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Educational Review

ISSN: 0013-1911 (Print) 1465-3397 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cedr20

A call for ecologically-based teacher-parent


communication skills training in pre-service
teacher education programmes

Rachel A. Gisewhite, Michelle M. Jeanfreau & Chelsey L. Holden

To cite this article: Rachel A. Gisewhite, Michelle M. Jeanfreau & Chelsey L. Holden (2019): A call
for ecologically-based teacher-parent communication skills training in pre-service teacher education
programmes, Educational Review, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1666794

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2019.1666794

Published online: 24 Sep 2019.

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EDUCATIONAL REVIEW
https://doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2019.1666794

A call for ecologically-based teacher-parent communication


skills training in pre-service teacher education programmes
Rachel A. Gisewhitea, Michelle M. Jeanfreaub and Chelsey L. Holden c

a
Center for Science and Mathematics Education, The University of Southern Mississippi, Long Beach, MS,
USA; bSchool of Child and Family Sciences, The University of Southern Mississippi, Long Beach, MS, USA;
c
School of Child and Family Sciences, The University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS, USA

ABSTRACT ARTICLE HISTORY


Communication plays a critical role in building and supporting Received 22 October 2018
healthy interpersonal relationships. American teacher develop- Accepted 1 September 2019
ment standards recognise this and outline the importance of KEYWORDS
communication in relationship-building with both parent and stu- Teacher-parent
dent to create a successful learning environment. However, communication; human
although available research points to the importance of ecological model; pre-
a healthy teacher-parent relationship for the academic success of service teacher education;
the student, few teachers in the United States have received the teacher development
appropriate pre-service training on effective ways to communicate
with parents. Not only could this impede the establishment of
working relationships between the school and home environ-
ments, but this lack of training has also been shown to contribute
to negative impacts on student learning. In this theoretical paper,
the authors examine current literature on the value of commu-
nication training for teachers, barriers to teacher-parent commu-
nication commonly encountered, and current teacher-parent
communication practices. The authors propose that a human eco-
logical model be used as a foundation for establishing teacher
training for effective communication with parents and discuss how
this lens could address commonly encountered communication
barriers.

Introduction
Teacher preparation programmes in the United States focus primarily on instructional
best practices, assessment, classroom management, and a myriad of topics designed to
prepare teachers for a successful and rewarding career in the classroom. However,
teachers wear many hats throughout their workday, sometimes concurrently. It is
incredibly difficult for teacher preparation programmes to prepare pre-service teachers
for all of these roles given the limited time instructors have to fit in the “big guns” of
teacher preparation before the pre-service teachers enter the classroom for student
teaching, especially considering some roles are primarily dependent on the teaching
environment and students. Further, policy-makers are highly recommending that tea-
cher preparation programmes move towards models where pre-service teachers spend

CONTACT Rachel A. Gisewhite rachel.gisewhite@usm.edu Center for Science and Mathematics Education,
University of Southern Mississippi, 730 East Beach Boulevard, Long Beach, MS 39560, USA
© 2019 Educational Review
2 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

more time in the classroom through field experiences, which could potentially grant
even less time to addressing the more personal aspects of teaching children, including
how to communicate effectively and thoughtfully with their students’ parents (AACTE,
2010; Hollins, 2015). It is first important to note that in the context of this paper, we use
the term parent to refer to the parent, guardian, or another adult in the child’s life that is
most likely to communicate with the teacher about the well-being of the child. Further,
we use the term effective with respect to communication to identify the type of
communication that best suits the teacher-parent relationship for the benefit of the
child and his or her education as a result of a holistic, ecologically-based approach. This
is not a one-size-fits all method, but rather, focuses on the truer definition of the word,
in which the intention is productive, constructive, and successful communication
between teacher and parent that results in the best possible outcome for the involved
parties and the student learning.
When able to spare such time in the classroom, teacher education programmes
typically address pre-service teachers’ communication skills by offering feedback and
assessment on teacher-student communication. However, teachers must also commu-
nicate with parents, community members, administrators, and colleagues. These diverse
audiences demand a complex understanding of how context and identity influence
communication; yet, most American teacher education programmes relegate commu-
nication instruction to a general education requirement. And, while the United States
national goals have called for effective communication and increased parent engage-
ment since 1994 (National Goals Panel, 1994/1997/1998), teacher education pro-
grammes have by and large yet to adequately prepare pre-service teachers to
communicate with communities, parents, and students. (Dotger, 2010; Miretzky, 2004).
As public-school systems struggle to articulate their worth to policy-makers and
the general public, particularly in how to both fund and educate our children, public
schools could serve as their own advocates, using teachers’ and administrators’ daily
interactions within their communities to garner support. However, what should be an
advantage (ready and frequent access to the public) may work to the detriment of
public schools’ advocacy efforts because teachers are often neither trained to com-
municate with parents and the community nor are they aware of their role as an
advocate and communicator. In this theoretical paper, we address the need for pre-
service teacher training on teacher-parent communication, discuss some barriers that
inhibit this from occurring within teacher preparation programmes and draw on the
family-community dynamic and educational best practices to propose a more holistic
vision of teacher-family communication. It is imperative that teachers be better
prepared to work for greater student success and advocate for what is in the best
interest of the students.

