WYP: Creating effective relationships with families

A question from LB in Brisbane: Do you have any tips or ideas on how best form and nurture ‘effective relationships’ with Indigenous students and their family?

Thanks for your question LB. I can only speak from personal experience, but for me, the key to forming and nurturing effective relationships with Indigenous students and their families, is the same for all students with some subtle differences.

What is an effective relationship?
No doubt an academic definition of an “effective relationship‘ exists but a commonsense definition would be a relationship that works. Have you ever heard people say “I don’t need to like you, but we do have to work together”? Well for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, it may be the same thing. At the minimum, I really am not interested if you like my children or me, but you do have to create an environment where my children’s learning needs are met.

Some facets of an effective relationship in a school context include:

Good Communication: 
Be a good communicator, and be available to be a good communicator. The day-to-day to-and-fro of school & home life, is not easy. As an educator take different opportunities to provide incidental as well as intentional communication.

  • Incidental communication are those opportunities for communication that are not planned. A wave or a smile as you’re walking to and from school or across the carpark, or at the local shops. When parents are dropping their children at school. This is particularly relevant for the “be available to be a good communicator” principle. If you’re walking along with your head down, a scowl or a frown on your face, there will not be many parents, except the most insistent ones, who approach you.
  • Intentional communication is where you set out to communicate a specific message to your students and their families. You’ll need to consider the different modes of communication available to you. Some parents will prefer a paper newsletter, an email newsletter, a pre-arranged interview time, etc.

Your core job as a teacher is communication. Just as your students require different modes of communication based on their diverse needs, so too do their parents. Some specific strategies might be:

  • Depending on your school community, perhaps brainstorm with your school leaders, families and community about different communication opportunities.
  • As a school you may decide to make your weekly assembly a major event with lots of extended family attending – with notices being read out as well as other updates for families.
  • Create visually attractive newsletter templates that can be easily and quickly reproduced for families.
  • Create a visually attractive yearly calendar so that families know what events are coming up.
  • Encourage families to attend the P&C/School council events. Make them welcome when they do turn up.
  • As a school community develop appropriate social media spaces for your school.

Good listening
Another key aspect of being able to nurture an effective relationship is good listening. A part of good listening is opening your mind to what another person is saying.  A few points to remember:

  • Remember that some people “say things” by actually not saying anything. It can be frustrating, but no feedback can be feedback.
  • Don’t assume that you know what your families are talking about. Carefully re-phrase statements to check that you have heard correctly.
  • Take time to learn about the history of the community, the school and families.

Being thoughtful
Think before you speak. Don’t self-censor yourself, but you do need to have a handle on your language and how it impacts on others. Don’t use terms that you know will offend people, for example, “full-blood”, “half-caste” etc.


  • You can’t know everything. You’re not a mind-reader. And if you’re new to a school, then you need time and space to find out what you should know.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes.
  • Acknowledge people for their contributions to your learning.
  • Treat people respectfully and they’ll respect you back.
  • Treat community educators as your peers. They may not have a teaching degree, but they have the same degree of knowledge in their fields of expertise and there’s a good chance they’ve been “studying” it longer than the 4 or 5 years it took you to get your degree.Really think about how much time you’ve invested in getting to know about your school.

Other hints and tips: 

  • Don’t assume that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will want to be your cultural educator. Some will offer to lend a hand, but make sure you’re putting in effort to find information yourself.
  • Say sorry when you need to – say it as soon as you realise you’ve messed up. If people know you’re genuine, they’ll move past.
  • Give people time to get to know you. And give yourself time to get to know others.
  • Follow the work of Dr Chris Sarra and understand and know what your expectations are.
  • Think about the link between your relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their families and what you’re teaching in your classroom. Is your curriculum respectful and acknowledging?

Effective relationships are not rocket science, it takes patience, time, and plenty of respect building.

“You can’t have a partnership without a relationship, and you can’t have a relationship without a conversation” What Works

What other aspects of effective relationships are there? Are their any other specific things that we can do to foster positive relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their families?

I look forward to your feedback.

Some online resources: