Parental engagement: Helping out at home

Written by: Adam Riches & Roy Watson-Davis | Published:
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As teachers, we all want our students’ parents to be supportive and to help with their children’s education at home – but how can we best advise them so they can do this effectively? Adam Riches and Roy Watson-Davis offer some pointers

One of the most common requests from parents/carers to you as a teacher will inevitably be: “How can I help my child at home.”
This question has a habit of popping up at parents’ evenings, open events and (shockingly) directly after presentations about “helping your children at home”. Don’t let it catch you off guard.

Regardless of the context, your response needs to be considered, calculated if you will. It is simple really, (most) parents want their children to succeed in education – this isn’t the issue. The issue in reality is the lack of parental understanding regarding the ins and outs of what their little cherubs are required to do and more often how to get them to do it.

Parenting is a full-time job, often on top of a full-time job. Parents often don’t have the luxury of time to read books on teaching and learning. It is the way you as a teacher advise parents that could be crucial in so many ways – not least because, as we all know, parental help and support outside of school can be the key to pupils succeeding inside school.

Reflection

Reports. We spend hours on them. Reports – the word alone makes us shudder. But how much time do parents and carers spend looking at the comments that we painstaking slave over?

The truth is probably nowhere near enough time! But why, I hear you all ask – again, and it is simple really: they do not know what they are looking at or just do not understand it.

A word to the wise: when you write your reports, make sure you use accessible language. Don’t throw reams of jargon and sophistication into the report in a draconian attempt to sound authoritative and powerful. Furthermore, remember that what may seem a commonly understood phrase or term to you as a professional could still be complete jargon to a non-professional.
Instead stick to the basics: what is going well, what needs improving specifically, how to improve specifically. This can then be your first port of call when asked by Little Jimmy’s parents “what can we do to help?”.

A prompt to look back over something you have already prepared for them has a number of benefits. First, it gives the parent a starting point for helping at home. Second, it is specific to your subject. Finally, it has taken you no extra time at all – you have already done the work.

Dialogue

A dialogue is an important factor in ascertaining the help of a parent. This said, dialogues with parents come with a warning tag: they can become very costly to your time if not managed well.

How many times have you missed a parental phone call and then wasted time “getting back” to them only to be met with an engaged tone or answerphone?

It is much more efficient to encourage parents to contact you through your school email. Not all parents will be happy at this, but it can be a very positive home link. This allows speed of response, but also creates a factual record of any messages between you and the parents (just save messages in your sent mail).

It helps to clarify advice and is a really useful record should the need arise. Email is also very useful for flagging up key homework/revision tasks to parents even before their child has got home. This has proved to be particularly effective for a number of colleagues with, let us say, those more forgetful pupils.

Not only this, but it allows you as a teacher to send an expanse of electronic resources directly to parents – absolute gold-dust for those pupils who have missed lessons or for those parents who really want to help their child succeed.

Attitudes

Your job is to teach and to mould young people into good members of society. This in itself is sometimes a testing task. To add to our woes, parents often try to enforce their own experiences of school when “helping” their children at home.

Conjuring images of the cane and inkpot laden wooden desks won’t take you to a good mental place – no no no. First off and quite simply, you should encourage parents/carers to be positive. Creating a supportive and positive atmosphere about education at home can make a real difference in how homework and school tasks are undertaken.

This can range from simple praise when some work is done, to more subtle approaches such as asking “when would you like to revise?” rather than demanding “why aren’t you revising?”. Or “talk me through what you have done so far” rather than “you haven’t done much”.

Similarly, parents should be encouraged to get pupils to break work up, so phrases like “what have you done so far with subject x’’ are more useful for getting students to focus on specific targets.

What seems intuitive to us as teachers, often seems counterintuitive to parents. Times have changed since they were at school and helping them see that can be key to them building a good working relationship with their children and their school work.

External exams

The pinnacle of the majority of our pupils’ high school careers – the big match – what they have all trained for...
As a teacher you are on top of any examination requirements, rubric and jargon. You know how a course is structured and how an exam “looks”.

You are used to teaching the topics and developing the skills. You know all about grade boundaries and the difference between coursework and supervised essays, but parents often don’t. Exams are scary things and can often be very confusing to people who are not used to the complexity of our education system. You need to equip your students’ parents for the examination just as you need to equip your students. It isn’t difficult. You have two options.

The first could be a short reference document made by yourself (or produced by the school and then given to subject teachers to adapt). This could be stuck into the front cover of your pupils’ exercise books. Easily accessible, simply written and factual. This might include:

  • Examination: In-hall (and in silence!). Fixed date on the calendar. No option to miss the exam. Include information about Access Arrangements. Explain that pupils need to arrive well before the examination with equipment (specify if appropriate to subject). Counts for 60 per cent of overall grade. Based on revision at home and work in lessons.
  • Coursework: Written at home and at school. Can do rough drafts as part of the process. Submission for completed work must be by (state date). Counts for 20 per cent of overall grade. Final version has to be word processed.
  • Supervised tasks: Undertaken at school on (state date). Pupil must bring notes and draft ideas to the supervision. Will have to undertake without if not brought. Counts for 15 per cent of overall grade.
  • Oral examinations: Prepared at home and within lessons. No notes allowed. Will be a 15-minute task on (insert date). Counts for five per cent of overall mark.

Give this to pupils at the start of the examination course for absolute clarity of expectations. And parents will be grateful for having been informed and for being given information about the various assessment points that will enable them to effectively counter any “I have no work to do”-type arguments from their child.

The second option would be to support and direct your parents to outside resources available online using the appropriate exam codes. Depending on the question, there isn’t much a combination of these two approaches can’t answer about external exams. Once again, the time cost to you is minimal.

Literacy

It doesn’t need to be scary. Spelling tests, grammar books and rote handwriting tasks are (thankfully) all things of the past in the modern classroom. Well mostly. As a parent, one of the most daunting things to face is a request from your child to check their work. Teachers need to know how to guide parents so they don’t feel intimidated.

Now the big thing here is the tried and tested but somewhat under-used method of putting the onus back onto the pupil. Try giving them a reference document along the lines of: Five Minimum Expectations – spellings, paragraphs, apostrophes, full stops and capital letters.

Then if a parent says “what about his spelling, can I help with that?” and closely follows with, “spelling isn’t my strong point you see”, you have the ammunition to say: “No problems, you just need to ask Jimmy to check through these five things...”

Now the parent doesn’t feel the responsibility of potentially seeming ignorant when unable to answer a direct literacy question and the pupil is encouraged to reflect on their own work.

Another great thing to try is getting pupils to highlight things that they think may be potentially wrong in one colour and things they know to be wrong in another. This saves you time as a teacher and also involves the parent in the proof-reading process, which is notoriously neglected.

Conclusions

This is by no means a comprehensive list of ways in which parents can help pupils at home. It does however give you a basis to consider some of the tactics you can employ.

As with any kind of teaching advice, trial and error is often the best approach. Consider the situation, consider the parent, and make learning a three-way street.

  • Adam Riches is head of key stage 5 English language and the whole-school literacy coordinator at Northgate High School in Ipswich. Follow him @teachmrriches. Roy Watson-Davis is head of history and politics at a school in Suffolk. Follow him @roywatsondavis


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