“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
― Albert Einstein

Sunday, 3 March 2013

15 Ways to Make a School Safe AND Welcoming

This is a sign on the front door of one of the schools I work at.
That extra word, "welcome" is very important.

In these unfortunate times of lockdowns, locked doors, and massacres, there is no question that safety has to be the first priority for kids. But does it have to be to the detriment of schools feeling warm and welcoming to students and their families?

Some quotes:
  • Promoting the efficacy of every family begins with understanding that all families, regardless of their station in life, are the first and most influential teachers of children. Dr. Steve Constantino @smconstantino 
  • The most accurate predictor of student achievement is the extent to which the family is involved in his or her educationAnne Henderson and Nancy Berla
  • Parents’ perceptions that their child and school want them to be involved is a major factor in parent involvementKathleen Hoover-Dempsey and Howard Sandler
  • Research on the effects of parental involvement has shown a consistent, positive relationship between parents' engagement in their children's education and student outcomes. Studies have also shown that parental involvement is associated with student outcomes such as lower dropout and truancy rates. Whether or not parental involvement can improve student outcomes is no longer in question. from Parent Involvement in Education

I have been in many schools (both as a teacher and a parent) that feel warm and welcoming. I have also been in some that don't. I can really feel the difference. I've been thinking about this a lot lately and here are some things (in no particular order) that I think are important in connecting parents and making a school feel welcoming:

  1. Make sure that any signs posted around the school are welcoming. Signs posted like the one above make it clear that students are safe, but also that parents are welcome and valued.
  2. Make it a priority that the entire staff is polite, friendly, and welcoming to families, including the secretary, custodians, educational assistants, teachers, administrators, and even the TOCs (subs). Families coming into the school should be made to feel comfortable and welcome and greeted in a friendly way by all staff members! 
  3. Be polite! If a parent does something that bothers you, like chatting too loudly in the hallway or interrupting you when you're busy, just tell them politely and calmly, and with a smile. If you snap at them chances are they will not feel welcome coming to the school again.
  4. Smile! Be visible. Stand near the school entrance or classroom door and be warm and friendly. Say hi if a parent is walking their child in or picking them up. Ask them how they are or tell them about something going on at the school. Tell them about something fun the class will be doing that day, or something great their child did recently, or that they had a great day or a great week. 
  5. Listen if a parent wants to tell you that their child was up late the night before, or has a headache, or that there is something stressful going on at home. Listen if a parent tells you that their child is finding something going on at school to be stressful. Just showing them that you hear them and that you care makes a huge difference.
  6. Be open to hearing a parent even if you don't like what they have to say. Some teachers and even some principals don't want parents to be allowed in the school, or they avoid parents because they are worried about being criticised. But even if it's not what we want to hear, isn't that a good way to learn and grow as educators (and as people)? We are trained professionals, but can't we still be open to others' opinions? Especially if we have nothing to hide? Don't we sometimes criticise mechanics, chefs, doctors, hairdressers, accountants, lawyers, etc, even though we aren't trained in their field? If we are their customer, don't we have the right to ask about something or even to complain about something? Why are people more likely to speak up about a problem with their meal at a restaurant than about a problem with their child's school?
  7. Send home positive newsletters. Newsletters that celebrate students' strengths will be much better received than newsletters with rules and regulations or advice for parents. A principal I work with sends home newsletters every couple of weeks called "10 Good Things to Talk About." It lists 10 recent, good things happening at the school. 
  8. Two-way communication through social media, a website, an email list, a blog, etc. are great ways for parents to be connected. In my district there is a district app (parents can download it from the app store) in which the schools post information, events, pictures, and great things happening at each school. Some of the classes (and schools) in my district also have their own Facebook pages. I was in a kindergarten classroom the other morning at work; the teacher showed me her Facebook page in which she had already posted a picture of one of her students losing a tooth that morning (and the mom had already responded with a comment). Every single parent is on her Facebook page (it is set to private so that only parents of students in her class can see it). She (the teacher) posts comments and pictures on a daily basis. It doesn't take her much in the way of extra time, but it sure makes parents feel connected. This teacher has gained parents' trust and they know that their child is cared for. Even if they don't get a chance to come into the classroom very often or make it to parent-teacher conferences, they feel welcome and involved in their child's education.
  9. Be available and easy to contact. Have after hours meeting times available. Check your email regularly.
  10. Be flexible. If a parent wants to walk their child to the classroom for an extra hug, help them with their jacket, or help them gather their homework, what difference does that really make? Is that going to be the defining thing that prevents that child from being independent? Does it truly matter? Why make it an issue? 
  11. Invite parents to assemblies, sports days, school barbecues, and any other school events. This helps connect parents to the school and some parents don't know if they're allowed to attend or not. Make it clear.
  12. Don't be afraid of dealing with an angry or emotional parent. We are trained professionals and we can handle it. We chose a profession in which we deal with people on a daily basis, and people sometimes get upset or angry. Most parents are just looking to be heard. Sometimes if we just stop and listen, without getting defensive, we can instantly diffuse a situation. Most parents are not a threat.
  13. Write a little note or smiley face in students' agendas or send a note home once in awhile. If a parent writes a note in a child's agenda, take the time to respond. It doesn't take very long but that small thing can make a difference in connecting that parent.
  14. Integrate family engagement practices into School Growth Plans.
  15. Relax. Although it is very important to keep school safety a priority, do not let it become a focal point that creates unwelcoming schools. Remaining relaxed and welcoming helps set the tone for a less stressful school in which healthy relationships are the foundation.
Let's not forget about the importance of parent engagement and making schools warm and welcoming as we tighten up our safety procedures!

Thank you for reading! Sorry for the length, this is something I am passionate about:)

March 14th, 2013: Just wanted to add: This blog post is about the countless positive acts of family engagement I've seen over the years in many of the different schools I've worked at (or been a parent at). I feel lucky to be able to say that I've seen every single one of these 15 things in schools! As well, my children have had some wonderful teachers over the years and I took some of these ideas directly from them:)


  1. Wow!!! What a great summary of some key things that can and should be done by educators in schools. For some parents, there are many barriers to entering a school and I believe the items you have listed are ways to build trust and form relationships. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for commenting. I've learned a lot from the welcoming environment you've helped create at Kent Elementary. I think engaging parents and welcoming schools is such a strength of sd78.

  2. Karen: Nice work articulating how to create a welcoming, honoring & respecting school. I think now more than ever with the safety piece fresh in our minds, we need to maintain a balance of opening our school doors to families to build relationships - not simply lock everyone out because it is the "most secure option." Balance is the key and you have hit upon so many great ideas for all learning communities to consider. Also see this #PTchat archive on a similar topic http://efacetoday.blogspot.com/2012/03/does-your-school-lobby-welcome-honor.html