November 16, 2021

Which is more effective for school-family communications: digital or paper?

We live in a digital world. We connect with others via social media, we order groceries and take-out through apps, and we hold work meetings on video conferencing platforms. For many school districts, family communications have followed this trend. Rather than mailing physical letters home, email, AI-powered messaging platforms, and robo-calls and texts have become important ways in which school districts & teachers communicate with their families. And considering the cost of postage is higher than the cost of sending an email or a text message, it’s not surprising that mail would be left out of contemporary school communication plans. 

But, is this shift in communication to text messaging or emailing actually more effective than paper mailing for reaching families with critical information? Or, is it possibly even less effective? As with most things—the answer is complicated. 

What does the research tell us?

The research suggests that digital communications, like text messaging, are best for conveying information that requires short-term action. For example, if you want to remind families about an early release day, sending them a text message reminder the day before is the best way to ensure they remember.

Research has shown that mail-based communications serve an important purpose, too. When  trying to change long-term family and student behavioral patterns, mail is the most effective. For example, if you want to encourage families to consistently send their children to school more frequently, a mailed attendance nudge will help shift those behaviors over the long term. Once you have a family’s attention, you can provide positive and asset-based messages that help them understand the importance of attendance and engagement, offer actionable steps for families to take, and connect families to school and community supports—all to help them overcome the underlying barriers standing in the way of attendance and engagement. In other words, a mailed nudge can impact a child’s attendance habits days and weeks after a mailing is received. 

Research suggests that the physical nature of direct mail allows for the content and narrative of the messages to be easily shared with other members of the household. The physical engagement of picking up mail, looking at the sender, opening and unpacking the letter focus the mental and emotional energy and attention of the reader. Mailed letters can be posted on refrigerators and discussed with students and spouses, becoming social artifacts that stay in the home over time.

Reaching all families

Perhaps most importantly, mail has been shown to be a more equitable form of communication, reaching a greater proportion of families. For instance, we know that highly mobile families are more likely to update their physical addresses with the US Postal Service and are a lot less likely to update their children’s schools each time they get a new cell phone number. In fact, studies have shown that districts do not have accurate email or phone numbers for up to 50% of their students. Physical mailings reach far more families; we’ve mailed over 3.3 million attendance nudges, and over 90% are successfully delivered.

The stakes for effective school-family communication have never been higher. With families relying more heavily on school-based resources and support than ever before, it’s essential that districts and school staff are able to reach all families. And the most effective—and equitable—way to do that is by employing a multimodal approach that utilizes both mail and digital communications.

Getting students on track starts with attendance. We can help.