Tech Tools for Connecting with Parents & Families

Education is a team effort. Often, we only think about 2 parts of this team: the educators and the students. But keeping the 3rd part–parents, guardians and/or families–connected and involved can have huge benefits.

Image text reads: 28+ Tools to Build Connections! Tech Tools for Parent, Guardian, or Family Communication or Involvement. #KidsDeserveIt x #EduDuctTape
Picture of the Miller family taken by Lauren Clifford Photography.

I think that most educators would agree that the rankings for “best ways to keep in touch with parents, guardians, or families” are:

      1. face to face communication
      2. phone calls
      3. everything else

But, sometimes, we just don’t have time to do #1 and #2 for all of our students’ families.

Enter #3: technology.

As you probably already know from the Educational Duct Tape podcast, I believe that edtech is at its best when it’s being used as a tool to solve problems, meet goals or address learning standards. So, if we know that it’s important to connect with and involve our kiddos’ families and we know that it’s tough to connect with all of them, how can we leverage technology to support us in this endeavor?

I discussed this with a group of awesome educators recently.

On February 5th, 2020, I had the honor of moderating the #KidsDeserveIt Twitter Chat (all tweets available here).  This chat is based on the book Kids Deserve It by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome.  In the book, Nesloney & Welcome zero in on a set of steps that educators can take to improve the educational experience for our students. Two of those steps are contacting parents regularly and getting them involved in the classroom.  So I asked the #KidsDeserveIt chatters 2 questions relating to parent, guardian and/or family contact and involvement:

In the book, @mradamwelcome & @techninjatodd explain why we should be contacting parents to praise their kiddos. What tech tool(s) would you use for communicating with parents? #KidsDeserveItAdam & Todd also share about the importance of family interaction and involvement in the learning community. What tech tool(s) can help us to not just communicate with parents/families but to get those families *involved*? #KidsDeserveIt

 

Here are some of the tools that the #KidsDeserveIt Chatters shared about!

Note: There are many different family structures in our society. All are important and celebrating that diversity is beneficial to our students. For simplicity’s sake, I will be using the word “parents” in this article, but please understand that I am using it in as a general term in lieu of the longer “Parents, guardians, family members or other relevant adults.”

Email

This one’s an obvious option.  All educators use it and most parents use it, so it’s a no-brainer that it’d be included here.

Pros:
– Almost every parent uses it.
– Educators know how to use it.
Cons:
– Sometimes, people don’t read or check their emails regularly.
– It can be difficult to interpret tone in text and emails may seem impersonal.

Here are a few great tips about using email to contact parents:

Remind

This is one of the most commonly used tools for educators, coaches and activity leaders to communicate with parents and students. Years ago, it worked only through text messaging, but has since become an app and works with email as well.  It’s one of my favorites and I have used it for years.

Pros:
– Easy-to-use
– Works via email, apps or text messages
– You can contact entire groups or just individuals
– Parents or students can respond privately to the educator
Messages can be scheduled in advance
– Educators can send announcements OR group messages that allow participants to respond to everyone
– Educators can send more than just text (pictures, links, etc.)
Cons:
– The free plan wouldn’t work for an administrator, but is enough for a teacher.  Pricing and plan details are here.

Seesaw

I’m not going to lie, this is one of my favorite educational technology tools. It’s everything–an LMS, a digital portfolio, a parent communication tool–and more.

Pros:
– “Students ‘show what they know’ using photos, videos, drawings, text, PDFs, and links.” (from this article)
– Students are empowered.
– Parents get plenty of insight into what their child is doing & learning in school.
– Teachers & parents can converse via private message.
– Offers some learning management system (LMS) functionality.
– Parents can access the site from an app or the web.
– Teachers can post announcements.
Cons:
– Could be a duplication of things you’re doing in another platform like Google Classroom.
– There’s a lot of awesome stuff in Seesaw, but if you’re only look for parent communication, it may be too much.

Smore Pages

There are lots of tools that can be used for designing newsletters, but Smore is one of the slickest and easiest ones out there.

Pros:
Their homepage says it all: “Beautiful newsletters in minutes? You bet.”
– The pages look great.
– They have easy-to-use templates.
– It can also email your contacts and give you data on how, when and where it was opened. (the data is part of a paid plan)
Cons:
– The free version only gives you 3 newsletters and 200 email contacts, but at least that’s enough to try it out. Information on their paid options is available here.
– Typically would not be used for messages to one parent.
– Not ideal for printing but it’s an option.

Check out Jay’s examples below!

Google Voice

Google Voice is, essentially, a free phone number provided by Google.  You just need to provide the device to connect it to.  You can connect that number to your computer or an existing cell phone (even though it has its own number) or even have it forward to a different number (like your office phone).

Pros:
– Assuming that your school doesn’t provide you with a mobile phone number, this would essentially give you one that connects to your personal phone, while keeping it separate from your personal phone number.
– You can set your number to ring on multiple phones.
– Free, except for international calls.
– Can be used for text messaging, too!
Cons: Like regular phone calls, the issue of time is the problem here.

