Keys to Effective Communication
Increase the Likelihood That Parents Will Respond to Communications
Making Messages Meaningful
Next Steps: Ideas to Extend Practice
- Effective interpersonal communication is the key to building staff/parent partnerships. This partnership recognizes and supports the significant role that parents play in the Head Start program and in the lives of their children.
- Effective staff/parent communication is a two-way process, where both staff and parents give and receive information and feel valued.
- People respond positively to communications that are relevant and appealing, and that are expressed clearly. By understanding and employing the factors that contribute to successful communications, staff can increase the effectiveness of their communications with parents.
Effective communication is probably the single most important factor that influences the success of the partnership between parents and staff. While much has been written and said about the pivotal role of communication in staff and parent relationships, the one clear constant is that communication requires ongoing practice practice in listening, observing, reflecting, speaking, and writing.
However, before beginning to practice the many and varied discrete skills that go into effective communication, it is important to consider the value of communication, The value lies in the experience of understanding and being understood, not in any particular skills used to make a point. Too often in a communication, we focus on the message that we want to get across, forgetting to be open to what the other person is trying to say. A dynamic, two-way communication can take place only when both parties feel valued, accepted, and secure in the knowledge that they will be heard and respected. Therefore, [one of] the key[s] to effective communication is to begin by creating a "positive space" for sharing.
Another key to effective communication is to always take the time to consider the individual with whom we are communicating. This is particularly important when communicating with parents at Head Start because they, like everyone else in our modern society, are overwhelmed with demands on their attention. Balancing family, work, school, and personal life often requires parents to juggle activities, do two things at once, rush through tasks, or make choices on what will and won't get done. To cope with all of the competing demands for their time, people naturally tend to select some things to focus on, others to ignore, and still others to do with only half their attention.
What this means for Head Start staff is that they cannot always assume that the message they intend to send is being received - whether it be in a group meeting, in a one-on-one conversation, or through a written message. Staff can, however, increase the likelihood that a parent will focus on a particular communication
by presenting information in a way that clearly relates it to the individual parent's needs and interests, is easily understood by that parent, and matches that parent's particular communication style.
A key reason behind the success of the children in Head Start is staff and parents working together. Successful communication between staff and parents is therefore essential. Staff can ensure that kind of success by always opening communication in a positive way and by tailoring their communication to match the individual.
Purpose: The purpose of this activity is to introduce the role communication plays in creating and maintaining positive relationships.
Trainer Preparation Notes:
For this activity, participants need to be seated next to each other, preferably around tables. It is most important that participants can easily speak with and hear each other.
Easel, chart paper, overhead projector, Overhead 1 [PDF, 23.3KB]
State that in order to explore communication in the program, participants must begin by communicating among themselves.
Let participants know that for the next few minutes you would like them to think about something positive about the person to their right. This may be something that person does that contributes to the program, a personality trait or some other positive characteristic. If any of the participants do not know the person to their right, they may ask that person, "What are three things that you are proud of about yourself?"
After a few minutes, ask for a volunteer to begin sharing thoughts about the person sitting next to him or her. Next proceed to that person, giving him or her an opportunity to react to what was said and then to share his or her thoughts about the person sitting to the right.
Encourage everyone to really hear and pay attention to the positive words that others say about them. Continue the sharing until everyone has had an opportunity to share, including yourself as facilitator of this process. (You may wish to share about the person who first volunteered to begin sharing. What is your impression of the person's willingness to participate?)
After each person has shared, ask participants to respond to the following questions. Record their responses on chart paper:
- How did this communication make you feel? Participants may comment that they felt unique, valued, important.
- What effect did all of these positive statements have on your feeling about the group? Participants may comment that they felt more openness, a sense of partnership, and an atmosphere of caring.
- What did you learn about others? Participants may comment that they gained new information about others, or that they learned to value and appreciate others.
- What did you learn about communicating? Participants may comment that they learned the value of beginning a communication with a positive statement or the value of paying attention to what people are doing well (not just what they are not doing well).
- What does this mean for communication with families? Participants may brainstorm a variety of responses such as:
- Try to begin conversations with a positive statement.
- Pay attention to what parents are doing well.
- Be authentic in your praise, that is, base it on real accomplishments (otherwise it's not respectful).
Show participants Overhead 1, Staff/Parent Communication in Head Start. As participants view this overhead, connect its messages to the activity just completed:
- Every interaction is an opportunity to build partnerships. Positive statements can pave the way - they can set people at ease and make them more open to participation and partnership building. In addition, all interactions - whether in one-on-one conversations, group situations, or formal trainings - are opportunities for learning to observe and listen better and thus to improve our communication skills and strengthen our relationships.
- As staff interact with families, they become better communicators. Families and staff are partners at Head Start. Positive language, as practiced in this activity, is the language of partnership. Approaching families positively lets them know that they are valued. This increases the likelihood that families will be open and communicative in response. Furthermore, staff can learn to be better communicators by paying attention to the way that others communicate. By observing and listening to the ways that family members communicate effectively with each other and with staff, staff can learn how to tailor our strategies to be most effective with the many individuals they communicate with each day.
- People are constantly acquiring new communication strategies. This activity reinforced the message that a positive statement can create more openings for successful communication. From other moments, today, tomorrow, and throughout our lives, staff can learn other effective communication strategies. As you expand your range of communication strategies, you become increasingly better equipped to select the most appropriate strategies to use in any given situation.
Conclude the activity by explaining that the activities that you have selected for them to do from this guide will help them improve their communication skills.
Purpose: The purpose of this activity is to help participants recognize that they also can use positive statements as a way to "open the door" to more effective communication with parents at Head Start.
