Winter 2021

Parent-Teacher Relations During Covid-19

Ambiguous Loss, Boundary Ambiguity, and the Principal’s Role in Supporting Parents and Teachers 

Principals know they play a critical role in setting the tone for parent-teacher relations (Auerbach, 2012), but none could have prepared for the way school-home partnerships would be tested following school closures and the move to emergency remote teaching in Spring 2020. With the financial support of the Alberta School Councils’ Association (ASCA), I conducted a study between June and August 2020 that sought insight into parents’ and teachers’ experiences during school closures, and how those experiences enhanced or impeded their relationships.1 Data were collected through web-based surveys; 1067 parents and 566 teachers responded, amounting to over 5600 comments. Additionally, ten parents and ten teachers, including one principal, were individually interviewed.  Using the concepts of ambiguous loss, role ambiguity (Boss, 1999, 2007), and boundary intrusion (Berge & Holm, 2007), the following describes how parents and teachers experienced school closures, and the implications this may have for principals. 

Naming the Experience: Ambiguous Loss 

“It was a tap that just got turned off.  There was no trickle, no good-byes…You were in school on Friday, and then you’re done.  You didn’t say good-bye.”(Parent Interview)

Boss (1997) developed ambiguous loss theory to explain the nature of loss experienced by wives of soldiers missing in action in the Vietnam War; when wives did not know where their husbands were, they struggled to achieve closure in assuming their death.  A “tap that just got turned off” similarly reflects the above parents’ unresolved loss and lack of closure, a sentiment shared by others: 

Our grade 3 child has himself expressed how lost he has been …  he desperately has missed his teachers’ direction, guidance” (Parent Survey) 

It was hard getting out of bed some days because what’s the point? I don’t get to see my kids. (Teacher Interview)

These statements signal a palpable void felt by parents, their children, and teachers. The pandemic has revealed that schools are an important source of social-emotional health. In naming ambiguous loss as a shared grief precipitated by the closing of schools, empathy and compassion can be underscored as appropriate responses to negative reactions that might lead to parent-teacher conflict. Further, the shared loss and subsequent mourning may serve as an anchor between parents and teachers during this time of uncertainty, and offer a reason to stay connected. 

In fact, communication breakdown was by far the most commonly reported challenge in this study. Parents reported that teachers were slow to respond, or did not provide expedient or sufficient feedback on students’ work. They were especially critical of teachers who did not make regular use of virtual conferencing to teach lessons and interact with students. They interpreted a lack of teacher “presence” as disengagement, prompting comments such as, “I feel that [teachers] could be doing more teaching online, rather than leaving it for parents to do the actual teaching” (Parent Survey). 

At the same time, teachers worried when parents “went dark”, or started “ghosting” them. In a recent survey of 8100 educators conducted by the Alberta Teachers’ Association (2020), 62% of teachers indicated “lack of support for learning (home)” (p. 17) was among the top two concerns they had about students getting what they need to be successful. A teacher on the ATA survey wrote, “In the beginning most parents were diligent and engaged.  This engagement has fallen off track significantly in the last few weeks” (p. vi). This finding was confirmed in my study, a phenomenon that can be explained by role ambiguity and boundary intrusion.

Role Ambiguity and Boundary Intrusion

At the beginning we struggled with Mom being teacher… (Parent Survey)

We quit doing school about the middle of May. I just gave up completely because it was causing so much stress in our family….we really fell off the school wagon at that point. And we’ve never looked back! (Parent Interview)

Role ambiguity (Boss, 2007) describes confusion and/or uncertainty about who is performing expected roles in the event of a significant loss.  Parents and teachers both felt unsure about how much to expect from each other. Teachers, for example, knew that parents were struggling with balancing the learning needs of multiple children with their continuing work and domestic responsibilities.  Attempts to stay in contact sometimes backfired, as one teacher indicated “This soured our relationships as they felt frustrated I was ‘bothering’ them” (Teacher Survey). Teachers reported parents taking out their frustrations on them, which caused some teachers to “back off” and lower their expectations to avoid further conflict.

Parents felt ill-equipped teaching concepts and assessing whether their children were on the right track, and they struggled with navigating technology, especially when each of their children’s teachers used a different platform. And yet, like teachers, parents did not want to overstep, saying, they “found it tough to judge how much to ask of the teachers” (Parent Survey).  

The role ambiguity of a parent as teacher role affected parents’ sense of efficacy. For example, one parent said, “I feel like a failure when it comes to school” (Parent Survey). 

This partly accounts for why parents “dropped off the map”, but a primary reason for parents de-emphasizing school, or quitting altogether like the parent quoted at the start of this section, was that parent-child relations had become strained. School-related stress became home-related stress because there was no separation. Although some teachers interpreted parents’ disappearance as negligence, for many parents de-emphasizing school was a mechanism for coping with boundary intrusion.  

Silver Linings?

Despite the challenges, the pandemic may have contributed to parents and teachers more clearly understanding each other, as noted in these survey results:

  • 45% of parents reported their understanding of the demands of teachers has increased;
  • 45% of parents reported their respect for teachers has increased;
  • 74% of teachers reported the pandemic situation has resulted in them knowing their students’ families more than before; and,
  • 63% of teachers reported parents’ understanding of the demands on teachers has increased.

Thus, with full or intermittent lockdown likely to continue until the pandemic is overcome, this study provides direction for principals in supporting parent-teacher relations. Principals can:

  • Name ambiguous loss as an emotional condition impacting teachers and families;
  • Clarify roles and expectations for teachers, parents, and students in online learning;
  • Give families tips about setting up a distinct learning space and consistent schedule to avoid boundary intrusion;
  • Emphasize the value in teachers maintaining a digital presence to foster connection; 
  • Standardize digital platform use to prevent parents from becoming overwhelmed by technology; and,
  • Model care and compassion when dealing with parent-teacher conflict. 

(I would like to acknowledge Rita Lal, mother, teacher, and doctoral research assistant, for her help in conducting this study.)

Alberta Teachers’ Association. (2020a). Alberta teachers responding to Coronavirus (COVID-19): Pandemic research study initial report.
Auerbach, S. (2012). School leadership for authentic family and community partnerships: Research Perspectives for transforming practice. Routledge.
Berge, J. M., & Holm, K. D., (2007). Boundary ambiguity in parents with chronically ill children: Integrating theory and research. Family Relations, 56(2), 123—134. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2007.00446.x
Boss, P. (1999). Ambiguous loss: Learning to live with unresolved grief. Harvard University Press.
Boss, P. (2007). Ambiguous loss theory: Challenges for scholars and practitioners. Family Relations, 56, 105 – 111.

Dr. Bonnie Stelmach is a Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. Parents’ roles in children’s schooling is her primary research focus.

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