Video Conferencing

Want to have a face-to-face meeting with a parent but they’re unable to make it to the school?  Want to have a parent present to your class?  Want a parent to be able to see their student present in class?  Video Conferencing could be the answer to any of these questions.

Pros:
Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, Facetime and other platforms are pretty much the closest thing to face-to-face communication!
– Most options are free.
– Parents can be a part of meetings or even a part of a class discussion!
Cons:
– Just like face-to-face communication, these can be time consuming.
– Some parents will be unable to connect in this way.

Flipgrid

Part of Flipgrid’s mission is to “empower every voice.” While we might assume that the word students’ belongs in between every and voice, why couldn’t it be parents’? Check out this post on the Flipgrid blog about “Family Engagement with Flipgrid.”

Pros:
– It’s like asynchronous video conferencing!
– It’s free!
– As Andrew says below, “the opportunities are endless!” (look at the post linked above for some ideas)
Cons:
– Some parents may be unwilling or unable to connect in this way.
– This could be a lot for the educator to manage.

Google Sites

There are plenty of free website makers available. For gSuite for Education schools, Google Sites is the one most often used. Whatever site-maker you prefer, they make a great place for curating lots of information to share with parents.

Pros:
– Easy to use
– Lots of things can be embedded on it
– Free
Cons:
– You’d most likely still need to contact the parents to direct them to look at the information on the site.

Wakelet

While it wasn’t suggested in the #KidsDeserveIt chat, I’m throwing this one in here myself. Many educators have started using Wakelet for their newsletters.  Why?  Keep reading.

Pros:
– Quickly add and update content
– Include almost any type of content (video, audio, text, links, pictures, etc.)
– Record videos from within Wakelet
– Free
Cons:
– You’d probably need to use another tool (i.e., email) to prompt parents to look at it when you update it.

Screencasts

It’s no surprise that an educational technology guy like Eric Guise suggested screencasting, but it’s a great suggestion! Screencasting tools like Screencastify, Screencast-o-matic or Loom would make it super easy to record and share quick videos.

Pros:
– Including your face & voice creates more connection than just text
– Pretty easy to use
– Free
Cons:
– Only a one-way communication tool
– Time consuming
– Some educators are uncomfortable with recording videos.

Twitter

Twitter is a huge place for educators looking to grow, network, share and learn together and some educators also like to share with parents and communities using Twitter.

Pros:
– Tweets can be posted quickly.
– Can share images, videos, links and more.
– Free
– People can be notified when new tweets are posted.
– Tweets can be seen without an account.
– Twitter feeds can be embedded on most websites.
– Parents can sign up to receive text messages when new tweets are posted.
Cons:
– Many parents do not use Twitter

Talking Points

One of my favorite things about participating in Twitter chats is the new learning for me. I had never heard of Talking Points! And I am so glad that Carly shared it! Talking Points is pretty similar to Remind (mentioned above), but the big difference is that Talking Points automatically translates messages to and from 100+ languages (full list here).

Pros:
– Free for teachers
– Automatically translates to and from 100+ languages
– Teachers use a web-browser or mobile app.
– Families use text messages or a mobile app.
Cons:
– A schoolwide plan is not free (pricing here).
– Families can’t receive messages on a computer.

ParentSquare

This was another new one for me. And, once again, I’m glad that I’ve been introduced to it! Check out all of the features listed below!

Pros:
– As the site says, this tool really appears to “Unify All Communication Tools.”
– Teacher-Parent communication
– Real-time translation
– Two-Way communication can be with individual parents or groups of parents.
– Manage forms, permission slips and other documents
– Manage Parent-Teacher Conferences
– Handle invoices & payments
– Integration of a calendar & RSVP options
– Volunteering & Sign Ups
– Polls
– Grade & assignments view
– Attendance notices & truancy letters
– Management of cafeteria accounts
Cons: It’s not free and it would need to be used across an entire school or district.

ClassDojo

My earliest experience with ClassDojo was as a behavior management and tracking tool, but it’s blossomed into so much more. Its set of features are similar to those of Seesaw (above).

Pros:
– Free for teachers
– “Students can showcase and share their learning by adding photos and videos to their own portfolios.” (classdojo.com)
– Teachers can share pictures or videos
– Parents can use any device
– Translates to 30+ languages
– Send messages to the entire class or to individual parents
– Teachers can set “quiet hours” when parents can’t contact them.
– The Class Dojo Toolkit adds other useful classroom features.
Cons:
– Most educators consider this to be a tool for use in the younger grades, though it could be used higher.

Synergy

Synergy is another tool that I had not heard of prior to this chat. According to their site, “Synergy Education Platform (Synergy EP®) unites multiple K-12 data management solutions in one seamless ecosystem, creating systemwide data connections that help improve administrative processes and learning outcomes without the hassle of third-party system integrations.”  As you can tell from that description, it’s a pretty formal tool that would require a larger scale (i.e., district) implementation.  It does feature “Synergy ParentVUE and StudentVUE portals” that would give both parties access to communication, homework, grades and more from their own computers or mobile devices.