What is missing in American pre-service teacher standards?


The relationship between teachers and parents is multifaceted. Usually, the goal of the
relationship is to work simultaneously to help the child learn and grow. Often parents
also take on such roles as volunteer, substitute teacher, and field trip organiser in an
effort to help teachers with the many things they are having to juggle throughout the
school year (Hornby, 1990). The variability of the relationship creates an interesting
EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 3

dynamic for teacher-parent communication, one that is open for positive interactions
while also vulnerable to negative ones.
Taylor (2006) believed that teachers and parents each hold negative perceptions of
the other, which play into creating strained teacher-parent relationships. Though tea-
chers are often parents themselves, and should therefore be able to identify with the
common role, these negative perceptions appear to stem from the differences between
the families. For example, teachers may have “negative views of the socio-economic
status of the family, the quality of the home environment, cultural differences, and
parent’s level of education” (Taylor, 2006, p. 2). Parents’ perceptions, on the other hand,
may include “distrust of teachers, a feeling of not being included or rejected, lack of
communication in their child’s progress, and a feeling of embarrassment when their
child is not doing well” (Taylor, 2006, p. 2). Teachers and schools may easily overlook
how the teacher-parent relationship impedes or advances their goals because of how
their perceptions are affecting communication within the teacher-parent relationship.
According to Anderson and Minke (2007) discomfort in teacher-parent interactions often
leads to miscommunication and increased difficulties in the relationship. Furthermore,
Lipscomb (2015) suggested that “teachers must work to build relationships with parents
in order to ensure that parents will openly communicate” (p. 108).
This paper focuses more specifically on interpersonal communication, which is
defined as a “selective, systemic, unique, processual transaction that allows people to
reflect and build personal knowledge of one another as they create meanings” (Wood,
2010, p. 26). Interpersonal communication is deeper and more personal, so individuals
are selective in which relationships to take to this deeper level. This type of commu-
nication is also systemic in that interpersonal communication takes place within various
systems and contexts. For example, the importance of the situation, time, people,
culture, and our personal histories all influence the meanings attributed to communica-
tion, an ongoing (Wood, 2010), continual process that evolves over time and eventually
takes on its own unique style (Pillet-Shore, 2015; Wood, 2010).
The InTASC Model Core Standards (CCSSO, 2011), a governing document that defines
the essential knowledge, performances, and dispositions of American pre-service teacher
education, mentions the importance of communication in building a learning environ-
ment and developing teacher leaders (Standards 3, 5, 6, 8 and 10). Table 1 outlines the
standards specific to teacher communication. Though InTASC specifies a need for
effective communication practices within a classroom, it classifies communication simply
as something teachers know and do, or are inclined to do, and ignores the complexity of
communication and entire disciplinary fields. Even more troubling, without considering
the intricacies and various essential components of communication or the acknowl-
edgement that communication is part of a much larger holistic system, InTASC ensures
that studying or teaching communication, within teacher education programmes, to the
depth or breadth necessary to sufficiently prepare teachers for the workplace will not
occur. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), another highly
revered US organisation for teacher excellence and development, likewise describes the
need for effective teacher communication by simply stating that “accomplished teachers
communicate regularly with students’ parents and guardians. Teachers inform them
about their children’s accomplishments and challenges, responding to their questions,
listening to their concerns, and respecting their views” (NBPTS, 2016, p. 38). Considering
4 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

Table 1. Communication skills and knowledge represented in InTASC Model Core Standards for
Teacher Development.
Performances Essential Knowledge Critical Dispositions
3(f) The teacher communicates 3(l) The teacher understands how 3(q) The teacher seeks to foster
verbally and nonverbally in ways learner diversity can affect respectful communication
that demonstrate respect for and communication and knows how to among all members of the
responsiveness to the cultural communicate effectively in differing learning community.
backgrounds and differing environments.
perspectives learners bring to the
learning environment.
3(h) The teacher intentionally builds 5(n) The teacher understands 3(r) The teacher is a thoughtful and
learner capacity to collaborate in communication modes and skills as responsive listener and observer.
face-to-face and virtual vehicles for learning (e.g.
environments through applying information gathering and process)
effective interpersonal across disciplines as well as vehicles
communication skills. for expressing learning.
10(d) The teacher works 8(m) The teacher understands how
collaboratively with learners and multiple forms of communication
their families to establish mutual (oral, written, nonverbal, digital,
expectations and ongoing visual) convey ideas, foster self
communication to support learner expression, and build relationships.
development and achievement.
10(g) The teacher uses technological
tools and a variety of
communication strategies to build
local and global learning
communities that engage learners,
families, and colleagues.
Note. From Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), 2011, pp. 12–19.

this guidance, or lack thereof, we are asking teachers to become and do that for which
we do not prepare them: thoughtful and respectful communicators.
This paper argues that an ecologically framed communication training at the pre-
service level is the most effective model for teacher-parent relationship building and
maintenance. The authors do not have a specific model for what this communication
training should look like; however, in this theoretical paper, we review the established
need for this training and propose that an ecological theoretical foundation should be
used for future model development. We invite our readers to review this information
and join us in our pursuit of a detailed ecologically-based model to be incorporated into
pre-service teacher education to directly enhance student success and provide stronger
advocacy for the needs of each student.

