Educators Can Take These Five Steps Toward Better Communication During COVID and Beyond

“A child who can’t see, can’t hear, can’t breathe, hasn’t slept, has been traumatized, or doesn’t know where they are going to sleep at night does not have the opportunity to learn, unless we help them first—none of us would. So before we get to reading, writing, and arithmetic, we have to get to these basic needs of so many of our children.”

Our team has shared this message on countless occasions, with many different audiences, and across multiple formats and settings. It is a message informed both by the science of learning and the lived experience of educators. More importantly, it is a message that sticks.

Effective messaging, that resonates with an audience and prompts a response, does not happen by chance. It is crafted with intention, responds to the values and barriers of its intended audience, and creates an opportunity for that audience to become an active stakeholder in the solution.

Successful schools have always needed effective communication, but never more than in the past year, when schools have added public health communication to their long list of responsibilities. We are often asked about the best ways to manage communication and use it as a tool to build buy-in and create healthy schools. What messages will catch the attention of students, parents, and teachers? What messaging strategies will reach our diverse stakeholders? Who is the best messenger to share new, complex, or challenging information?

To answer these questions, we recommend educators follow five simple steps guided by key principles of health communication.

STEP 1: Take time to know your audience. The idea of knowing your audience is tied to a process in health communication called “audience segmentation,” which proposes that within each group, there are meaningful distinctions, or segments, to which messaging can be tailored. For example, among a school’s teacher population, there are newer teachers and those who have worked at the school for many years. Individuals who identify in these segments might respond to different messages in different ways. They might be moved to action with different words. Understanding which messages resonate requires you to understand the values, beliefs, and challenges facing each group you are trying to reach. If you are part of that group, your job is simpler. If you are not, then your work involves asking questions, listening closely, and above all, resisting the urge to assume.

STEP 2: Tailor information to reflect your audience. Once you have taken the time to listen and understand what drives your audience, your next step is to translate what you have learned into a message that reflects back to your intended audience a bit of what they see in themselves. If, for example, you are trying to encourage more teachers to consider being vaccinated, your message will not only need to speak to their passion (that every child is healthy, safe, ready to learn, and successful in the classroom and beyond), but also to the apprehensions and misgivings they might have about receiving a vaccine.

STEP 3: Organize information to serve your audience. In our crowded information environment, the attention of those you are trying to communicate with is scarce. This reality underscores the importance of using plain language best practices in your communications:

  • Put the most important message first, and present other information in order of importance to your audience.
  • Choose your words carefully, making sure to use words that your audience knows.
  • Write in an active voice, and include “you” and other personal pronouns.
  • Make information easy to find (headings, text boxes, lists, and tables can help).
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short by deleting unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs.
  • Vet messages with members of the intended audience to get feedback for refinement.

STEP 4: Lean on well-connected and trusted messengers. At a basic level, communication happens through relationships and depends on the quality of those relationships. Educational research has shown that schools (like all organizations) often attempt to communicate new information without taking into account the relationships that allow for that information to reach everyone and be accepted by them. Information is “pushed” through staff meetings, professional development, or other trainings. When these activities do not result in school-wide changes, the assumption is that the information is flawed. It is also possible that the messengers of the information are not trusted or well-connected, which in turn limits the reach and impact of the information. Leaning on those in your social network who are visible, trusted, and active will go a long way toward making a message “stick.”

STEP 5: Leverage meaningful messaging platforms and formats. In an era of virtual education, the options for communicating are seemingly endless. There are many benefits to using multiple and diverse modes of communication, but you also risk your audiences feeling overwhelmed. Communicate intentionally via the platforms and formats that are most frequently used by your audience. If you do not know your audience’s preferences, ask. “Which communication channels are easiest for you to use?” Whatever options you pursue, try to include an element of storytelling. Whether you produce a video, quote a key member of your school community, or share a graphic, your goal should be to create messages that spark recognition and create a personal connection to the content.

Experiencing the current pandemic, few can deny the critical impact of health on education. There is a clear window of opportunity for educators to advocate for the supports they need to make sure that all students, regardless of where they live or who they are, have equitable opportunities to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. It has never been so important that your messages stick.

Interested in tools to help you create messages? Check out these resources:

  • Healthy Schools Toolkit messaging module (Health Equity Works, Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis)
  • Together for Healthy and Successful School effective message frames (Edge Research, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)
  • Smart Chart message framing exercises (Spitfire Strategies)
  • Risk communication training module (World Health Organization)

Learn more about the research informing this work by accessing the Journal of School Health’s December 2020 Special Issue (Volume 90, Number 12).

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