Every school knows that the more engaged a parent is in their child’s learning, the more learning is supported in the home, the more likely the child is to do well. Sounds easy enough. Let’s face it… some parents are dead easy to involve. Others can be all too eager to get your attention and are queuing up to talk to staff at every opportunity. But we all know that often the very families you would like to be involved more, can be the hardest to hook into school life.
The tough truth is, parents are not all the same and successfully getting them on board is likely to mean that you have to take into account that they need different things at different times and some need much, much more than others. But hold this in mind – like many difficult tasks requiring hard work and non-stop effort, the rewards can be great!
OK, you might at times find yourself seriously weighing up effort versus outcomes – particularly when thinking about more disadvantaged pupils or those with challenging behaviour BUT research suggests it’s worth that effort. This may well be one of those ‘no pain, no gain’ moments.
There is a consistent relationship between increasing parental engagement (particularly of less easy to reach parents) and improved attendance, behaviour and achievement.
In 2007, an extensive literature review and in depth case study of 30 schools over a year, carried out by Professor Alma Harris and Dr Janet Goodall, at the University of Warwick, turned up some pretty useful key messages (Harris and Goodall 2007):
• Parental engagement is a powerful lever for raising student achievement in schools. Where parents and teachers work together to improve learning, the gains in achievement are significant.
• Parents supporting learning in the home has a greater influence than them supporting learning in school.
• Many schools involve parents in school related activities. This constitutes parental involvement rather than parental engagement. Unless they are directly connected to learning they have little impact on pupil achievement.
• Parental engagement is heavily linked to socio-economic status, as well as parental experience of education. Parents of certain ethnic and social groups are less likely to engage with the school. Schools that offer bespoke forms of support to these parents (i.e. literacy classes, parenting skill support) are more likely to engage them in their children’s learning.
• Teachers tend to think of parent engagement being about helping improve behaviour whilst parents think of it as being about offering support to a child’s learning.
• Read more
What studies and practice examples show (which we have included at the end of this section), is that schools that are good at this stuff consistently reinforce that ‘parents matter’. They seek to build a two way relationship with parents and carers – it’s not a ‘bolt on’ activity, It’s part of the school culture.
If you are starting, bare in mind that parents who are viewed as ‘less easy to reach’ often see the school as ‘hard to reach’. But engaging those very parents can have greatest effect on pupil learning and behaviour.
There are a whole load of reasons why it’s hard for many parents to take part, get involved, support their child’s learning, or even understand what you are all on about! Not just time and child care issues, but things like language, literacy, and confidence can all get in the way.
Does it help when they get sent home reports which talk in terms of ‘target level X’, ‘behaviour for learning’ and other such educational mumbo jumbo?
Schools can tackle barriers firstly by trying to understand parents and what might help them get involved in their child’s learning – which means finding out about them and putting strategies in place to work with them – both generic approaches and bespoke to individual families. This means an investment of time and resource in building relationships’.
Remember, parents are not all the same
If you read the research jargon, we know that ‘spontaneous levels of parental involvement’ work to promote school achievement (Desforges and Abouchaar 2003).
In other words, some parents are always actively involved in their children’s development and educational progress. Their parenting has included ‘teaching’ their children at home from pre-school level, they visit the school to build good relationships with teachers and help out with school activities.
But what about those parents and carers with whom you would like to have a conversation but mostly don’t seem to be able to catch them? Where are they? At parents evening, school performances, sports events? No…can’t see them? Was that them slipping out the door before you had a chance to say hello, let alone launch into a proper conversation?
Sometimes there is a mismatch. Parents on the one hand want to know their children are happy at school and all is going well. School on the other hand tends to want to talk to parents when there is a problem – it makes the starting point already potentially tricky.
Not surprising really is it? For many of us, while we can criticise our own children, it is rarely easy to hear other people speaking negatively about them.
And if you are most interested in engaging the least resourced families in school, then parents may be feeling in need of some help themselves. It might be with their child’s behaviour for example, but it could be with a whole host of challenges.
Finding the right time and the right person at school to talk with about things can be hard. Engaging with parents and building a successful dialogue with them could mean that parents look to schools for extra help.
If a parent does disclose problems, then it’s a great opportunity to talk about ‘how can we together identify some support and help’. That might be about information on local services, or searching on the internet for information about the problem or where to seek help. Being seen to work with the parent, by that parent, will have a huge impact in terms of building trust, support and developing a shared approach.
It’s tricky territory all round and lots of research and programmes seem to suggest that building good school-home links is all about the relationship and the style of conversation.