Literature review
For this theoretical paper, we searched through the current literature on teacher-parent
communication in schools and teacher-parent communication skills taught in pre-
service teaching programmes and chose articles to analyse that documented evidence –
or lack thereof – of these types of skills taught in teacher education programmes. We
also reviewed literature documenting the benefits, difficulties, and barriers to effective
communication between teachers and parents or guardians. We chose literature from
various grade levels, school types, and communities in the United States and Canada
from 1988 to 2018, which appeared to provide a helpful spectrum of unique to highly
generalisable educational settings.
EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 5

Importance and benefits of effective teacher-parent communication


The authors found a compelling consensus in the available research that strong, sup-
portive relationships and clear, beneficial communication processes benefit schools and
students (Bernard, 2004; Cheung & Pomerantz, 2012; Fan & Chen, 2001; Houtenville &
Conway, 2008; Owen, 2016; Todd & Wolpin, 2007; Vickers & Minke, 1995). Teacher-parent
communication matters; it improves student performance (Jeynes, 2011; Kraft & Rogers,
2015), increases parent engagement (Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Hornby, 1990; Hornby &
Lafaele, 2011), satisfies cognitive needs by providing opportunities to teach and learn
(Lewis, 2005), and supports teacher retention (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). Additionally,
when parents and teachers can work together, student achievement can increase, and
parents can become more connected with the school (Hornby, 1990; Hornby & Lafaele,
2011; Pomerantz, Moorman, & Litwack, 2007). Research studies show that a strong
relationship between home and school can improve learner achievement, attitude
towards school, classroom conduct, and parent and teacher morale (Christenson,
Rounds, & Franklin, 1992; Cochran & Dean, 1991; Hornby & Lafaele, 2011; Pomerantz
et al., 2007). Furthermore, studies have shown other positive results arising out of
parental involvement. Parental involvement has been found to enhance both skill
development and motivational development of students (Pomerantz et al., 2007) and
increase student school attendance (Haynes, Comer, & Hamilton-Lee, 1988; Jeynes,
2007). Students are found to have more successful experiences with homework
(Pomerantz, Ng, & Wang, 2006; Rich, 1988), higher academic motivation (Simons-
Morton & Chen, 2009), higher graduation rates (Fan & Chen, 2001), and better mental
health (Wang & Sheikh-Khalil, 2014) when their parents are involved in their education.
Interestingly, communication between parents and the school has been found to be the
strongest predictor of parental involvement (Park & Holloway, 2018).
Such are the benefits of teacher-parent communication that administrators and policy-
makers have tried to mandate the inclusion of teacher-parent communication skills within
teacher preparation programmes (Belway, Durán, & Spielberg, 2009). Nonetheless,
researchers do not have a clear consensus on how best to teach those relationships and
processes. Teacher-parent communication requires complex role negotiation and expec-
tations as “identities are collaboratively constructed, moment-by-moment through com-
municative practices” (Pillet-Shore, 2015, p. 274). Although mandating teacher-parent
communication by teachers to parents may result in more communication, it will not
necessarily be effective communication.
Hornby (1990) discussed the strengths of cultivating a positive teacher-parent
relationship. He reported that parents have the ability to contribute a wealth of
valuable information about their child(ren) to a teacher that has the potential to
enhance the instruction and overall experience for children in the classroom. When
invited to collaborate with the teacher, parents can share expert information on
individual strengths and challenges, preferences, medical details, community ties,
and motivators for their students. Therefore, effective teacher-parent communica-
tion skills equip teachers to make the most of a ready-made resource (Atkin,
Bastiani, & Goode, 1988; Hornby, 1990). Of course, parents must be willing to
play their role for this collaboration to work (Bastiani, 1988; Hornby, 1990;
Hornby & Lafaele, 2011); we believe teachers specifically trained in communication
6 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

will be better equipped to also create a flexible and understanding partnership


with the parents of their students that will encourage parents to participate in
a collaboration. Surprisingly, although a strong body of literature supports the
inclusion of training for teachers to effectively communicate with parents, teacher
education programmes in general are not including this training in their curricula.