Handout 1 [PDF, 43.1KB]
Distribute Handout 1 [PDF, 43.1KB], Communication Stories. Read together the two examples of positive staff and parent communication. Then direct the participants to write down a similar story from their own experience at Head Start. As an alternative to writing, participants can work in pairs to share their stories with each other. Each participant's story should answer these questions.
- What did someone say or so that let you know you made a difference?
- How did this communication make you feel?
- How did this communication affect how you saw yourself?
- How did this communication affect your participation in Head Start?
Ask participants to share their communication stories. Talk about how great it was that they bad such positive experiences. Emphasize that just as receiving positive communications enabled them to feel valued and move forward with contributions they wanted to make, giving positive feedback enables others to do likewise. Encourage participants to put positive communications into practice by:
- Observing what is positive about others
- Taking the time to send affirming messages
- Responding to positive messages that others send them
- Reflecting on the effects of positive communications
Making Messages Meaningful
Purpose: This activity focuses attention on two keys to successful communication: clarity and relevance.
Chart paper, markers
Tell participants that in this activity they are going to think about what motivates them to read or listen to something or someone. What they learn about themselves may help them in motivating others, including parents.
Divide participants into small groups of four to six. Hand each small group two pieces of chart paper. Each paper should be divided into two columns, that you have headlined, respectively:
- Like to Listen to or Read/Why
- Don't Like to Listen to or Read/Why
Trainer Preparation Notes:
Have sufficient chart paper prepared ahead of time for the number of small groups you will have.
Direct the participants to share with each other their opinions on what they like, and don't like, to listen to or read. Participants should explain why they feel as they do. To ensure that the exercise is understood, ask participants to call out a few examples, such as:
- Like to listen to the radio, because it keeps me company
- Like to read cookbooks, to find good recipes
- Don't like to listen to long lectures, because they're boring
- Don't like to read legal forms, because they are in small print and hard to understand
Have each group assign someone to write down their responses, in large type. Provide about 10 minutes for the small groups to do their work.
When the groups finish their lists, tack the sheets up on the walls where everyone will be able to see. Cluster the "like" papers in one area and the "do not like" papers in another area.
Reconvene the large group. Read aloud, or direct a participant with a loud clear voice, to read aloud the items on each list.
Next, ask the group to think about what they like, and dislike, to listen to or read within the Head Start context, for example:
- Like to listen to children greeting each other in the morning, because it shows they are happy to be here
- Like to read parent newsletter, because it keeps me informed
- Don't like to read paperwork from some social service agencies we deal with, because it takes so long to find the information I need
- Don't like to listen to angry voices, because they make me anxious
As participants call out their opinions, write them on separate sheets of chart paper that you have headlined:
- Like to Listen to or Read at Head Start/Why
- Don't Like to Listen to or Read at Head Start/Why
Ask participants to reflect on the patterns behind their preferences. Use this discussion to emphasize that, in general, people do not like to listen to or read, and do not try as hard to listen to or read, communications that:
- Are difficult to understand
- Do not appear to be relevant, interesting, or important to them
- Use difficult vocabulary or a lot of jargon
- Are scholarly, bureaucratic, or condescending in language level and tone
- Are disorganized and hard to follow or are designed in such a way that they are hard to hear or read
- Are unpleasant
- Don't match their learning style
Point out the converse: that listeners and readers will be more receptive to communications that:
- Are quickly and easily understood
- Are relevant, interesting, or important to them
- Use clear vocabulary and no jargon
- Use an appropriate language level and tone
- Are well organized, easy to follow, and designed in such a way that they are easy to hear or read
- Are pleasant
- Match their learning style (i.e., are in print for people who prefer reading, on video or "live" for people who learn by watching, through side-by-side demonstration for people who learn by doing, etc.)
Finally, ask participants to consider the implications for their own work with parents. What can staff do, when they are communicating to parents, to help ensure that those parents will want and try hard to pay attention?
Purpose: This activity will help participants think about the kinds of communications that they themselves find appealing and interesting, in order to discover ideas for making their communications more appealing and interesting to parents.
Handout 2 [PDF, 36.3KB]
Provide participants with a copy of Handout 2 [PDF, 36.3KB], What Attracts Your Attention? Tell them that this exercise will ask for their opinions. They will not have to share their answers with anyone, but they do have to be honest in order to get the most from this exercise. Arrange a time to meet (as soon after they have completed the exercise as possible) to discuss it.
Begin by stating that this exercise asked for participants' opinions. Everyone will have different preferences in terms of what they most prefer to focus on during their Head Start workday.
- What patterns did you discover as you completed the exercise?
- Did you see any connections between your interest in an activity and your willingness to focus on it?
- Did you see any connections between the perceived level of difficulty or discomfort with an activity and your willingness to focus on it?
- What does this imply for communication efforts that you initiate? What characteristics of these communications will be important?
Conclude by emphasizing that, in most instances, people are more attentive - and are more willing to be attentive - in situations where their needs are met, where they are comfortable, where they feel involved, and where they feel they can contribute.
Finally, ask participants to consider the implications for their own work with parents. What improvements would they like to make in the way they communicate to increase the likelihood that parents will want and try hard to pay attention?
Next Steps: Ideas to Extend Practice
- Observe interpersonal communications between parents in a community setting (such as a community organization or support group). What are the similarities and differences between communication among parents in that setting and in the Head Start program?
- Work with a local civic group or cultural organization to find out more about cross-cultural communication practices for families in your community that your program would like to serve better.
- Make a plan to be more aware of your interactions with parents and staff, i.e. are they beginning with positive and affirming statements?
- Identify and observe what catches your attention during everyday communication with other staff members. How can you apply what you learn from these observations so that when you communicate with parents, you can be sure to catch their attention?
- Review the language used in everyday interactions is it affirming?