Here’s what parents consistently say about what helps in conversation with anyone from school whatever the occasion
• Listen to them
• Acknowledge distress / difficulty
• Demonstrate empathy
• Be open and honest
• Treat them as individuals and don’t stereotype.
If this sounds like a course in basic listening then maybe there’s something to think about here – who does the difficult conversations with parents and have they had any help with ‘listening skills’ or planning how to structure the interaction?
Plenty of parents can find school intimidating. They may be worried about their parenting being criticised. It’s easy to forget how super sensitive parents can be to this, so finding something positive to say as early as possible in your contact with a parent can help to lessen the worry and build a dialogue.
You may well have views about their parenting, so even if the only positive thing you can think of is that you are glad they could make it in to see you, say so.
It’s pretty common for parents to report negative memories of schooling themselves and so just stepping inside the school building can throw up unexpected awkward feelings.
Simply being asked to meet with a teacher can unknowingly signal a message that ‘they must be in trouble’ and can put parents on the back foot or remind them of being in trouble when they were at school.
Acknowledging, in a light hearted way, that lots of parents say it can be weird to be back in school can go some way towards normalising the situation for parents.
Locked gates, entry phones and poorly signed entrances are barriers so showing them around the school to help make the school environment feel less alien and more familiar and having a few parent welcome posters displayed can send out a good signal.
It’s probably worth keeping in mind that some parents will have had poor experiences with teachers in the past or might be having a hard time with other types of professionals.
These experiences don’t help to pave the way and can set parents up to expect the worst from all professionals. By the time they get to you, they may be inadvertently laying at your door all the horrible stuff that’s happened at other meetings.
In these situations, often it’s useful to give space to parents to let off steam. The best you can do sometimes is to express your regret for bad things having happened and your wish to start afresh and do things differently.
• Asking parents the most effective way for you to keep in contact with them, might be worth a try. And it’s worth considering who the most appropriate person in the school is to have these tricky conversations with parents. Some staff members seem like they were born for it, whilst others are more suited to other tasks.
• For more help on ‘structured conversations ’Achievement for All’ offers support to schools and training on this. See their handbook for useful tips.
• The LEAP method can be a useful way to help structure those conversations effectively. Download the LEAP guidance for Head Teachers and school staff.
• Other things that can help are more about offering support and training for parents.
For parents of pupils with special educational need and disabilities (SEND) it might be worth putting them in touch with Parent Partnership Services (PPS – google it to find your local one) which can offer information, advice and support for parents/carers of children and young people with special educational needs (SEN).
There is a PPS in every local authority and often a parent support organisation or a parent carer council or forum too, where they can meet up with others in similar situations and access specialist support.
• If you or parents or carers have any concerns about a child’s emotional or mental health then you can always give the YoungMinds parent helpline a call for some advice and support.
Of course, the local authority often has information on parenting support courses and parent groups – it’s worth finding out what’s on offer.
Starting and sustaining relationships
Whether it is the first day of primary, secondary, or sixth form – transition times are when parents can be most anxious and most hungry for information.
It is also your chance to make a lasting impression – have you heard that adage that 90% of our first impressions happen in the first 90 seconds of meeting? Many schools maximise on the peaked interest and put plans in place for engaging with parents at this time.
Other ways in which schools engage groups of parents include information days on topics such as staying safe on line; coffee mornings; cultural celebrations or fun stuff that has nothing to do with their children’s school achievement.
Use these days to get to know your parent cohort. It can be the start of identifying parents who may need more intensive support, as well as spotting super active parents who could be willing to help you engage with the less easy to reach parents further down the line.
For those who didn’t turn up? …maybe follow up with a phone call, email or post card after the event? Seems time consuming but in the long run we’d suggest it’s probably worth
Keeping it going
Follow up, follow up, follow up. Maybe a general follow up text or letter home thanking parents for attending and reminding them to give you a call if there is anything they want to discuss could be a worthwhile routine.
Be clear about how parents can get in touch, with whom, for what – make the information accessible on the website. Does your site have contact details for staff?
Some parents are able or willing to put in more than others, and can be a useful ally now or at a future date. Consider finding a task to be sure to catch the moment or if you haven’t got a job for them right now, maybe get them lined up by asking if you could contact them in future if you need a hand with something. Sometimes the best go-between for parents and schools can be other parents.
Just as you might organise information around pupils’ needs in order to target support, help them to engage in learning and prevent problems emerging later on – why not do the same with parents? You could add to the pupil information to include facts about parents and home life. Seems controversial? Is it?