Teacher-parent communication training in teacher education programmes


There is little documented about how pre-service teachers are prepared to develop
teacher-parent partnerships, and there is a limited amount of research on the devel-
opment or use of practical skills in teacher-parent communication or even the
incorporation of this topic within teacher education programmes in general.
A study including 60 teacher education programmes in 22 states revealed that only
23% of the programmes allowed teacher-parent interaction during field experiences
(Shartrand, Weiss, Kreider, & Lopez, 1997). Syracuse University School of Education is
utilising a Simulated Interaction Model (SIMS) in teacher training to allow their pre-
service teachers to gain more experience before entering their own classroom.
Though John Settlage quotes on their website that “the simulation project activities
have been profoundly useful experiences for our graduate STEM teacher preparation
program” (eduSIMS, 2019), they list no empirical results to quantify how well the
activities work.
An East Coast university with bachelor and master degrees in education partici-
pated in a study where the curriculum for teacher preparation was analysed and pre-
service teachers were interviewed to determine how they felt about family-school
partnerships, the curriculum in their programme and if they felt sufficiently prepared
for these types of partnerships. The researchers specifically targeted terms involving
communication with parents. They found that there was no mention of forming these
types of relationships, nor was there assessment to determine the students’ ability to
work with families. They also found that the norm for student perception was that
communication went one way: from teacher to parent (de Bruïne et al., 2014).
However, there is a trend of favourable results among the few studies available
that show some inclusion of teacher-parent communication practical skills training
in pre-service teacher education programmes.
Katz and Bauch (1999) found that approximately two-thirds of pre-service teachers that
took a parent involvement course focused on skills and content based on nine general
family involvement activities, including written communication, recorded messages, tele-
phone calls, and parent/teacher conferences. These teachers felt more prepared to handle
situations relating to parental involvement, including written and recorded communica-
tion. Additionally, four universities in geographically different places served as pilot pro-
grammes for the Parent Teacher Education (PTE) Connect curriculum, a web-based
curriculum that instructs teachers on best practices in family involvement and uses
a MANOVA to determine attitude and knowledge towards involvement, developed by
Brown, Harris, Jacobson, and Trotti (2014). Study results found significant improvement in
knowledge and attitudes across many settings, including communicating with parents.
EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 7

Current teacher communication practices


Researchers claim teacher-parent communication has a significant impact on student
learning, performance, and behaviour; yet, few have implicitly examined the mechan-
isms of effective teacher-parent communication (Garbacz, Sheridan, Koziol, Kwon, &
Holmes, 2015; Kraft & Rogers, 2015). Although there is a gap in the literature on current
communication practices in schools, there is some evidence that poor communication
between parents and teachers can negatively impact student learning and develop-
ment. For example, in a mixed analysis study Hughes and Kwok (2007) demonstrated
that students have better socially-related academic motivation and higher gains in
achievement when the teacher-parent relationship is supported and of greater quality.
Teachers who received some training during in-service in communication practices felt
more confident in their ability to teach the child of the parent with whom they were
communicating (Symeou, Roussounidou, & Michaelides, 2012).
Likewise, when Melnick and Meister (2008) compared naturalistic and qualitative
studies to examine new and experienced teachers’ perceptions on a variety of teaching
issues, including communication with parents, they found that new teachers are much
less likely to feel confident in their ability to communicate with parents than experi-
enced teachers. It is possible that this is due to a lack of training in their teacher
preparation programmes. On the other hand, Walker and Dotger (2012) found that
even teacher candidates who felt highly confident to communicate with students’
parents did not actually have the communication skills to match their confidence and
possessed only a limited number of effective communication strategies. Therefore, it is
important to confirm that all new teachers – including those who rank themselves as
confident and those who do not – actually have the skills they need to communicate
with parents successfully.
Further, so often in education, communication between parent and teacher occurs
because of a behaviour or discipline issue with the student or academic problems the
student is encountering. Teachers receive little training on how to deliver such news
to parents, ask for their help in teaching their children, how to appropriately discuss
student needs based on a variety of factors, and incorporating other forms of positive
communication with parents (Melnick & Meister, 2008). Because of the need for
teachers to obtain relevant information to better educate their students (Hornby,
1990) and to effectively communicate when problems arise (Melnick & Meister, 2008),
it is important for teachers to arrive on the first day of the job equipped for effective
teacher-parent communication. Therefore, this training would be most helpful if
addressed in pre-service preparation to maximise both teacher effectiveness and
student outcomes.

Barriers to effective teacher-parent communication


Preparing teachers to be thoughtful and respectful communicators meets the unspoken
standards of InTASC and NBPTS. Both entities clearly state the value of teacher-parent
communication in the teacher training and development standards, and research shows
the importance of this relationship for student academic success. However, some
parents and educators may find barriers to communication in relationship building,
8 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

including parent and teacher perceptions and expectations, technology, and cultural
differences.

