional Family Member Program. The Military Child Education Coalition supports parents with training and ideas for resolving concerns with schools and teachers. The School Liaison Officer and the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission help military families resolve concerns while transitioning between schools. The Ultimate PCS Checklist for Changing Schools With Military Kids is a free resource for military families relocating. The National Family Military Association provides tips for navigating several difficult scenarios with schools.