Preparing parents to support their children's education

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

Continuing her advice on encouraging parents to engage in their children’s education, Karen Sullivan offers some research-based, practical ideas

In my last article, we looked at the research suggesting that White working class pupils are faring worse at school not, as it was suggested, because their parents lack aspirations or fail to set goals, but because they often do not have the support or tools they need to do so (Fostering aspirations for all students, SecEd, April 14, 2015:

In fact, one study found that many of the most disadvantaged parents were “actually even more positively disposed towards involvement than their middle class and professional peers”.

A landmark paper published in 2015 (The Long-term Role of the Home Learning Environment in Shaping Students’ Academic Attainment in Secondary School), which followed children from early years up to GCSE level confirmed that: “Young people who reported that they spent time reading on their own, going with their families on educational visits or to the library at age 14, obtained significantly higher total GCSE scores (more than 60 points) and better grades in GCSE English and maths (more than half a grade) than their peers who engaged less in these activities.”

Furthermore, they found parents who show interest in their children’s learning (reporting that they talked to their 14-year-olds about schoolwork, experiences and GCSE subjects) also increased the likelihood that they would go on to achieve five or more GCSEs at age 16, including English and maths with grades A* to C.

There are simple things parents can do to create a stronger home learning environment, and not only should we share ideas with the parent body but we should also provide them with support.

Helping children with homework is one critical feature that raises children’s aspirations and encourages achievement, and it is this that can prove to be a stumbling point for parents who have themselves not been educated to a similar level.

Let me tell you a story. A father of one of my son’s friends left school at 14 and ended up owning a very successful business. But he had respect for education and was determined that his son would do well.

With heroic determination, he set about learning the curriculum for his son’s courses, teaching himself enough to be able to guide his son through to a clutch of A*s that were not predicted. He understood the importance of the home environment and made every attempt to provide the best.

I’m not suggesting that even a small percentage of parents would be prepared to go to these lengths, but it is a story worth sharing, and it is worth reminding parents that it is not so much their own knowledge that is key, but their willingness to support.

Sitting down together to puzzle out tricky homework, or searching online for terms and methods that might be unfamiliar, can make a big difference to a student’s chances, as can talking to them about their school day.

One study (Sammons et al, 2011) found that even playing computer games together or using the internet for learning (something as simple as checking facts) can be effective.

Simply offering parents a list of things they can do to help (taking a child to the library, reading together, setting goals, talking about the future, sharing experiences, visiting an art gallery, or even taking a free class together) will be reassuring for even the least confident parent.

Crosnoe (2012) found that school-initiated engagement can make up for some of the disadvantage faced by children of less engaged parents by facilitating the flow of school-related information (about protocols, practices, norms, expectations) to those parents. Crosnoe suggests that “as long as some of the basic information relating to the child’s educational process reaches the parents, the home-school relationship can be improved”.

To raise achievement, dialogue between parents and their children is extremely important, and this dialogue is best facilitated when the parent is informed about the curriculum, activities, and expectations in the child’s school (Goodall, 2013; Goodall & Vorhaus, 2011).

Does your school website have a parent portal where parents can visit to see details of the curriculum, and perhaps websites and activities that can be used to support them? Is there a place where parents can chat to each other on the website, or in person in the school? Is there an informal way to communicate with teachers?

A Saturday drop-in once a month, email contact or a contact book that goes home every evening could be effective in fostering inter-parental discussions? Have you thought about setting up a reading group in which students and their parents can take part? With books chosen by a vote?

Why not set interactive homework assignments in which parents and students are involved? Send home tests in which parents and students can pit their wits.

At the beginning of every school year, encourage parents to sign up to share their skills, and here anything goes – gardening, baking, hair-styling, changing tires, knitting, drawing, accountancy, writing, architecture, science and more. A series of workshops that take place after school, in the evening or even during class time, can build confidence in parents and also help them to feel a crucial level of involvement.

The key is to remember that many unengaged parents are thus because they do not know how to engage or, indeed, why they should. Not every parent will choose to partake, but if communication is opened among the parent population, it won’t be long before tentative steps are taken by many.

In my next article, we will look at how to deal with kids who are getting no support at home, and nudging absent parents into action.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email

Resources and further reading

  • Engaging With Families, a (Scottish-based) resource offering useful research, evidence and ideas for all schools:
  • The Long-term Role of the Home Learning Environment in Shaping Students’ Academic Attainment in Secondary School (Sammons, Toth, Sylva et al, Journal of Children’s Services, 2015):


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