Best Practice

Building positive relationships with parents and carers

Good parental relationships are at the heart of the successful school. Steve Burnage offers a quick checklist of strategies to engage and support parents, including when it comes to tackling poor attendance

Positive parental engagement is a crucial ingredient if pupils are to reach their potential and it can have a specific role to play when trying to boost attendance.

Below are some general strategies and principles for effective parental engagement, which are then followed by some specific pointers for tackling issues of attendance.

Some general strategies

A key issue for some schools is that reluctant parents (perhaps with low self-esteem) cite their own negative school experiences for their lack of engagement. As such, we must make the effort to re-engage with their families.

  • The parent profile: For reluctant parents and carers, it is particularly important to find out what makes them tick. Do they have any outside interests? You might find they have a skill that the school could use, like speaking a second language or a talent for arts and crafts. By getting to know the hard-to-reach parent, the school is saying to them: “You matter as much as your child.”
  • Technology: Many parents work long hours and are simply not available to get into school during school hours. You can get around this by allowing parents virtual access to your school – class blogs highlighting good work done by pupils or a regularly updated school website can be a great start. A school website has the potential to be so much more than it often is. Your website should be the communications hub of your school. Further to this, a school mobile app for parents allows them to access the latest school news and important dates, as well as to instant alerts such as an activity being cancelled. This saves time and improves relationships by keeping parents fully aware.
  • Support workshops: Supporting pupils with their learning at home is paramount but a lot of parents, especially those who may have struggled in school themselves, just do not know where to begin. Some schools run very successful programmes teaching parents how best to support their children. Offering drop-in workshops during and after-school is a way to bridge the gap, particularly if parents know that their involvement can really make a difference.
  • Speak their language: With an increasing number of families with English as an additional language, it is worth seeking translation support, perhaps from community leaders or other parents who understand the situation.
  • Parents’ evening: For hard-to-reach parents, parents’ evening is a dreaded event. They may feel unable to speak to the class teacher on their level, causing deep embarrassment. Having to mix with lots of other parents could make them uncomfortable, particularly if the school intake has a wide socio-economic range. If you identify and remove many of the uncomfortable aspects, they are far more likely to attend.
  • What do they want? This may seem an obvious question but is often omitted. You might find asking this question opens up a continuing, positive dialogue with hard-to-reach parents, simply because no-one else has ever bothered to ask them before.
  • Unpleasant memories of school: Many parents can be reluctant to engage with their child’s school because they have such difficult memories of their own time at school. Sometimes holding informal, fun events aimed at bringing parents into school can help to bridge the gap.
  • Not just for problems: Many parents wouldn’t dream of contacting the school unless there was an issue with their child. Again, this barrier can only be broken down by trying to address the ethos of home-school communications. Parents need to be helped to understand that even when their child is doing very well, they can be instrumental in driving that achievement further.
  • The jargon! Even those parents who are fluent in English can have trouble understanding some communications from the school. Always think carefully when communicating with parents and ensure that you do not use the jargon or acronyms that you might use with your colleagues without thinking.

Issues of attendance

During the last academic year for which data is available (2017/18), one in nine pupils (11.2 per cent) were persistently absent from school (missing more than 10 per cent of possible sessions). The figure rises to 13.9 per cent in secondary schools. So how can schools work with parents and carers to tackle poor attendance?

  • Establish a positive relationship: Before discussing a student’s poor attendance, establish a positive relationship with parents. Often, schools contact families only when there is a problem. Families begin to expect that a phone call or other contact from the school means the student is in trouble. “What did he do this time?“ is the question they ask. In the rush to discuss a student’s attendance, we can inadvertently give the message that parents do not know much and need to do better. When parents feel welcome in a school and respected as an important partner in their children’s education, they are more willing to contribute and respond openly and positively.
  • Communicate clear expectations and support: Orient parents to school policies and expectations for student attendance and on-time arrival. Share contact information for district or community agencies that are available to help families that may have difficulties with health issues, homelessness or lack of transportation. Help parents understand that school staff will be monitoring attendance and are available to help families address the barriers, such as transportation and health problems, that might be preventing a child from getting to school.
  • Take a strengths-based approach: Do not assume if a child is chronically absent that it is a signal that parents do not care about the child’s education or attendance. They might care deeply. Ask about what they already do that works.
  • Check for understanding: Help parents connect the dots so they understand the impact of chronic absence on their child’s future success and what it means for how they support the school success of their child.
  • Communicate in the parent’s primary language: Share written materials in the parent’s home language, offering research on the importance of attendance and tips for how parents can ensure students attend school every day.
  • Offer support when needed: Ask parents about what makes it hard to get their child to school. When the issue is difficulties with transportation, health, lack of safe paths to school or family illness, parents may not be able to surmount those challenges without the help of someone outside the family. Discuss what would help to reduce the level of absences. Remember that parent engagement is an on-going process, not a one-time event. Creating on-going opportunities for dialogue will encourage parents to work with you.
  • Home visits: Although this might be seen as a last resort, there are occasions when paying a home visit is necessary. This type of approach might be met with hostility from some parents, however if handled correctly, it can pay dividends.

  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit and read his previous articles for SecEd at