We are not talking about confidential information about parents’ drug habits being shared around school, but suggesting contextual information that might help you understand parents and more importantly their child/ren. You may need to check out with parents in a general way at least that it’s ok to hold this information in school.
This can mean finding out and recording things such as:
• Family make up mum/dad/ siblings/extended family/ blended family – who is in the house and who is close by – this could be a great year 7 tutor group activity Postcode – what is happening in the local neighbourhood, how far is the family from school – do you have any parents having to travel a significant distance?
• Cost of travel, working hours, younger siblings and other barriers for getting into school
• Additional needs and problems – parents disability, health issues such as mental health or substance misuse, will have a huge impact – when are the opportunities for this kind of information to be shared in person by a parent never mind a child?
• Race, religion, family heritage
• Family hobbies, interests, activities, jobs
For large schools creating a systematic way of collecting, sharing and retaining this information appropriately is a challenge. The more staff know about a child’s context the more they can understand them and differentiate how they respond at times.
Okay, some information you have from parents is sensitive and some might be confidential, so how it is recorded and what is shared requires some serious thought and planning.
Crucially you want to help the parent to help the pupil, so thinking through what you know about the family will help you to plan your interaction If appropriate try and involve the pupil too, the most effective strategies will have everyone on board.
Parents and carer resilience
Just as Academic Resilience is concerned with pupil’s doing better than expected despite adverse circumstances, it is also about our expectations of their parents and helping them to make their contribution.
School improvement and school effectiveness research consistently shows that parental engagement is one of the key factors in securing higher student achievement. Schools that improve and sustain improvement engage the community and build strong links with parents.
Where schools build positive relationships with parents and work actively to embrace racial, religious, and ethnic and language differences, evidence of sustained school improvement can be found. (Goodall et al., 2010 p.16)
Schools that have prioritised parent engagement work tend to have spent some considerable time thinking about:
• Have we challenged our own expectations of some parents and families?
• How will we start again with a fresh approach, and keep starting a fresh?
• What do we actually mean by engagement at this school?
• What do we do to offer support to parents here – especially disadvantaged parents?
• How can we be resilient ourselves, and promote resilience amongst parents and carers – because we are the adults on whom our pupils depend in life?
Obviously, we can’t answer these questions for you but can suggest using the resilience framework to think about how this might translate to your school setting.
How is our school supporting the parents of our pupils to build their basics, feel that they belong to the school community, help their children or themselves to learn, cope with the demands of school life and feel like they can make a difference for their children’s school achievement?
A good general rule of thumb for planning is this…Think of positive experiences you could provide. Up-building and confidence boosting opportunities.
All parents, like staff, like praise. How can you give it and how can you increase the opportunity for it? Some positive strokes, even in the most dire situation, can be the beginnings of a more two way conversation.
Some good ideas we have heard about…
• “Tips for Reaching Hard to Reach Families” – This is American but has some nice tips – 2 pages clustered into five headings: personalise, focus on the message and the messenger, get creative, what and how you communicate, make involvement easy and exciting.
• Of course there are schools like the De La Salle Humanities College, a Roman Catholic boys’ school in Liverpool which have a whole load of good parent engagement stuff going on. Paula Howard has led on several initiatives at the school.
Finding them isn’t always easy…Let us know if you have any examples which you think others would like to know about.
Otherwise here’s some ideas
For engaging en masse:
• Offer non stigmatising sessions such as ‘keeping your child safe online’, or ‘how maths is taught’. The latter is particularly good for demystifying the school day particularly as the secondary experience is characterised by parents feeling redundant as pupils knowledge begins to exceed their own.
• Contact local services such as the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), housing, support and activity focused charities, and host them termly in the school hall after school – invite parents along and ensure there is a mix of non-problem focused activities and organisations there too such as the leisure centre, allotments, volunteering agencies (this could be a shared activity between several local schools with rotating host arrangements).
• Some schools in deprived areas regularly host CAB type agencies in the school hall!
• Pamper sessions for parents, or pizza and football days offer an opportunity for parents to meet other parents, especially good for more isolated families.
• Link into culturally specific expertise – cooking and open events on cultural festivals.
• Annual school trip such as trip to the sea side – invite parents too and for secondary maybe lay on a reason why they are needed to attend (separate minibus for parents might help).
• Take a trip to university with parents and kids – some schools target free school meal families and offer this trip free using the pupil premium.
