Thank you to Jean Gross, author and education expert, for contributing her insights on how to successfully work with parents. Here, Jean shares her nine secrets for effective parental engagement and discusses the importance of putting ourselves in parents’ shoes. Jean shares our belief that for parental engagement efforts to be successful, they must be both enjoyable, and accessible for all families.
The pandemic has brought an enormous amount of learning about how to communicate effectively with parents. If schools now embed this into their ‘business as usual’, we are sure to see significant benefits for children’s attainment and wellbeing. It isn’t always easy, however – particularly where parents live in poverty.
To be sure of reaching all families in this group we need to draw on lessons from brilliant schools that have worked out the secrets of success.
Nine secrets of successfully engaging parents
In my new book Reaching the Unseen Children: practical strategies for closing stubborn gaps in disadvantaged groups, I’ve identified what I think are nine key factors in these schools.
The first secret, which underpins all the others, is properly understanding what life can be like for disadvantaged families.
There is a Native American saying that goes ‘Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.’ I’ve learned the truth of this over many years of jumping to conclusions about people and finding myself wrong.
It is easy to interpret the research on disadvantage and parental support for learning as indicators of inadequacies in parenting. When parents don’t turn up for meetings, we can sometimes assume they don’t care about their children or can’t be bothered.
But all sorts of reasons may prevent them from coming … working a second job, having no-one else to look after the children, lack of the bus fare, lack of confidence or actual fear. When parents did not do well at school themselves, their children’s school is a scary place. So, we need to understand, putting ourselves in parents’ shoes, not judge.
The other secrets of success are:
- Asking families what we can do for them, before telling them what we want them to do for us
- Building trust over time, recognising the effort it can take to build relationships with those living lives where trust has often been abused or absent
- Building parents’ self-efficacy – the sense that they can make a difference to their own futures and those of their children
- Make engagement with school easy and friendly
- Attending to how the school environment looks and feels for different groups of parents
- Communicating with parents in ways that fit their lifestyle
- Speaking families’ language – avoiding education-speak
- Starting with where parents are, not where we want them to be – engaging them in non-threatening activities before building up slowly to ones that focus on the curriculum
Learning with Parents
For me, Learning with Parents ticks these boxes. It has that element of ‘walking a mile in their moccasins’ – understanding that disadvantaged parents have to spend a lot of time just trying to get by, with little spare capacity for reading information from the school or attending events.
It makes helping their child easy, with straightforward activities that use resources readily available around the house. It starts from where parents are, maybe worried their lack of knowledge about how maths is taught in schools these days, or lacking confidence in their own literacy.
Most of all it builds parents’ self-efficacy and confidence, helping them see that they can have some control over what happens to them and their child, rather than being endlessly pushed around by circumstances. This will have lasting benefits beyond the immediate home learning activities, since research shows that self-efficacy is highly predictive of success in life.
What strategies can we use?
Learning with Parents is a great way to achieve real partnership with disadvantaged families. In my book I describe many other strategies schools can use for each of the nine ‘secrets’ – from a mystery shopper walk through the school environment, to rebranding parental engagement events in comfortable language (like an invitation to a ‘Phonics Party’ with balloons and cake, instead of a phonics workshop), to praise postcards and checking when the last bus leaves the bus stop outside the school when scheduling parents’ evenings.
There are also case studies in the book, of those outstanding schools serving very disadvantaged areas, that have succeeded against the odds in winning the trust of their families and making them feel powerful in their children’s learning. It can be done, as Learning with Parents is demonstrating. I would encourage every primary school to get involved.
Find out more about Reaching the Unseen Children: Practical strategies for closing stubborn gaps in disadvantaged groups