Six Tips for Communicating Student Progress to Parents

Mumble the words “report card” and watch teachers shudder with dread. When report cards are due, we dash madly to our school-issued computers to compile weeks’ worth of data into a single number or letter. We work into the night. Afterward, we struggle with the feeling that it wasn’t enough. The truth is that it’s rarely enough.

Report cards typically don’t paint a complete picture of a student’s progress. Parents often want and appreciate more. And they deserve more. When parents and teachers work together, the impact on student progress can be significant. But the parent-teacher partnership, like any other, won’t work without communication.

Consider adding these methods of communication to your teacher bag of tricks:

1. Create Student Portfolios

If you haven’t started portfolios yet, it’s not too late. Forget returning graded work to your students each Friday. Those carefully-marked papers will inevitably remain crumpled at the bottom of your students’ backpacks until June.

Instead, create simple portfolios in the form of folders where your students can organize their work. Your students can decorate the front of their portfolios to create a personalized habitat in which their work will live.

Include a parent signature page to provoke accountability, and send the portfolio home quarterly, monthly, or weekly. Incorporate a grid with your academic standards and student goals, and make applicable notes as the year proceeds.

You can even use your students’ portfolios as showpieces during open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and/or IEP meetings. As a special education teacher, I often presented portfolios during IEP meetings as evidence of goals that were attained or needed more work.

2. Re-examine Your Rubrics

Rubrics (your favorite seven-letter word) go hand-in-hand with portfolios. Rubrics are a powerful tool to convey student strengths and needs.

The key to making a great rubric is to be specific. For example, if you’re making a rubric for problem-solving, don’t just write: “Student made a plan to solve a problem.”

Instead, use details to convey the elements of the problem-solving task: “Student articulates the relationship between the points of the problem, selects a suitable approach to solving the problem, and devises a plan for solving the problem independently.”

If you teach students with academic, emotional, or behavioral needs, you can use your rubrics to indicate the level of assistance you provided.

Example: 

Level 4: The student attained this standard independently, without teacher assistance.
Level 3: The student required some prompting.
Level 2: The student needed frequent prompting.
Level 1: The student achieved this skill only under constant teacher guidance and/or supervision.

Remember, rubrics help clear up confusion. Without the rubric, parents might see work that comes home and believe that their child completed it independently. They won’t understand why they failed the test that came later that week.

Rubrics remove the mystery to give parents a clear picture of what’s going on in the classroom.

3. Take Photographs

Remember the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

If you’re permitted to take pictures of your students, you can send home striking pictures of student achievement. Photos are especially valuable for showing improvement. If a student used to get in trouble for pushing other students while waiting in line, but now they’ve turned their behavior around, go ahead and send home a picture of them patiently waiting their turn.

Parents will be very pleased to see the improvement for themselves. They might even hang the photos up on the refrigerator so their child can proudly observe their own progress.

Photos can also be a great shorthand to communicate details about the day. Very young children, and those with communication difficulties, might find it difficult to describe their accomplishments to their parents. Photos make it easier.

4. Plan to Make Phone Calls Home

Of course, at the end of a long day, the last thing you probably want to do is to make a bunch of calls (or even one). But calls can help you build rapport with parents, and they allow you to instantly communicate students’ progress (or lack thereof).

Parents might be concerned when they first hear your voice. They might expect the worst. This is normal. Explain that the intention of your call is to check in and update them on their child’s progress.

Make sure to regularly convey the positives. Parents will be thrilled to hear the good news. Meanwhile, children will understand that their efforts have been recognized. When I first made positive phone calls home, my students would return to my classroom the next day elated:

“You called my mom!”

“Yes,” I would smile. “And it looks like you did your homework again. I’ll be sure to tell her that next week.”

If making phone calls seems daunting, then pre-plan them. Write names of parents on your calendar and make it a priority to call them on the day you set for yourself.

As you make phone calls, be sure to keep a phone log with the date and topic discussed during each call. You never know when you might need that log for documentation purposes.

5. Email Student Progress Reports

If you don’t send home a regular newsletter—or even if you do—you can leverage email as a personalized tool to communicate student progress. You can set a goal to send individual e-notes to parents with overviews of their child’s progress, on a monthly or weekly basis.

Make progress emails more manageable by creating a phrase bank to copy and paste basic information about the curriculum, as appropriate. This will help you avoid typing in the same phrases over and over again.

If the idea of regularly emailing parents feels too overwhelming, create a schedule as described above for phone calls. Write parents’ names on your calendar and make it a goal to email those parents with progress updates on the specified day.

Keep your inbox organized to avoid e-clutter. Create a sub-folder with the name of each student, and archive all emails under the appropriate heading.

6. Have Students Practice Self-Monitoring

Most teachers underutilize self-monitoring—it’s not something we often think about. But self-monitoring can be a quick and easy way for students to take charge of their own progress monitoring.

Some students might require frequent progress monitoring—even daily assessments. Teach these students to indicate their own performance levels on their daily agendas with a checkbox system.

Before these students leave your classroom, take a quick glance and confirm the validity of their self-assessments. Parents can sign the students’ self-monitoring sheets at home.

As students learn to self-monitor (appropriately), they develop more of an intrinsic motivation to do well. And that’s really the ultimate goal: for students to think more about their own progress.

Today’s parents always have a lot on their plates. You can make school easier for them. Communicate about student progress, and ease the guesswork that occurs before report card time.

Remember, parents have key insights about their child’s strengths and weaknesses. They can often help provide context to classroom concerns. Be sure to keep in mind that many parents aren’t fully aware of the standards and curriculum that you’re required to teach. Include this specific information in your communication efforts as well.

Invest time in parent communication and those report cards won’t be such a surprise.


About the author: Danielle Martin is on a mission to help kids (and teachers) thrive. She has taught nine different grade levels in three different states. She recently began a project to develop her own website for special educators: Special Ed Insights.

If you are a K-12 teacher or school looking for more resources for your students, you can register on AdoptAClassroom.org here.

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