Summer Home Visits Build Early Teacher-Student Relationships

Summer Home Visits Build Early Teacher-Student Relationships

By Lindsey Cook, NCSA Communications Specialist

Back-to-school jitters are to be expected when summer comes to a close and sights begin to set on heading back to the classroom.  With that in mind, Ralston Public Schools sees an opportunity to ease anxiety as well as begin building solid relationships before kicking off the school year.  The game plan?  Informal home visits.

The inspiration for the district came from the book Who Cares: Improving Public Schools Through Relationships and Customer Service by Kelly E. Middleton.  The book stresses the importance of making connections with children and their families up front.  Teachers are encouraged to make the trip to see each student in their class at their home or wherever their families feel most comfortable.

Every summer since the pilot launched in 2009, RPS teachers along with other school staff have been taking that advice and reaching out to families of all of their kindergarten through ninth grade students scheduling no-pressure visits to introduce themselves and to get acquainted with each child.  Not necessarily a Q&A session, but rather, a “Nice to meet you” encounter.

“It’s focused on knowing students, building relationships and making those connections with children and their families from the start,” RPS Director of Education Cecilia Wilken said.  “Most educators would agree that relationships are critical to children learning and this is a great way to begin building and fostering those relationships with children and their families.”

With these visits, teachers get a head start on finding what best piques the interest of their students.  Afterwards, they can tailor lesson plans and the classroom atmosphere to fit what they learned about their incoming class during a home visit. In turn, students feel understood and welcomed and their families feel at ease to reach out when they need to.

Jill Klich, a first grade teacher at Wildewood Elementary School, said she has incorporated interests and themes such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and superheroes into her classroom based on what students showed her during their home visits.  “I kind of geek out a little bit,” Klich admitted.  “Because it's something they are excited about and so I get very excited about it. It’s like, this can be it, I can find a niche for this kid!” Klich said home visits create a helpful familiarity between her and her students.  “It’s easier to jump right into the school year,” she said.

In video clips provided by RPS, students recall what they enjoyed about their home visits.  “I like how how they come in and you get to know [the teachers] better and they talk to you about what you like to do...and then on the first day you feel more comfortable with your teacher,” said 10-year-old Ava Fischer, a fifth grader at Seymour Elementary.

“I like the home visits because you get to tell them what you did over the summer and who your friends are,” said 10-year-old Dylen Ritchley, a fourth grader at Seymour Elementary. 

Staci Raddish, a school psychologist at Blumfield and Seymour Elementary Schools, joins some teachers on home visits.  She said parents are sometimes apprehensive about scheduling a visit at first.  “I've actually had parents say ‘Are you coming to spy? Are you coming to check out if we have a good environment for the kids to live in?’ And we try to make sure they know it's just about getting to know your child and preparing for the next school year,” she said.

“And I think when the kids are so excited to see us and they're waiting outside their house and running up to you and just so excited to see us in their environment.  I think that also helps puts the parents at ease a little bit,” Raddish added.

Raddish recalled a particular student who struggled in school after joining midway through her fifth grade year.  When Raddish was assigned to a home visit for that student the following school year, she met with the student’s mother and aunt.  “They opened up to us about things that were going on in their life,” Raddish said.  “That was a huge turnaround for that little girl and her teacher knew everything that was going on and had built that relationship from the get go.”  Her sixth grade year, Raddish said, was a vast improvement from the year before.

Home visits also allow teachers to experience their district’s diversity first hand. “There are 22 different languages spoken [in Ralston Public Schools]! That's a huge thing, making sure that we get to all families, making sure we have interpreters, so we can learn more about the family dynamics and the culture,” Raddish said.

This year, RPS has been retraining staff as well as introducing new teachers to the purpose of home visits.  “We’re helping to show what they should look like and what they shouldn't look like.  They’re not ‘This is what we're doing in science, this is what we're doing in math,’ because we have plenty of nights for the curriculum part of it.  We thought it was important to really dig into the why and get everybody on board with the importance and get excited again to do these,” Klich said.