Ideas for working with hard-to-reach families

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
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Every school will have some families with which it is difficult to engage, and often these are the families of our more vulnerable learners. Dr Pooky Knightsmith looks at why this might be and offers some practical ideas

Successfully and sustainably supporting vulnerable students will usually involve developing a positive relationship with their families, but this can be easier said than done as the vulnerabilities that mean certain children are at the top of our priority list can be the very same things that make their families harder to reach.

Intergenerational school-based issues

Frequently, where we see a child who is having a challenging time at school, we will find that their parents had similar issues too – I have seen this time and time again on a range of issues including school avoidance, school-based anxiety, challenging behaviour and disengagement or underachievement. This can mean that if we want to support a child to develop a new attitude towards school, we may need to support parents to make that same journey too.

Three ideas for you to try

Break the cycle by supporting the whole family: When we engage with parents and siblings as well as the student in mind, then everybody gains the skills and understanding needed for things to begin to change.

Change the conversation with good news: Hunt for the good and go out of your way to contact parents or carers with good news about the student. The first time you do this may be the first positive communication that the adults in a family have ever had from a school. Consistently leading with the positives will slowly begin to undo any fear or resentment which may have lingered for generations.

Build a trusting relationship as your first priority: Before you make any headway with a family, you will first need to earn their trust. Taking time to create a feeling of safety and familiarity with a family will reap dividends. Make sure you are consistent and reliable and never make promises you cannot keep.

Vulnerable Students Supplement: More advice from Pooky can be found in this free supporting vulnerable learners supplement, published by our sister magazine, SecEd. You can download this 16-page supplement in pdf form from the Knowledge Bank area of the SecEd website:

Who’s hard to reach?

I think it is really important that we take a moment to be curious about our thinking. The term “hard-to-reach” is often applied to those families that we, as a school, struggle to engage with. This places the onus on the families – they are hard for “us” to reach. Flipping this phrase can help inform our thinking and actions: if instead we ask ourselves why our school or college is hard for “them” to reach then we can quickly begin to address and overcome barriers.

Three ideas for you to try

Consider common barriers for disengaged families: As a team, consider the make-up of your harder to reach families and explore whether there are any common barriers that they share; this could be anything but where you see a pattern that is keeping several families away then you have a great starting point for change.

Ask students for their ideas: Look to your students. They can often give you the inside track on why their parents aren’t engaging with you. These conversations can feel pretty brutal, but we can learn a lot about things we can change to better meet the needs of our families.

Meet the families where they are: If you are finding it hard to bring your families into school, consider whether instead you can go to them; this might mean physically meeting them in their home or in a neutral safe space or it might mean making use of the technologies and media they engage with. Maybe your families would be more responsive to SMS or communications via Facebook?

Time well spent?

Over time, a great way to build confidence and engagement with families is to make sure that every time you make a draw on their time that it feels like it was time really well spent. You might do this by sharing resources, simple practical ideas, boosting their confidence or giving them the feel-good factor about their child. Bear this in mind particularly when inviting parents to attend information or training face-to-face or online, but also any time you communicate with parents via email, text etc.

Three ideas for you to try

Have clear learning objectives: You would not dream of running a lesson without a clear aim – apply the same rigour when teaching families. Know exactly what you hope they will get out of the session and work hard to ensure this aim is kept to.

Provide the chance to network: Families often value a chance to ask informal questions and talk to one another. They often learn more from exploring the topic in hand with one another than they do from an information-laden presentation, so be sure to build in time for discussion and questions.

Ask them what they would like to know: Do not assume you know what topics families would like to learn about from you. Instead ask them or ask your students what learning they feel their families would benefit from. It could be even better if you involve students in delivering this learning – that is always a great way to boost parental engagement.

Who do they need you to be?

Imagine what it feels like arriving at your school for the event you have organised as a parent/carer who may feel overwhelmed or be carrying their own baggage about their time at school.

How can you make these families feel at ease and welcome? What do you think might put them off? Put yourself in the shoes of an adult with difficult memories of school and you will see that a teacher in a suit being addressed formally as “Mr Smith” might be a more difficult person to relax and engage with than someone dressed less formally and inviting the same parent to call them Simon. These tiny details can make a huge difference. On the other hand, in some situations, a worried family might feel reassured by an authoritative member of staff who is calm and clearly in control.

Different families need different things from us at different moments. Taking a little time to try to empathise with the specific needs of the families who need us the most can help us to meet their needs well and bridge the gap between school and home.

Three ideas for you to try

Step into the shoes of your families: Always think of things from the point of view of the parent and wonder “who do they need me to be?” and do your best to be that person, just as you would adapt to the needs of their child.

Consider who is the best point of contact: Sometimes families will gel better with a more junior member of staff or one who understands their cultural context better. The most senior person is not always the best person for the job here, think broadly about who might best bridge the gap and build relationships with more vulnerable families.

Names and dress codes matter: Explore with your team how you can strike the right tone at family-facing events. If first names and jeans might make a difference, then they are well worth considering.

A warm welcome

If you are keen to encourage families to better engage with school, ensure that every time they step on-site or engage with you online that they are made to feel really warmly welcomed. How can you ensure that they know that they are welcome here and that you are all on the same team (the team of the child)?

Three ideas for you to try

Having a presence in the playground: The more familiar families feel with you, the more likely they are to engage positively, so simple things like taking a few minutes to chat with parents at pick-up can make a big difference over time.

Follow up after events: If families have gone to the effort to show-up face-to-face or online, let them know that it matters to you, and their child, that they took the time to be there and that they are always welcome in the future.

Identify and address accessibility barriers: Where there are barriers of accessibility or communication, think carefully about how these might be meaningfully overcome. No matter how warm and welcoming we aim to be, if parents cannot understand what we say, or cannot get up the flight of stairs to be greeted by us, our welcome will not have the impact we are aiming for.


Do not try to do all these things at once! Instead consider with your team what might be two or three small sustainable steps you can take towards better engaging with the families of the children most in need of support. You will be surprised how much of a big difference a small, sustained change can make.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via and for her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit

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