Cultural beliefs and values


Literature about teacher-parent relationships expounds on the importance of relation-
ship building. However, Clarke, Sheridan, and Woods (2009) explained that healthy
parent-teacher relationships are typically distinguished in part by common beliefs in
the importance of the relationship and commitment to building and maintaining
a positive relationship regarding the education of the child. There are some inconsis-
tencies with these characteristics among different demographics and groups that share
different cultural beliefs and values from the teacher.
Numerous studies show that parents of minorities and low-income students are more
marginalised and have more alienated relationships than those of white or higher SES
peers (Chavkin & Williams, 1993; Clark, 1983; Huang & Gibbs, 1992; Kim, 2009; López,
2001). This is because it is more difficult to establish a shared understanding and build
trust in times when teachers and student families do not share a common culture
(Hughes & Kwok, 2007) and because, through the interpretive perspective, long-
standing systems of privilege provide the basis for school-home relationships (Graue,
Kroeger, & Prager, 2001). Parents of minorities and special needs students face other
barriers, such as time and economic constraints (Abrams & Gibbs, 2002). Additionally,
parents of English Language Learners (ELL) are less likely to be involved in their child’s
education, especially if their first language is also not English (Bhattacharya, 2000; Dyson,
2001; Weisskirch, 2005). Similarly, in situations where teachers have a different cultural
background, ELL students’ parents may have different cultural expectations than the
teacher and other characteristics that limit their participation in school (Chamberlain,
2005; Peterson & Ladky, 2007; Ramirez, 2000). This is an interesting finding because this
occurs even though ELL parents value education and perceive their role as an integral
part of their students’ success in school (Ariza, 2000; Bhattacharya, 2000; Chao, 1996;
Commins, 1992; Huss-Keeler, 1997).

Technology
Close to 95% of adult Americans own some form of a cellphone (77% of which are
smartphones), 75% own a computer, and half own a tablet (Pew Research Center,
2018a). With the increase of smartphone usage, people have an increased ability to
access the internet, regardless of whether they have traditional broadband service at
home. Through increased use and accessibility of technology, teachers have also turned
to the use of such technologies as automated school- or class-wide voice messages,
parent portals, emails, social media, and personal class websites. As the Pew Research
Centre (PRC) indicates, most families use various forms of technology, and this should
seem like an excellent way to improve teacher-parent communication. However, it does
come with some challenges. Parents may be less likely to use technology if they perceive
it to be too difficult, time-consuming, or not useful.
Although 80% of Americans use at least one social media site, when considering how
social media is used and by whom, the percentage of those likely to use it for teacher-
parent communication begins to drop (PRC, 2018b). According to the Pew’s 2018 polls,
most social media users are between the ages of 18–29, and the percentage lowers as age
EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 9

increases. These trends are reversed among lower income and less-educated individuals. In
consideration of these statistics, it is easy to infer that the use of smartphones could
increase teacher-parent communication through social media although, that would be
less likely to happen among lower SES, less educated, or older parents.

Teacher/parent perceptions and expectations


Fine (1990) points out that a breakdown in teacher-parent communication can occur
through the misaligned teachers’ perceptions of parents. This breakdown in communica-
tion occurs mainly when teachers perceive parents as unknowledgeable and, therefore,
incapable of effective communication, or that teacher-parent communication is intrusive to
the valuable time of the teacher. Teachers may also struggle with understanding that their
perception of reality may be different from that of the parent. Fine (1990) further states that
the formality of some teacher-parent communication methods may be intimidating for the
parent, creating a negative reaction or discouraging them from participating (Wu, 2015). In
a study that included interviewing 53 primary and secondary teachers from 15 schools of
various levels, sizes, and communities, Lasky (2000) found that teachers felt more comfor-
table when parents share their values than when they did not, and they often judge
parents negatively and feel threatened when parents challenged their ideas.
Teachers perceive that parents of minority students and in low socioeconomic groups
are less concerned and involved in the process of their children’s understanding, which can
have a negative impact on student learning (Robinson & Harris, 2014; Rubie-Davies,
Peterson, Irving, Widdowson, & Dixon, 2010). Some teachers and principals may also
attribute lower levels of parent involvement among ethnic minority parents to the absence
of motivation to cooperate, lack of concern for their children’s education, and a lower value
placed on education (Clark, 1983; Kim, 2009; López, 2001). Despite these teacher percep-
tions, the desire by the marginalised parent for a healthy relationship with their child’s
teacher may be present, but they may not feel as though they have a choice for cultivating
it. Parent perceptions also play an important role. Palts and Harro_Loit (2015) conducted
a study of the parents of students in elementary school, where the parents were asked to
complete a survey and focus group interviews regarding teacher-parent communication. In
their study, they found that parents rated their child’s school highly if friendly commu-
nication was established and parents felt welcome within the classroom environment and
lowly if the communication was deficient or disagreeable. In this case, the perception of the
parent is that the better and more thorough the communication, the better the school.
Additionally, some parents were found to be less likely to be receptive to open commu-
nication from teachers, as they believed it was likely to contain negative information, while
others considered it their responsibility to be actively involved in order to help the teacher
and create a positive effect on their child (Palts & Harro_Loit, 2015). Teachers who have
been trained to effectively communicate with parents have the potential to demonstrate to
each student’s parents that collaboration is invited and can be a positive experience
(Epstein et al., 2002).

