Parental engagement: Some ideas and approaches

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Parental engagement is key to successful student outcomes. Steve Burnage discusses some ideas and practical approaches to involving all parents and carers in their child’s learning and welfare

Where a school and a learner’s parents or carers work in partnership to support their learning journey and welfare, learners are far more likely to have a positive experience of school and more successful outcomes in terms of both learning and wellbeing.

So, what can schools do to build these positive partnerships? To start with, here are a couple of questions that might stimulate reflection or discussion at school:

  1. What opportunities currently exist in your school for parents to be involved in learner-focused learning and welfare activities?
  2. How many of the opportunities that came to mind were the ideas of parents and carers in your school and how many were school driven?

Let’s consider our responses to the two questions. It would not be surprising to find that most strategies to engage parents are created and driven by the school. These are perfectly valid and can be of great benefit.

Here are some ideas that schools can use to work better with parents:

Share/Inspire Mornings

Create opportunities for parents to learn new skills that are not necessarily curriculum-based alongside their child in an informal way. For example, fossil-hunting, pond-dipping, language taster sessions or learning a musical instrument.
Information sessions

Provide key information on current education practice or government-led changes. For example, the new GCSE specs, year 7 transition, key stage 4 or 5 choices, internet safety, assessment without levels, teaching reading or ways to encourage active play. However, remember your audience and try to make the session as active and engaging as possible rather than “death by PowerPoint”.

Parent consultations/open days

Again, think about your audience here and what parents need. Schedule events at times when parents can attend, think about holding consultations at less threatening venues (local community centres for example), and use the children as your best ambassadors for the school.

Sharing/celebration assemblies

Invite parents to anything that celebrates learner engagement or success but include them too. What parental contributions could you celebrate in your assemblies?

Community events

Engage parents and members of the community in anything that involves collaborative activity – gardening sessions, bake off events, “lads and dads” sport etc. Just remember that the nature of the activity doesn’t really matter, it is the engagement that will reap its rewards.

Parent volunteers

Once safeguarding is sorted out, encourage parents to volunteer as helpers on school trips, lunch-time or after-school enrichment activities or in curriculum support (literacy and numeracy support for example, or just to be another pair of willing hands).

Parents stay for special lunches

Work with your school catering team to plan special lunch events on a weekly, monthly or half-termly basis. These can be themed to fit in with cultural or national events or to reflect current areas of the curriculum. Whatever is planned, invite parents in as another opportunity to break down barriers to engagement.

Men in school days

In some schools, engaging with fathers or grandfathers can be a real issue, so create events specifically tailored to encourage men to be in school. You might invite in a notable local male personality, ex-student or community figure; ask grandfathers to talk to learners about their early life experiences, or set up collaborative learning activities for male role-models and learners in school.

Regular communication home

Regular communication home is something that parents value very highly indeed but is so often an opportunity lost because schools frequently fail to think about their audience. It doesn’t matter whether you communicate via website, class curriculum maps, class and school newsletters, text messages, letters or phone calls – always think about what you want to say and the best method to communicate it. You could use these questions to stimulate reflection and discussion in school:

  1. How do you communicate with parents to ensure that all parents find it easy to communicate with you?
  2. How do you encourage parents to share information about their child’s entitlement to free school meals, achievements or welfare with you?
  3. How do you use this information to demonstrate that it is valued?
  4. How do you share this information with parents?

Using technology

Technology can be a very effective tool for parental engagement – especially when engaging parents in their child’s learning and welfare – yet, so often, schools seemed reluctant to engage with the power of social media. These simple engagement strategies make smart use of technology, require minimal effort and can be particularly effective:

  • Share Mornings on ICT in classrooms combined with information sessions for parents. Just make sure it is “hands-on”.
  • Use the VLE: put class work and homework online so that parents support children with online homework.
  • Social media: schools are often scared of the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc, but your school will have these whether you like it or not (often set up by parent groups) so it is better to embrace the technology and use these to communicate key information, good news and celebrate successes rather than leave it to parent groups to moan about what is going on unofficially.
  • Email/text: encourage the use of email and text messaging to contact parents quickly and directly. Just make sure that this is coordinated so that parents are not bombarded by too many different people in school and visa-versa.

This breadth of provision is very well but, in this age of “flipped classrooms”, we need to turn this on its head. If we want to truly engage parents in an effective partnership with school to support their children’s learning and welfare, then the drivers for how this is done must come from them.

Overcoming barriers

Here are eight ideas to overcome barriers to effective parental engagement.

  • Be specific: to improve parental engagement, identify the barriers specific to your own context and explore strategies to change parental perceptions of the school.
  • Create positive memories: quite often, parents are reluctant to come into school because of their own unpleasant memories of when they were at school. Find out what the parent community want or need from school and create opportunities to provide this. For example, support in dealing with social services, paperwork, literacy, breakfast clubs or a food bank. These will help create more positive memories of school.
  • Parents are forbidden by their children to “make a fuss”: address any negative issues positively and proactively so that they are nipped in the bud and parents don’t need to make a fuss in the first place.
  • Parents only get involved if there’s a problem: make involvement with school a positive experience. Encourage staff to phone home with good news, send postcards home to celebrate achievements or good deeds; and create shared learning experiences and activities so that children want their parents to come into school for good reasons.
  • Parents can’t or won’t come into school: take the school to the parents. Consider holding school events in alternative venues to remove the barriers to the school building. You might consider holding parents’ consultations in local primary schools, informal parent meetings in supermarket cafes, or community centres of cultural buildings, and place school information in places where parents naturally congregate.
  • Parents think it’s best to leave the teaching to the teachers: provide opportunities for parents to learn alongside their children, hold “learner as teacher” events where children teach their parents something they have been learning at school; or use parents with specific skills (a language, finance, gardening, fishing, a musical instrument etc) to run learning sessions and show that we are all teachers in different ways.
  • Parents do not have enough information to act on: keep parents as informed as you can. If you are inviting parents in to discuss an issue or concern, provide them with information before they come into school so they can be fully prepared. Think about how you provide information and make sure that you tailor your information to the needs of your audience.
  • Parents just don’t understand the jargon: where possible, don’t use it, and, where you really must, again, think about your audience.

Conclusion

Let’s conclude with two final questions for reflection and discussion:

  • What could be done quickly and effectively to improve the parent-school relationship? View these things as “quick win” improvements.
  • What are the weaknesses identified in your quick win ideas and how could you overcome these?
    Whatever strategies you adopt to encourage parents to engage with school and support their child’s learning and welfare, the best strategies will always provide regular and varied opportunities for parents to get into the school building and experience first-hand how different schools are today, they will create opportunities that use parents’ strengths and interests; and they will work with parents by asking them what they would find most useful.
  • Having spent more than 25 years teaching and leading challenging secondary schools across the UK, Steve Burnage is an expert practitioner, consultant, trainer and author in building positive parental engagement, improving senior and middle leadership, developing outstanding learning and teaching, positive behaviour management, and coaching and mentoring. Email him at simplyinset@gmx.com


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