Communication Currents

​​The Role of E-mail in Parent-Teacher Communication

April 1, 2008
Instructional Communication

Parent-teacher communication plays an important role in student success at the elementary and secondary levels. Traditionally, parent-teacher communication has been infrequent, often occurring at designated times or when teachers contacted parents regarding student problems. However, e-mail has dramatically changed parent-teacher communication. While its advantage is that it is more timely, it also restricts vocal and nonverbal cues. When parents and teachers communicate about students by e-mail, how could they do so more effectively?

Interviews with parents and teachers of elementary and secondary students revealed five major topic areas in e-mail exchanges. First, the primary focus of parent-teacher e-mail was students' grades. E-mail was most effective for communicating about grades because the messages contain simple, concrete information. Parent e-mail messages often request updates on their child's grades or inquire about how their child can raise his or her grade. In the e-mail messages parents shared, they asked questions like: "How did she do on her make-up quiz and tests?" and "Can she still turn these [assignments] in for credit?"

Second, parents and teachers used e-mail for scheduling purposes; it was especially effective to set up dates and times for meetings. Though less frequent than e-mails about grades and scheduling, parents and teachers also e-mailed about three other issues: health problems, student behavior, and student socialization. Health-related e-mails ranged from fairly serious mental and physical health problems, including bipolar disorders to autism, to more frequent e-mails to inquire about homework when a student missed school due to illness. Teachers and parents had mixed opinions on whether a child's behavior should be discussed via e-mail. Teachers were extremely hesitant to use e-mail to communicate about student behavior because of the sensitive and sometimes complex nature of these messages. E-mails about student behavior remained brief, addressing minor concerns that required little explanation. Finally, parent-teacher e-mail messages also focused on student socialization, providing parents with critical information about how their child interacted with peers. For example, when one mother's child experienced social problems at school, she reached out to her child's teachers via e-mail:

"Encouraged her to make new friends . . . but it seems this other student knows what she is up to and tries to thwart her at every turn. Suggestions? This is so harmful, hurtful . . . she told me she was about to break or lose it . . . please help."

The teacher responded to this parent via e-mail, indicating, "I will pay some extra attention to how she interacts with the other students in class," reporting in a subsequent e-mail, "I have noticed she seems to be getting along very well with certain students."

No matter the topic, a significant number of parent-teacher e-mail exchanges revolve around the academic, behavioral, social, or mental struggles faced by students. For example, one teacher e-mailed a parent writing, "Wish I had better news, but he is still failing. He had 9 missing assignments—all too old to hand in . . . average is 51%, but time is running out." Communicating about students' problems in e-mails presents a challenge for teachers; how the teacher communicates the message to parents is equally as important as the actual content of the message. E-mail reduces the nonverbal cues available to parents and teachers, thus, regulating the tone of the message becomes critically important in order to prevent misinterpretations or a negative perception of the teacher. As a result, teachers indicated that being positive, even when reporting negative information, was an important strategy when communicating with parents via e-mail. For instance, when e-mailing about a student whose grades were suffering, teachers included supportive statements that encouraged parents to know that their children could still improve their grades.

Despite its advantages, parents and teachers e-mailed less frequently than one might expect. In general, teachers did not find e-mail to be a burden. Teachers typically spent 30 minutes to one hour a week communicating with parents via e-mail. On a busier day, teachers might spend 10-15 minutes communicating via e-mail with parents. On average, only two to five parents per teacher communicated via e-mail on a weekly basis. At the secondary level, teachers also communicated infrequently (i.e., once or twice a semester) with about 20 parents via e-mail. Interestingly, parents, rather than teachers, typically initiate e-mail communication. Many teachers wished that more parents would initiate contact via e-mail. One teacher stated, "I have so many parents who show indifference, it's really a breath of fresh air" when parents communicate via e-mail.

Both parents and teachers characterized e-mails as short and to the point, averaging about 6 lines per e-mail. E-mails that focused on more emotional or serious topics tended to be longer. Discussions about behavior or social issues require greater explanation, thus parents and teachers often switched to oral communication for these topics rather than resorting to longer e-mail messages which risked misinterpretation.

As anticipated, parents and teachers reported that students often had a negative reaction to parent-teacher e-mail. However, some students reacted positively to the e-mails because they received important information from teachers about assignments. One parent quipped, "My son loves it . . . because it's like —mom can check [on assignments]. I don't have to take responsibility." Other students assume that e-mail has always been the way parents and teachers have communicated.

Parent-teacher e-mail did lead to positive results. E-mail helped some students improve their grades. Some students became more attentive to homework and turned in missing assignments, increasing homework completion. While e-mail reduced the number of missed assignments, teachers did not report a direct link between parent-teacher e-mail and students' learning. Moreover, e-mail communication hindered some students' academic performance as students resented parent-teacher e-mail messages about their homework. Other students become less accountable and responsible for their assignments by relying too heavily on their parents' exchanges with their teachers about what to do and how to do it.

Parent-teacher e-mail occasionally improved student's behavior. When parents and teachers chose to communicate about behavior via e-mail, teachers could deal with the behavior immediately rather than waiting for a face-to-face meeting with the parent later in the week. A few teachers e-mailed parents about a behavior during class, which resulted in immediate changes in behavior. Teachers emphasized that it was critical for teachers to prearrange the use of e-mail at the beginning of the year or at conferences to communicate about behavior to ensure that parents were receptive to reading about behavioral issues via e-mail. Teachers explained parents tend to be more sensitive to reports on their child's behavior (especially in an e-mail) than updates on their grades, viewing criticism of their child's behavior as more of an attack on their parenting.

E-mail can be an effective way for parents and teacher to communicate due to its convenience. However, it is important for teachers and parents to recognize e-mail is not always the best mode of communication.