Human ecological model


The main idea underlying the human ecological theory is that “individuals and families
must be examined within the context of their environments, recognizing that each
10 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

influences and is changed by the other” (Smith & Hamon, 2012, p. 185). It would be
difficult to understand the importance of teacher-parent relationships if we did not
understand this basic theory. Human ecological theory has four interacting systems
(Bronfenbrenner, 2005). The simplest level is the microsystem, which is the immediate
environment of an individual and includes the student’s day to day relationships. This
includes such things as the individual’s family, friends, teachers at school, and friends or
clergy at church. The next level, the mesosystem, involves the interactions that occur
between two or more microsystems. According to Eamon (2001), interactions that occur
in one microsystem – such as the school environment – may influence the interactions
in another, such as the parent-child relationship at home or vice versa. The third level,
the exosystem, includes those settings or organisations that the child does not directly
experience, but still impact the child. Even though the child does not have an active role
in these settings, the settings have an influence on the child. This includes government
agencies, parents’ workplace, and the media. The final level is the macrosystem and this
includes attitudes and beliefs, values and customs, and the laws of the culture in which
the individual lives (Smith & Hamon, 2012).
The mesosystem is particularly important to a child and is a major factor in the value
of educating pre-service teachers to learn how to communicate effectively with parents.
The interactions that occur during the school day can have a positive or negative impact
on the parent-child relationship at home. For example, if there is not clear communica-
tion from the teacher to the parents of the weekly expectations for the child, this in turn
could cause a conflictual relationship between the parent and child and, in some cases,
between the co-parenting adults. Unfortunately, with limited face-to-face contact
between parents and teachers, the child must enact communication between the two
different microsystems, which are sometimes at odds with each other (Fine, 1990). It is
also important to note that the school and home microsystems may carry different value
systems and expectations for the child, which s/he must adapt to within in each system
(Fine, 1990). Research has shown that when quality teacher-parent interactions occur,
positive outcomes including decreased problem behaviour and increased academic
success also occur (Fiese, Foley, & Spagnola, 2006; Messina, Kolbert, Hyatt-Burkhart, &
Crothers, 2015).
The child is part of a family that involves many systems, all of which have an impact
on the child. For example, a change in the marital subsystem due to the deployment of
one military spouse will cause a change in all the other family systems (sibling, parental,
extended family, etc.). In turn, miscommunication or issues that arise within the school
will also cause changes in the child’s systems and the entire family system. Having the
ability to look at the child through the lens of the ecological perspective and the
different systems in play may help teachers minimise or avoid miscommunication and
conflict within the family unit.

Addressing barriers to communication through an ecological lens


To gain a sense of how we can build a holistic ecological system in pre-service teacher
preparation programmes that can adequately prepare teacher candidates for effective
teacher-parent communication, it is important to consider the successes and trials that
are found in the classrooms and teacher development programmes. Here we address
EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 11

only the barriers discussed earlier, though there are many other barriers to this issue
with their own documented outcomes.

Cultural beliefs and values


Effectively involving and communicating with parents contributes to teachers gaining
a deeper understanding of the culture, background, views, needs, and concerns of their
students’ families (Epstein et al., 2002). Among the culture of special needs, Murray and
Mereoiu (2015) found that when establishing teacher-parent partnerships to discuss the
needs, resources, and goals of the family and child, the teacher feels more confident
working with the family and more prepared in working with these students. Murray and
Mereoiu (2015) believed this is because teachers working directly with families can
develop empathy for the family, which creates a space for positive relationships to
form. Empathy leads to more confidence in working with their student, and commu-
nication is the key to establishing the relationships between families and schools (Murray
& Mereoiu, 2015).
In a study on structured workshops designed to improve teacher-parent relationships,
the school worked to accomplish three major goals, including to “provide explanations
of educational themes to family members [and] encourage parent-teacher dialogue and
relationship formation” (Mendez, 2010). These examples demonstrate how, when faced
with the need to build relationships with parents, schools take a directive approach of
one-sided communication. Although the school wants to foster dialogue between
teachers and parents, they also see a need to ‘teach’ parents through explanations
and to model parent-child interactions. These goals imply that the problem is within the
parent, so solving the problem means educating the parent. Yet, as noted, it is the
educators who hold the preconceptions of minority parents and parenting, and it would
seem that the above goals do not address the problem of bias and preconceptions but
instead try to navigate cultural difference through lecturing and behaviour management
rather than understanding and adapting. A favourable teacher-parent relationship can-
not thrive on presumptions and one-sided communication (Epstein et al., 2002; Hornby,
1990; Hornby & Lafaele, 2011), but through the consideration of the other as a part of
a bigger ecological system.

Technology
Teacher-created web pages and online grade books are an effective form of teacher-
parent communication (Nelms, 2002), particularly when they host such features that
better allow parents to see what their child is learning and how they are performing in
class (Bigalow, 2003; Solomon & Andres, 1998). With access to this information, parents
can connect with the teacher and become more involved in their child’s education
(Zieger & Tan, 2012).
Thompson, Mazer, and Grady (2015) argue that parents show a preference for email
communication and Lazaros (2016) found that parents felt that text electronic messa-
ging, often through text messaging tools, was an efficient form of communication due
to the convenience of giving feedback through prompt responses and ease of accessi-
bility through smartphones. In consideration of the value of convenience, inferences can
be made that the ease of social media interactions could increase the use of social
media sites for teacher-parent or classroom communications. Providing convenient and
12 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

easily accessed methods of text or email communication invites parents to share more
information and encourage collaborations that can better account for the ecological
system in which the student lives (Epstein et al., 2002; Hornby, 1990). For example, if
technology-driven methods of communication allow a parent to quickly communicate
to a teacher that his or her daughter with diabetes experienced heightened hypogly-
caemic symptoms over the weekend, the teacher can be better prepared to address the
student’s holistic classroom needs on Monday. Additionally, the parent can feel more
engaged with his or her child’s education and more at ease over her wellbeing (Epstein
et al., 2002).

