Parents and effective communication

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Effective parental engagement is key to a successful education, especially in year 7 as pupils transition. Karen Sullivan looks at the research

So my youngest child is preparing to embark on his secondary school career – a different school from that attended by his two older brothers – and I’m beginning to panic. While there has been a host of open days for the children and a rather confusing face-to-face meeting when we booked him in, the communication has been largely absent.

We have received a letter suggesting his starting date (but no starting or finishing time), but no information on the uniform (apart from being told verbally that they are strict). We have no idea what they need in terms of school supplies or anything else. The website sheds little light.

I doubt all schools mismanage communication, but it does serve as a good reminder that it is extremely important and critical to successful transition from primary school – and to engaging parents from the outset.

Research suggests that although parental engagement has improved over the past 25 years, engaging parents continues to be a hurdle for most schools (Metlife 2012). In fact, an earlier Metlife survey (2005) suggests that new teachers were most likely to report their biggest challenge was engaging with and involving parents.

According to The Positive Effects of Parent Communication (Wardlow 2013), parental engagement is associated with higher academic achievement (Butler et el 2008; Haynes et al 1989; Henderson 1987); increased attendance rates (Butler et al 2008; Haynes et al 1989); positive student attitudes and behaviours (Becher, 1984; Henderson et al 1986); increased student readiness and interest in their work (Rich 1988; Tobolka 2006); increased parent satisfaction with teachers (Rich 1988; cf Greenwood & Hickman 1991); and higher teacher satisfaction ratings (Metlife 2012).

Getting it off to a good start is integral to achieving all of this. First and foremost, information needs to be sent out in a timely fashion. Receiving information halfway through August, when many families are away, is too late – particularly when there is inevitably some pre-planning involved.

Make sure there is a comprehensive Q&A for new parents on the website and the facility for asking questions. Engage the parents well before the end of the final term at primary school and outline the school’s expectations, the best ways to get in touch or receive answers to questions.

One of the documents that we received (halfway through August) was the “summer reading” list. Not only would it be far too late to tackle more than one book in one of the 40-odd series listed, but the list was almost entirely geared towards one genre (mainly fantasy). This in itself was slightly off-putting!

Why not ask out-going year 7 students to provide a list of the books they enjoyed reading, asking the incoming members of the student population (and their parents) to add to it by email. Feeling involved in even something that small can create a rapport that will continue, and it is an inclusive measure.

Bear in mind that the vast majority of parents prefer to receive communication by email and, according to American research (which appears to be equally relevant here), other digital means, such as blogs, online newsletters, online calendars, text messaging, and websites (NSPRA 2011).

So encourage form teachers to make contact early in the summer, welcoming parents and their children, explaining that all-important first day and what they need to be prepared, establishing the best way of communication (both now and in the future), directing them to appropriate parts of the website, and asking for a little personal information to get parents onside.

If parents feel that the education their child receives is “personalised” and someone is looking out for that child, they are much more likely to engage. More to the point, they are less likely to feel anxious, which can have a positive impact on the transition experience for the child. Indeed, Wardlow points out that “students who are over-stressed are not able to learn efficiently because the release of the stress hormone cortisol interferes with memory formation. Likewise, when a student’s home and school environments are calming, the student’s brain is able to learn efficiently” (Goleman 1997; Tennant 2005).

Take time to outline your own expectations for the parent-teacher relationship. For example, the level on and to which you would like parents involved, the hours during which it is best to text or email, the importance of attending parent and social meetings (providing dates as early as possible for busy parents), and keeping the school up-to-date on anything that affects their child (from a death of a pet to a parent travelling, or a family illness...).

Much of this will sound obvious, but the truth is that it’s easy to forget that anxiety that new parents and students can experience, and the level of information that is required to “transition” with ease.
By the time you read this, your students will be back in the classroom. How did you help to simplify the process? I’d love to hear your tips.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, go to


  • The Metlife Survey (2012) provides a good overview of the parent-teacher relationship:
  • Liane Wardlow’s research (2013) offers tips for parents and teachers:
  • How to Involve Hard-to-Reach Parents: Encouraging meaningful parental involvement with schools, Clare Campbell, National College for School Leadership (Autumn 2011):
  • Improving Parent Involvement in Secondary Schools through Communication Technology, Bardroff Zieger & Tan, Journal of Literacy and Technology (February 2012):
  • Review of Best Practice in Parental Engagement, Department for Education, September 2011:


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