Parental engagement: Building strong relations

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

A positive home-school relationship is an important part of helping your new pupils to settle in. The ethos and practice you establish now will be what your parents will come to expect. Suzanne O’Connell identifies some ways of getting these partnerships off to a good start in the new school year

A new school year, new children and new parents. Of course, some parents will already have children at your school but for others these first few weeks and months are crucial in understanding how you work, what you expect and what your future relationship might look like.

There may be tough times ahead. Perhaps there will be occasions where parents may be unhappy because you have turned down an application for a term-time holiday or their child has been sanctioned for something they think they didn’t do. If you have a relationship based on respect, then these blips are more easily overcome.

This is where establishing how you work clearly at the beginning of your relationship is particularly important. You should have clear policies and guidelines expressed in a format that is accessible and meant to be understood. If parents are clear about your behaviour policy and attendance policy, for example, this can avoid later difficulties.

Parents will see through token attempts to win them over and building trust takes time. However, there are ways in which you can quickly demonstrate your readiness to work with and understand your community.

Recruiting from the community

Having at least one person in your team who comes from the local community has a number of benefits. It demonstrates that you respect the community and recognise its worthwhile also ensuring that you have some insightful information about what the issues might be locally.

It can present difficulties for the person who does take on the role, however. You will need to carefully brief the individual about confidentiality and may need to intervene at times when parents do not respect the boundaries themselves. However, it will be worth it. It is a position that needs nurturing, but if you are able to find the right person then this can be a huge step towards getting the home-school relationship right.
Listening to parents
We can easily assume that we know what parents want. Your school should build methods of consulting with parents into annual plans as a matter of course. These might include:
n An annual questionnaire or survey that focuses on a particular area for school improvement.
n An opportunity for parents to attend drop-in sessions where there is chance to share views.
n A member of the senior leadership team taking time every day in the school playground and being approachable and accessible.
n Times when class teachers, year leaders and senior leaders are accessible if a parent has a concern.
n Clarifying who parents can approach with a complaint if necessary.
Let your new parents know the procedures you have in place for listening to them and they will be less likely to store up a small concern until it becomes a big problem. Show parents that you take them seriously by recording what they say, agreeing actions and letting them know the results of these actions.
Understanding your community
Your parents are not a homogenous group and treating them as such will not help you build relationships. As part of your school leadership team activities you might identify some of the different groups that exist and some of the factors that are of particular importance to them.
For example, you might have a number of parents who are newly arrived to the country or who are working for the same employer. Some of their needs might be similar, for example ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes or facilities that help with shift work. Try to consider ways in which you can help these groups to help their children.
Alongside being aware of the group, consider the individual. Parents are most responsive to requests and invitations when they are made on an individual basis and where they feel their children have been selected for special attention.
Inviting a parent to come to their child’s performance is a very good way of engaging with parents. Having refreshments before or afterwards is a way of building on this. Personal invitations to an assembly during a child’s first term demonstrate that you welcome your parents onto school premises and sets the tone for future years.
Keeping positive
You may have children who soon present challenges to your teachers. You will want to quickly establish what the rules and your expectations are. However, it is important to convey positive feedback as well as contacting parents when there is a problem. Parents who are consistently approached by the school because they are having difficulties with their child are likely to become both disillusioned and more distant.
Celebrating the good things, however small they might be, is an important part of developing a sustainable relationship, particularly with parents where regular challenges do occur. Calling a parent to share some good news as well as bad is one option, or sending a note home to convey a positive improvement.

Helping parents to
help their children
Parents with children new to the school are likely to be particularly keen to help them with their work. However, they may feel at a loss sometimes when it comes to knowing how to do this. This can be particularly the case where parents had difficulties themselves at school.
Leaflets, newsletters, portals and even workshops outlining the strategies you use and how parents can back them up can all help to keep parents feeling involved. Class information sent out regularly about topics can be beneficial to those who have the time and inclination.
Support for adults
Provide a time when parents can “drop-in” and be sure that a member of staff will be available to chat and listen in a non-judgemental way. You might advertise this as a coffee morning or club or provide another reason for parents to meet together that also allows them to find opportunity to talk to one another.
Enabling parents to build their own peer network can have a number of benefits. Parents can feel isolated, particularly if they are new to the area and having a strong parent/teacher organisation, self-help groups or volunteers can provide opportunities for those parents to meet others.
Even if you do not have the staff yourself to help parents with some of their difficulties, you can collect information to help signpost them to where support might be available. Notice boards or booklets can contain lists of addresses and contact details against the different issues that they might have.
The Department for Education might consider this all to be peripheral to a school’s work, and, to some extent it is. However, what we all know is that the problems that children encounter at home do not disappear once they enter the school building. Schools reaching out and helping parents where possible sends out positive messages about the relationship.
Five tips for the new school year
Look at the school year from a parent’s point of view:
n Do you have peak times when you are asking parents to attend the school too often?
n How can you spread contact evenly across the year?
n Do the times you offer for different activities take account of different working patterns – i.e. are some during the school day and some in the evening?
n Do you have arrangements for younger siblings when an event is being held? A crèche can go a long way to enabling parents to attend.
n How do you communicate with parents? Does this work and how could it be better? How do you let parents know how to communicate?
Raise awareness and ensure commitment:
n Try to recruit on occasions, from your local community.
n Talk with and listen to community members and seek their views.
n Include parent partnerships in your school planning and meetings.
n Develop understanding among staff of your local catchment and their concerns and strengths.

Consider how you can help parents to help their children:
n What workshops or information could you help supply that will enable parents to support homework, topics and school life generally?
n Look at parents’ needs too – how can you signpost them to support or even help them yourself?
n Consider providing opportunities for parents to help each other, e.g. by forming clubs, helping with drop-ins, etc.

Be accessible yourself and not only when things are going wrong:
n Take time to congratulate.
n Take time to listen.
n Make yourself accessible.

Look at how parents can help your school. Consider:
n What strengths there are in the local community and how you might benefit from these as a school.
n How individuals might help to support the school on a number of levels from running clubs to tidying the library.
n What knowledge about culture and language might parents be able to help with?
For schools stretched to the limit, these suggestions might seem to be simply unrealistic. However, building relationships with parents can have huge benefits for a child’s education and community support can see you through any troublesome times ahead.

• Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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