Teacher/parent expectations
Veteran teachers (with more than 15 years of experience) tend to communicate more
with parents than novice teachers do, perhaps because they bear witness to the benefits
of teacher-parent communication over the course of their careers (Patten, 2015). Novice
teachers may also not grant priority to teacher-parent communication because they are
struggling to meet the demands of a new job. Additionally, if teachers had an expecta-
tion by the principal to contact parents, they tended to use forms of mass communica-
tion more than other methods. Without this expectation by the principal, or if teachers
thought that parents were getting information from other sources, teachers did not
reach out to parents. In other words, due to convenience factors, and the perceptions
and values of teachers, personalised one-on-one communication about specific needs of
individual students is lacking, despite the evidence suggesting it helps parents stay
more involved and, therefore, contributes to the academic success of the student.
Parents are made to feel unwelcome if they do not mirror the norms of the school,
when they challenge teachers’ authority, or when they question teacher practices and
decisions (Epstein et al., 2002; Hornby, 1990; Lareau, 1987, 1989). When schools signal
that parents are not welcome and indicate that the teacher is the expert, the reaction is
negative. However, teachers and families form cooperation when they establish com-
munication that enables an understanding of mutual expectations of the children’s
needs. Symeou et al. (2012) discussed an in-service training opportunity designed to
increase teacher-parent communication where the school Parent Association (PA) cre-
ated activities that formed links between schools and families. In the study, the teachers
were given a questionnaire at the beginning of the first meeting of the training and at
the end of the last meeting, and this data revealed that the teachers discovered that
when they use counselling skills in communication, it promoted student learning,
personal growth, and discipline.

Implications and future research for the integration of the human


ecological model in communication training for teachers
Although scholars in education, communication, and psychology agree that encoura-
ging teacher-parent communication is important, disciplinary limitations prevent these
scholars from forming a model for teacher-parent communication. With limited research
available on teacher-parent relationships exceeding the early childhood years (Jeynes,
2011), a lack of training for parents from the schools, and very little pre-service inter-
personal communication training in teacher preparation programmes, teachers and
EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 13

parents may feel limited on finding proven methods to strengthen those relationships
(Baker, 1997). However, there are some educators advocating for teacher preparation
programmes to be more inclusive of communication skills training.
McNaughton and Vostol (2010) propose that teachers use active listening in informal
settings to communicate with parents and guardians, using it as a practical foundation
for school-home relationship building. They found parents better receive teachers that
actively try to listen, empathise, focus on the issue, and communicate respect. Parents
were more encouraged then to help build or support a positive perception of teachers.
They argue that this method helps teachers to logically organise information from the
parent and communicate to parents that they understand their perceptions and respect
their beliefs.
Upon the conclusion of a latent class analysis of four groups of teachers,
Gartmeier, Gebhardt, and Dotger (2016) recommended that all teacher education
programmes give students an opportunity to develop a high level of communication
competence. One of their suggestions for developing this communication compe-
tence within a teacher education programme includes focusing on controversial
topics that would allow teachers to develop realistic viewpoints, particularly of
those related to their perception of the teacher and parent roles in conversations
and knowing when in those conversations to include other professionals within the
educational setting, such as school psychologists and educational counsellors. They
also recommend the use of assessments that identify preferred and dis-preferred
behaviours of teachers as they interact with parents in order to tailor strategies to
improve pre-service teachers’ parent communication.
Kaufman and Ireland (2016) called for the implementation of simulations in teacher
education, including such options as scenario/role-play, computer-based clinic simula-
tions, and simulations with standardised patients and students. Their argument is that
simulations provide a valuable opportunity to practice and enhance pre-service tea-
chers’ craft, develop important dispositions that prepare them for effective teaching, but
also an assessment tool to offer feedback and reflection.
Hunt, Simonds, and Cooper (2002) argued for a stand-alone communications course
for all pre-service teachers. They recognised that much of what teachers do is dependent
on their ability to effectively communicate. However, they limit a teacher’s communica-
tion practice to the classroom, where students are the primary recipient of the proposed
learned communication skills. The idea here is that teachers should be more concerned
with their own inward communication about the value and importance of their ques-
tions rather than how they interact with their students. On their own, teachers may not
have the ability to analyse their own communication skills to determine the impact of
the questions posed for students, let alone decide how to extend these skills to their
parents. Many may not even understand why this is so important until they are in
a classroom of their own, and at that point, teachers become reliant on trial and error or
advice from mentors. They miss a valuable window of learning and engaging in best
communication practice (Hunt et al., 2002). We believe that pre-service training could
help teachers to begin their careers with a “partnership” approach (i.e. invitation to share
power and communicate mutual respect between teachers and parents) to working with
parents rather than a “battleground” approach (i.e. characterised by power struggles and
hostility between teachers and parents; Epstein et al., 2002).
14 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