• Get parents who have made some changes involved – run coffee mornings with a theme such as ‘how to support ourselves with our challenging boys’.
• Work on a small group of parents to wedge in, and then snowball through them to reach others.
• Instead of focusing on helping parents to support their children’s learning, develop programmes to help parents directly – adult education classes, advice and support to access services, formal or informal parenting or parent support courses, fun stuff like yoga and cooking.
For targeted action
• Plan meetings after school when some parents can best get there and provide food and nice drinks – food could be provided by the pupils food technology lesson.
• Send follow up postcards to parents, saying how much you enjoyed meeting them or value working with them – be explicit about the research that suggests the more a parent. engages the better, but explain what that means in three bullet points!
• Have parents meetings / open nights in small cosy rooms instead of empty cold halls that are half empty – break out in to groups if it’s a school wide event especially if you expect parents to ask questions.
• Develop the role of a combined Teaching Assistant and Family Support Worker so they can go home after school with the child and help with homework/tea/bed/parenting practices.
• Tailor activities to match the needs of particular groups –basic training in cooking for young mothers, free legal or immigration advice.
• Ask parents directly and personally to participate in or help with a particular activity.
• Make sure materials and communications are translated if English is a second language.
For improving attendance
• Alerts for parents regarding truanting – a phone call or text message to parents whenever child is absent from school. Simple, quick and immediate communication works best. The embarrassment and direct approach encourages parents to try harder to improve child attendance.
For making school more accessible
• Drop in surgeries, such as a monthly head teacher or head of year evening or on a Saturday morning provides reassurance – parents drop in without having to make an appointment and this way, they always have the opportunity to speak to someone in school.
• Get contact details of staff – name, job title, class (if appropriate) – up onto the website for all staff – you will NOT be inundated!
• Create soft entry points such as regular places for fun low-key mornings where a group of parents do an activity like creating books and adding story time. This non-threatening, indirect and informal approach is great for building relationships.
• Actively promote things and make sure everyone knows about activities on offer including text reminders the day before.
• Choose the right staff and ask parents from the same culture, neighbourhood, background to help.
• Have ‘parents welcome’ posters in the school.
For communicating progress
• Provide brief reports for each child on a monthly basis which offer parents feedback on how their child is performing. This helps parents to notice problem areas early.
• It is most useful if they cover each subject individually so that specific information concerning progress in each area is identified.
• Explain the terminology and of course if a parent is not there…give them a call.
• Some schools say a call home every term from every teacher will work wonders!
• Use diary planners with the child and parent and send messages home via the planner. Ask parents to sign the planner when homework assignments are completed.
• Integrate symbolic systems of evaluation with the homework diary which are quick and efficient for both parents and teachers to use and simplify the feedback process.
• Insert different coloured slips into the homework diaries to indicate poor performance or misbehaviour which are instantly noticeable to both pupil and parent or stamp merits into the homework diary if an assignment has been done well.
• Don’t just contact parents when something is wrong – ring home day is Wednesday.
• Every week all members of staff are encouraged to phone a parent and report something positive about a pupil.
For preparing staff
• Adopt positive thoughts – parents are allies, how can we tackle this/sort this together, remember teens are often not sure but don’t like to show that they are not sure.
• When parents apologise for their kids bad behaviour, be sure to say it’s the child’s behaviour, not the parent’s so no need to apologise but work together to change.
• Train senior staff specifically in how to be positive and supportive with parents who are easily ignored or patronised or told off.
• Target the best people in the school to liaise with them.
• Treat parents as the experts in their child.
And finally, we also appreciate that it can be particularly hard when we meet parents who seem intent on disrespecting their children or consistently avoid getting involved with school.
We cannot always know why and it can sometimes feel like all the good work done at school just gets undone once the pupil goes home. Maybe it is worth remembering that parents are the primary sphere of influence for children and are involved in their lives for much longer than school.
They have the potential even unintentionally, to sabotage your efforts, so our suggestion is to do all you can to explore what might lie behind their disengagement and keep trying to encourage a working relationship with them.
For some disadvantaged pupils, you getting involved as one of the significant people in their lives might be their biggest hope for changing their future. Helping them not just to cope, but do better than expected given their circumstances.
While we are not suggesting that you become social workers or family therapists – sometimes schools can be a positive influence in a difficult situation.
Some pupils may be having a pretty tough time at home, or in care, and someone in school, like you, getting a bit more involved might make the difference between sink or swim, or it’s their chance to cling to your rope and float whilst they catch their breath!
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