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Families play a large role in students’ well-being and their ability to engage in their education. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists family engagement as one of the 10 essential components in its Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). It is critical, then, for schools to maintain effective communication with families.
From school events to logistical announcements, from club activities to sports team highlights, schools have a lot of information to share with families. Social media offer one tool that schools can use to stay connected with families and provide the information families need. Currently, little information is available on how schools use social media to engage families, including how extensive that is. Social media certainly hold great promise for effective engagement of families. Data from 2018 showed that 69 percent of U.S. adults were using Facebook, with nearly three-quarters of them logging on at least once per day (Perrin and Anderson, 2019).
Deciding to Use Social Media and Selecting Platforms
Many schools and districts already share information with families through newsletters, e-mail, phone trees, and websites (Blackboard and Project Tomorrow, 2018). Social media can complement those other tools, fostering a sense of community, and enhancing other communications by letting families talk with both the school and with one another (Butler and Matook, 2014). Still, to leverage the potential of social media, schools and districts should invest adequate time and resources to plan and develop their social media strategies.
If you think social media would be a good fit for your school or district to improve communication with families, you first need to figure out which platform(s) to use. Generally, it is better to manage fewer platforms that are very active than many platforms that are not very active. You also need to consider how much time a social media manager has to regularly post content and follow up with families who reach out to the school after seeing a post. Here are three things to balance when picking a platform:
- Your Content: Content refers to the kinds of messages and information that you share with families as well as the format. Do you share predominantly text-heavy information with families (e.g., policies, announcements about school openings and closings, event descriptions)? Are those materials posted on your website? Do you have images, pictures, and video (e.g., from student sports or performances) you could share? Picking a social media platform geared toward the type of content you already produce makes it easier to post regularly. If your school has a lot of pictures or videos, and you want to post information on your website too (generating direct links to content), then you should consider using a visual platform such as Instagram.
- Your Audience of Families: Social media use varies by age, region, and other demographic factors (Perrin and Anderson, 2019). It is important to be familiar with specific characteristics of the families you want to reach. For example, you may opt to engage a subset of families -- maybe parents of students who do not respond to inquiries; or you may instead be trying to achieve more general outreach to all families. Once you define your focal audience of families, then explore how they use social media (e.g., which platforms they use, what types of information they look for). You could do that by reading trade articles about general social media use; or, even better, by asking families directly during events, through a survey, or at parent meetings (Clark, 2019; Blackboard and Project Tomorrow, 2018).
- The Platform Structure: Different platforms have different purposes and norms (Clark, 2019; Dahan, 2015). For example, Facebook and Twitter both have large user bases, and both combine text and images. Twitter, however, focuses more on news, and individual and organization Twitter profiles are very similar. Facebook, in contrast, prioritizes connections between people, so organizations have pages and/or groups that are distinct from individual profiles. Those two platforms can be contrasted with Instagram, which is driven solely by pictures and short videos, and is limited to sharing links. Understanding how the platform is used will help you to best reach the families on which you are focusing.
Ideally, your audience of families already uses social media platforms that suit the types of content you produce. Still, sometimes a perfect match may not exist. In those cases, pick the platform that best matches your families’ needs, and work toward creating content that fits.
Strategies for Using Social Media
After choosing a platform, you can start planning the content you will share with your families. Clark (2019) offered some helpful guidance for developing social media content. Below we summarize information that can help schools make the most of social media to engage families.
- Set your tone and rules for posting. Your tone reflects how you want people to view your school or school district and can shed light on the kind of relationship you want to establish with families. The tone you set through your use of social media can clarify or complement your communications -- such as recapping a school policy that was initially shared quite formally, in more conversational language, even spicing up “dry” content with a bit of humor. As you set your tone, you might also establish rules for how you will respond in specific scenarios. (If someone posts a negative comment, how will you respond? How publicly, or privately will you respond?) Further, try to conform to the conventions of your platform. Hashtags are widely used on Twitter and Instagram, but less so on Facebook. Double-check the meaning of any abbreviations or acronyms in posts, to avoid confusion with other organizations, or unintentional, inappropriate connotations.
- Balance planned content with active responses. Building up a social media account and engaging your audience requires posting on a regular basis. This means you will need to plan most of your content and assign staff to help watch for opportunities – or “reasons” – to post. People managing social media accounts often use tools like Hootsuite or Buffer to schedule posts. Sometimes, though, you might need to share more timely, ad hoc information in response to an event (e.g., school closures in inclement weather). You should also monitor for replies to your posts. Quickly and reliably responding to questions or concerns helps you to build relationships and credibility.
- Showcase different parts of your school or district. One way to create content is by featuring the activities of groups that already produce content of interest to families. An active PTA, club, sports team probably develops content already. A class with innovative projects can often make for a good story. Social media ‘takeovers’ (that is, arranging for a group to ‘take over’ posting for a limited time) can be a powerful way to partner with the groups to showcase engaging, valuable activities in your school or district. Your student council can post pictures during Spirit Week that can help families feel connected to their children and the school. Science teachers can post planned activities to promote participation in a science fair. Your PTA can post information about its latest efforts to support Teacher Appreciation Week. Involving students can increase buy-in, get the attention of families, and build their skills, too. Just make sure to provide clear guidelines to support appropriate content and maintain a sufficient frequency of posts.
Social media can be one of the most useful tools in a school’s toolbox for engaging families. Thoughtful planning, and a commitment to get the word out, can ultimately lead to more informed families, and a stronger school community focused on student success.
This blog was developed by Kaylor Garcia, with valuable input from Marta Alvira-Hammond, Greta Colombi and Frank Rider.