What this approach might look like in practice


Although it is much harder for school systems to educate and train parents on the
benefits and communication skills necessary for teacher-parent relationships, particularly
in light of the 3-year evaluation case study conducted by Abrams and Gibbs (2002)
stating barriers that parents face, it would be beneficial to provide the type of training to
the teachers at the pre-service level so that they are prepared to work with parents
before they even begin employment at a school. This training should not only consider
the family unit, but also expands to include the community and the various actors and
situations that are influential – through either their action or inaction – and may feel
a strong sense of inclusion or exclusion in their child’s schooling. Using the lens of the
human ecological model, training can educate teacher candidates in ways in which they
can work with parents to be more considerate of the differences within their parental
communities and help teachers understand all the systems in play in the child’s life.
Consider Ashley, an intermediate student from a low-income, minority family who is
struggling with reading and displaying some disciplinary behaviour at school. Teachers
may consider these two elements as separate and treat them as such. Her teacher might
give her more work or offer to tutor for her reading deficiencies and at another time
contact her parents to report her inappropriate behaviour. With the numbers of students
a teacher has and the many responsibilities and tasks teachers have to complete in
a day, without a ready plan for and confidence in a holistic communication approach,
teachers are more likely to resort to the quickest, easiest way to address an issue – which
isn’t always the most effective way. If, on the other hand, Ashley’s teacher had been
prepared in his or her pre-service preparation programme to communicate with parents
in consideration of their position in an ecological system, he or she would know to
consider such variables as home life dynamics, cultural beliefs and values, and economic
and family support. Ashley’s teacher would also be prepared to not only offer assistance
based on needs, but would open up the dialogue in such a way that encourages equal
parent involvement in troubleshooting issues and developing methods that best meet
the needs of the student.

Limitations of this approach


An important thing to consider here is that due to the nature of the human ecological
model, it would not be possible or appropriate to craft a single method to put into place
in teacher education programmes across the nation to represent this theory. Our
students are part of an ecosystem, but each school, and even as far down as each
grade or classroom, is not necessarily the same ecosystem as its neighbour, and that
certainly would be true across cities, states, demographics, and culture. However, it is
possible and preferable that teacher education programmes use the human ecological
model as a guiding framework for the entire programme, in which pre-service teachers
are trained throughout to consider the various levels and relationships of the ecosystem
when writing lesson plans, understanding and implementing effective classroom man-
agement strategies, choosing technology for the classroom, garnering and utilising
outside support for the teaching of their content and students, and so forth. In this
way, pre-service teachers would learn from the beginning of their career to consider
EDUCATIONAL REVIEW 15

their students as whole people that come from various backgrounds and situations. As
teachers begin to utilise this skill set, they would gain confidence and build ample
experience with the skills and strategies needed to work with the whole student, which
includes their support relationships. Further, teacher education programmes should
design and implement specific lessons targeting effective communication skills and
strategies, the value of and barriers to strong teacher-parent communication, and
have them practice honing these skills in their practicum settings. In this way, pre-
service teachers would be able to make the connection between the ecology of their
students within and beyond the classroom. They would understand the need for better
communication with their parents and guardians for the benefit of their students’
education, and through practice in their practicum, they would see firsthand evidence
of the value it brings to their students’ education.
There are limitations to the suggested theory. First, we do not address all possible
barriers to teacher-parent communication. Other potential barriers to consider, though
not exhaustive, are accessibility, time, lack of support, and jargon. Barriers may also differ
due to geographic region, the socioeconomic status variability of the school community,
and racial diversity, among others. Additionally, unlike empirical research methods that
argue what is the case in teacher education, philosophical research methods analyse
what ideally should be the case using a large body of literature to defend effective
educational ends (Thayer-Bacon & Moyer, 2006). Finally, this theoretical paper reveals
a need for the incorporation of ecologically-based teacher-parent communication in
teacher preparation programmes; as an introduction to this concept, we do not have
a specific model demonstrating how to put this into practice, though it is an intention of
future work.

Conclusion
Despite the limitations, if research suggests that parent involvement in their child’s
education can increase academic success and well-being, our teacher preparation
programmes should strive to create an ecological model that addresses these needs
through established interpersonal communication training and praxis, because without
effective communication, a relationship will stalemate or decline. Further, including
a focus on interpersonal communication with students’ families in teacher preparation
programmes is essential to bridging the gap that will allow teachers to better engage
with and advocate for their students while at the same time increasing student success.
An ecological model of communication training has the potential to encourage healthy
and advantageous exchanges of information between teachers and parents to promote
educational success for each student.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

ORCID
Chelsey L. Holden http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3380-895X
16 R. A. GISEWHITE ET AL.

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