The four pillars of parental engagement

Written by: Justin Robbins & Karen Dempster | Published:
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Now is a pivotal moment to take parental engagement seriously and review our approaches. Justin Robbins and Karen Dempster describe their four pillars of effective practice


There has never been a more important time to build strong relationships with parents, with the child at the centre of everything. Why? Because when schools establish trusted relationships with parents and pupils, children believe that school is important, parents feel trusted, and teachers are supported to teach at their best. Simply – we all achieve more.

Our book The Four Pillars of Parental Engagement examines the four pillars of Knowledge, Environment, Culture and Communication – four critical factors that will help schools to achieve parental engagement.

It takes a long-term plan that is delivered consistently to build parent (and pupil) relationships and trust and this is central to any meaningful connection. These cannot be built over night. But there are many simple actions that schools can take to start on this journey.

First, let us acknowledge that the parent, school and pupil relationship is not always an easy one. For example, schools may lack time, resources and expertise in knowing where to start to build their parental engagement plan, let alone make it happen consistently. There will be multiple competing priorities that demand energy.

There may be preconceptions of some parents as “difficult” and potentially not understanding what teachers are trying to achieve. There may be cultural and language barriers. School leaders may not see the opportunities that could be realised by listening to and partnering with parents and pupils.

So where should you start?


Understand your current relationships

Use your school data, such as the attendance rate at parents’ evenings, the level of response when you have asked for parent volunteers, or how responsive parents are to messages requiring action, to understand the kind of relationships that exist with parents at your school. Also consider data that is affected by the levels of parental engagement such as pupil results, behaviour and absences.

Search online to find out what parents are saying about your school, for example in parent forums or your Facebook page. Are parents giving you a completely different message to the one they are posting online, suggesting a lack of trust and openness?


Targeted actions: Listen to teachers, parents and pupils

Listening is often the forgotten part of communication. However, if you can take time to listen to teachers, parents and pupils, you may save yourself a lot of time and effort. By asking questions that help you to understand their concerns and challenges, as well as their motivations and what they care about, schools can focus on areas of action that will have the biggest impact. For example, do parents know what is expected of them to support their child’s learning?

This type of listening can be carried out through focus groups or short surveys. Whatever route you choose, ensure people know that they were listened to and their opinions were valued and ensure you seek further feedback when it is needed.


Articulate the relationship you want and why it matters

Most schools will ask parents and pupils to sign some sort of code of conduct or behaviour “promise” at the start of school life but may fail to explain to parents why their support is so critical, leading to apathy and even ignorance of any promises they may have made previously.

Take time to explain to parents why their support matters and what exactly this looks like.

How you share this information is your first opportunity to demonstrate that you do actually take the relationship with parents seriously. For example, if you tell parents they should listen but send them an email from a “no-reply” email address and have no other obvious means of sharing feedback, you are not really role-modelling the behaviour you would like them to embrace.


Develop goals and ways to measure progress

You need to take a planned approach to get the most out of parental engagement. However, beyond putting parents’ evenings and events in the school diary, it is still traditionally something that is left to chance. Setting measurable goals helps to ensure your overall parental engagement approach is planned and that you will know when you have achieved your targets.

For example, considering one of the four pillars for a moment, you might feel that you need to create a more welcoming online school environment for parents. Actions that you might take to achieve this could be training, listening or consolidation of existing online platforms. You might then measure this by the number of active parents on a specific platform or by direct feedback you collect from them.


Identify what actions you can take to connect

True connection with parents means having well-established pillars of parental engagement – namely knowledge, environment, culture and communication. Take a look at the four pillars self-assessment (see further information) to assess your strengths and weaknesses against the four pillars model. Then consider these examples of actions you may want to take in each area, taken from our book, depending on which pillar(s) you decide to prioritise.

Knowledge: If knowledge is an issue, is it due to a lack of parents understanding their role or not knowing how to make best use of technology or who to contact for support? Could you identify parents who are willing to share their experiences to help other parents to improve their understanding?

Environment: Or maybe you have a great school environment, but parents do not know how to complement this at home. Have you shared examples of what great home environments look like for learning? Think about good habits as well as physical items – it is often the routines and schedules of the school day that create a supportive school learning environment.

Culture: If teachers find it hard to build trust with parents, is it due to cultural barriers? Start by showing parents that you really appreciate their support by finding ways to formally and informally recognise and even showcase when they have done a great job.

Communication: Or possibly there is simply too much or not enough communication and no listening. Put yourself in parents’ shoes and check what you are saying or writing makes sense to them and that you offer them easy ways to share their feedback.


Conclusion

Get the four pillars of parental engagement right and you won’t miss out on this pivotal moment to make a considerable difference to pupils, parents and your school.

  • Justin Robbins and Karen Dempster founded Fit2Communicate in 2015. Their new book The Four Pillars of Parental Engagement: Empowering schools to connect better with parents and pupils (Independent Thinking Press, 2021) is out and available via https://bit.ly/3ADMf0g


Further information & resources

  • Four pillars self-assessment: Check how your school measures up against the four pillars of parental engagement: https://bit.ly/39wX3kw


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