Silence at School: Parents Fail to Communicate Life Altering Events That Affect Student Performance

Provo, Utah Aug. 26, 2015A fifth grader’s family was awakened by a SWAT team that held them at gunpoint and arrested the father on drug-related charges. The mother then sent her child to school without a chance to tell the teacher, who heard it later on the news. “I would have liked to have been told,” said the teacher. “This fifth grader had behavior issues, and by knowing about the incident immediately I could have helped him at school.”

A new study of 689 parents and 174 teachers conducted by VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty company, reveals a discouraging communication gap between parents and teachers that has potential to affect a child’s success. Teachers feel parents don’t communicate major changes in the home and parents feel teachers don’t share revealing details about their child’s behavior in the classroom.

Consider the following: 94 percent of teachers feel it’s important for parents to inform them of a divorce or other rupture in the marriage. Yet, only 23 percent of divorcing parents say they told their child’s teacher—according to the study’s coauthors and New York Times bestselling authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield.

The study, based on principles found in Grenny’s bestselling book Crucial Conversations, found that a similar communication breakdown occurred across five major life changes that teachers see as major barriers to learning: death in the family, major illness, divorce or other family disruption, mood changes or possible drug use.

“When life-altering events occur in the home that have potential to affect a child’s behavior and performance in the classroom, parents fail to share this information with the teachers who are trying to help their child succeed,” Maxfield said. For example:

  • 93 percent of teachers want to know about a major illness or accident in the family, yet only 21 percent of parents inform the teacher when this happens.
  • 89 percent of teachers want to know about a death in the family, yet only 26 percent of parents inform the teacher when this happens.
  • 89 percent of teachers want to know about a child’s depression or mood change. Only 27 percent of parents inform the teacher when this happens.

Teachers aren’t perfect either. Parents reported they were kept in the dark on a variety of issues their child experienced in the classroom that they wanted to know about, such as:

  • Suspected drug use: Only 27 percent of parents for whom this issue was relevant said the teacher contacted them.
  • Suspected depression, anxiety, or other mood disorder: Only 54 percent of parents for whom this issue was relevant said the teacher communicated with them.
  • Suspected cognitive issue—dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s, etc.: Only 65 percent of parents for whom this issue was relevant said the teacher contacted them.
  • Missing a class: Only 68 percent of parents for whom this was relevant said the teacher contacted them.

To bridge the gap between what parents and teachers want to hear and what the two parties actually communicate, Grenny and Maxfield suggest both take action at the beginning of the school year.

“All parents should visit their child’s school early in the year, get to know the teacher, and update him or her on what he or she needs to know about their child,” Grenny said.

“And teachers need to reach out to the parent or guardian directly,” Maxfield said. “Ask them about their child and any life changes that could impact his or her emotional and academic life.”

In addition, Grenny and Maxfield point to tips from Jeana Marinelli—a leadership development coach who has worked with school systems across the United States. Marinelli’s tips are for both teachers and parents to take ownership of building a positive and trusting relationship with each other:

For Parents

  1. Over-communicate. Use the beginning of the school year to build and strengthen your relationship with the teacher. Share your child’s interests, talents, and background that will help the teacher connect with and best serve them. During the year, update the teacher on any changes in their life, home, or friend group that could affect the mental, emotional or physical health of your child—such as illness, death, marital status of parents, etc.
  2. Swap contact details. Make sure the teacher knows the best time and method to contact you.
  3. Partner with your child’s teacher. Reach out. If you have a concern about your child, don’t wait for a teacher to bring it up to you. If you have a question, ask. Teachers work incredibly hard to provide the best for students and often must look after hundreds of them. And don’t forget: a simple thank you goes a long way in strengthening the partnership between teachers and parents.

For Teachers

  1. Make a call. Use calls or home visits before the school year begins to build and strengthen the relationship. Introduce yourself and share something specific and positive about the child’s academic and character strengths. Share your vision of the teacher-parent relationship as a partnership that is crucial to the child’s growth. Invite parents to share critical information with you and explain the best time and method to get in contact with you. Consider giving the parent a postcard or visual reminder.
  2. Send a family survey. Collect essential information about both the student and the family. Learn the student’s strengths, hobbies and unique talents. Ask about the parents and other adults in the child’s life. Learn about family history and family priorities that will help you better connect with and serve their child.
  3. Invite parents. Don’t wait until report card conferences to invite parents into the school. Plan a family academic night, math night or literacy night. Increase attendance at these conferences by planning early and using all available methods of communication—the school website, newsletter, etc.
  4. Share gratitude and praise with parents regularly. Use quick texts, notes, and emails of gratitude or praise. These build a deepening sense of trust. Keep an open mind about family situations and intentions.


Note to Editor: Grenny and Maxfield are available for interviews. A Crucial Skills article and infographic on the study are available. Copies of their books Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything are also available.


About VitalSmarts

Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty, Inc. company, is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything Training and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 1.5 million people worldwide.


About TwentyEighty, Inc.

TwentyEighty is a global provider of workforce performance solutions designed to help companies in the areas of leadership performance, sales performance, credit performance and strategic execution.



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