Pros:
– One tool that does many things.
– Offers more formal tasks (grades, administrative info, class schedules, fee payment, etc.) along with teacher communication “Streams.”
– Full list of features here.
Cons:
– Not free.
– Requires large scale (district) implementation.
– May offer more than you need if communicating with and involving parents is your only goal.

Facebook

I probably don’t need to dive too deeply into this one, but it’s worth noting that there are two different ways that Facebook could be used.  One is to create a public page for your school that any community member could follow.  The second is to create a private group that require approvals to join. Either option would open up a new venue for parents to contact the school.

Pros:
– Free.
– Most people already know how to use it.
– Provides an easy way for parents to contact whatever educators are affiliated with the group or page.
Cons:
– Some parents, as well as some educators, have become wary of Facebook.
– Some members of your target audience may not be on Facebook.
– Your posts could get lost in parents’ stream of other Facebook posts.
– Both of these options open up larger scale communication between parents. While this discourse could be productive, it could also be problematic.

Instagram

Much like Twitter, Instagram is a good venue for sharing information with parents and the school community, plus it’s becoming a very popular social media platform for many parents. The idea of a classroom Instagram account is a great one!

Pros:
– Free.
– Many parents are already on Instagram and know how to use it.
– Easy access.
– Once parents follow the account, it opens up another avenue for them to contact you.
– Fun!
Cons:
– Some parents will not be Instagram users.
– Privacy concerns: you’ll either have to have your posts be public to all or will have to approve people to follow your account.
– There’s not a good way to post links.

Canvas

The Canvas LMS is used widely in colleges and universities and is also used in some K-12 scenarios.  While the focus of the tool is on the learning management system, it also has a “Parent Co-Enrollment” option.  Here are the details from their site:

“Parents can co-enroll in Canvas with their child automatically, allowing them to view grades, upcoming assignments and due dates, missing work, and teacher communication.  Teachers can send individual, group and course-wide messages to students and parents, and students can communicate safely with teachers and each other.”

Pros:
– One tool that does many things.
– Offers more formal tasks (Student Information System integration, Course Creation and management, etc.) along with teacher communication.
– The built-in ePortfolio tool would also help keep parents informed, involved and connected.
– Has many great educational features that don’t relate to parent communication or involvement, such as mastery learning, collaborative workspaces, badging, and more.
– Full list of features here.
Cons:
– While there is a free version, many features that we’re interested in have a price tag.
– Would likely require large scale (school or district) implementation.
– May offer more than you need if communicating with and involving parents is your only goal.

Other Learning Management Systems

They weren’t mentioned in the chat, but since we covered Canvas above, I think that it’s important to point out that most learning management systems (LMS) or course management systems (CMS) like Google Classroom, Schoology and others have some level of parent access.

SchoolMessenger

SchoolMessenger is a widely used platform for getting information, announcements and other notifications to parents.

Pros:
– Relatively easy to use.
– Can facilitate contact with a large number of parents through text messages, voice calls, emails, social media, websites and mobile apps.
Cons:
– Doesn’t appear to be a solution for communicating with individual parents or for parents to contact you.
– Requires larger scale (i.e., school or district) implementation.
– Not free.

Typorama

As their description in the iOS App Store states, “Typorama lets you create amazing visuals by ‘automagically’ transforming your text and photos into beautiful typographic designs.” So, Typorama itself isn’t a communication platform, but using it to create these “beautiful typographic designs” could go a long way to make parents feel special, proud and more connected.

Pros:
– Graphics are fun and impressive.
– Easy to use.
– Free.
Cons:
– Only works on iOS.
– You’ll need to use a different tool to send out your graphics.

“Snail Mail”

Sending communication via the postal service is an option too!

Pros: Novelty! Imagine the excitement when a parent or student opens a note, letter or postcard from their teacher or principal, especially if it’s hand-written!
Cons:
– Could be time consuming!
– Postage costs

I like how Julie and Carmen each added their own flair to the “snail mail” option!

Traditions for Celebrating Positive Accomplishments!

Many educators shared about regularly recognizing positive accomplishments of students. I love Matt’s idea of giving it a name and making it a tradition, but the idea of doing this as an interview and calling the parents is just plain awesome!

What tools am I missing?  What details need added or changed?  Please comment below!

Published by

Jake Miller

Jake is a Google for Education Certified Trainer and is the Lead Technology Integration Specialist for Brady Middle School in Ohio's Orange City Schools. In the past he taught STEM, Science & Math in Stow-Munroe Falls, Ohio, where he was also a leader in the district's Technology Leadership Team and a co-advisor for the middle school's STEM Club. He has been an educator since 2003. His Bachelor's Degree is in middle-level education (math/science) from the University of Akron and his Master's Degree is in Instructional Technology from Kent State University. He has enjoyed providing more than 100 professional development opportunities at conferences and school districts across the state of Ohio. He is very involved in Twitter (@JakeMillerTech) and provides regular pointers for educators with his #GAFETip tweets.