Boosting parental engagement really matters, new research finds

| 22 Oct 2019

Subscribe to our newsletter

AMY GRAHAM for Education HQ

Read full article here

What does the research say about how schools and families can build partnerships that best support children to reach their full potential? Let's look at the evidence.

Educational leaders, parents, teachers, and broader society all share the same goal in wanting to see children reach their full potential.

The way this is done in the school years is through all stakeholders working together. In this article, I will synthesise some of the key findings from my doctoral research, entitled Getting ready to succeed at school: Investigating the role of parents that can help your scholarly community to better harness the potential of parents as their child’s first, and forever, teachers.

I urge you to make it a priority because schools can only do so much. Much of a child’s learning potential is predicated upon what has happened at home before entering school, but schools must be ready to accept children from all backgrounds. Strong partnerships with parents make our work lighter and children will likely experience greater educational success and fulfillment.

The project at a glance

In this mixed-methods project, I consulted 120 parents and 52 teacher-parent pairs about their experiences in preparing their child for school and teacher views on how these children had adjusted to the first months of school. I found unique dimensions of ‘parent capacity’ indexed through their preparation behaviours and the beliefs they held about education and their role.

I also conceptualised readiness for school in a non-traditional way, asking teachers to consider the degree to which children are experiencing problems at school entry across a broad array of developmental domains. Most children in my sample were adjusting well to the demands of the school environment. However, teachers were concerned about children’s emotional development, in particular the self-regulation and confidence of new school starters.

I was able to identify predictive relationships between active parental engagement at home and a child’s academic outcomes once at school. While I looked at school entry for this project, what I learnt can be applied to any level of schooling, and is relevant to support families at any point of educational transition.

Make it a priority

The role of boosting parental engagement, and developing family-school partnerships, must be adopted broadly and introduced at a leadership level. You must be bold and implement flexibility and autonomy, using site-specific strategies to work with the families you know so well. 

As busy educators, with increasing workloads, and downward pressure on outcomes-driven practice, it could be easy to put boosting parental engagement on the to-do list that never really ends. But it really matters. Political and policy initiatives are now recognising that parental engagement is the new benchmark to forecast children’s educational outcomes, and that early engagement delivers the greatest benefit to a child’s learning trajectory.

For some educators, working hand-in-hand with families might feel onerous and will require a re-think of their practice. However, you can support your staff with a school policy on welcoming parents and building bi-directional partnerships, which is followed through with programmatic and practical changes that demonstrate this to parents. If it is a burden beyond your capacity, you could arrange an information session, and invite a researcher to interpret and deliver the research and translate the key messages in building strong partnerships for staff and families.

Get the jump and start early

Many researchers have argued that parents are more likely to invest time in their child’s learning, collaborating with relevant professionals in the early years, hence the focus of my sample. Ninety-three per cent of parents in my project saw education as a responsibility best shared between parents and teachers. Supportive, bi-directional partnerships must be forged early, as soon as you know you have an incoming cohort of parents.

Many parents involved in my research expressed a feeling of being distant and removed from the transition process and alarmingly, some even felt unwelcome – an outcome that can, and certainly should, be avoided. When transitioning programs were used, or opportunities offered to become familiar with the school, parents reported feeling positive about the process. Where such opportunities were not made available though, hesitations and concerns prevailed.

The alacrity with which parents engaged in these programs and opportunities, when available, and their high level of praise for them is indicative of the value placed upon them. The quality of transitioning programs varied though, from a solitary visit to a year-long weekly program, so families were not equitably benefitting from the support that such programs can offer. So you can involve families in the 
school community through a consistent, widely accessible transitioning process when preparing to start school, or even a new class for the following year.

This is not to say that we cannot start again with disengaged families and indeed, there is no definitive age at which family involvement should start or end. Rather, it is a dynamic process that should evolve as the child’s learning journey progresses. However, all available evidence supports the position that it is far easier to engage parents from the outset, giving them a seat at the table from the beginning.

Encourage play between parent and child

The pressure for a child to fit into the school system can be detrimental and all children need opportunities for play. Experts such as Professor Pasi Sahlberg lead the call for change in the power of play as a key foundation of lifelong learning, and it is ludicrous to think of children being denied the opportunity to play at home. Fortunately, in my research, this message was not lost. Almost all parents provided a wide range of learning materials and toys for their child to play with, while others reflected on their efforts to engage in unstructured play with their children. But I wonder if this is continued as the children grow, and the pressure on children to meet standards increases? Even with older children, parents should be encouraged to give them space and time to explore their environment free of formal learning. Better still, parents should be encouraged to use these opportunities to play with their child, and see them as a vehicle to engage with their child’s intrinsic interests and have conversations.

Reassure parents that they don’t have to be a teacher to help their child succeed

Educationalists have developed higher expectations of parents and families to ‘ready’ their children for school and equip them with academic and learning values and behaviours at home. Many parents feel concerned that they lack the intellectual ability, time, resources, or knowledge about how to do this, yet feel pressure to be a super parent, doing double time on the tutoring and overscheduling of extra-curricular activities, to ensure their child’s success.

Parental resources are finite and ever more stretched. The great news that you can share with parents is that they do not need a teaching degree to be an effective partner in their child’s learning journey. Simply spending time with a child, creating a stimulating home environment, accepting that they have a role to play in supporting their child’s education and holding high but realistic values and expectations for their child’s success are exactly what parents need to be doing.

Most parents I spoke to just wanted their child to be happy at school, and receive a well-rounded, holistic education. They were not overly concerned with the academic achievement of their child, certainly in the early years at least. Furthermore, my research did not find any evidence that those parents who engaged with their child in cognitively stimulating activities fared any better when they arrived at school.

Reading, however, is always important. Almost every parent I interviewed involved their child in shared reading and the survey data supported that parents are highly engaged in literacy-related preparation activities, and value the acquisition of literacy skills and knowledge. Never discourage this, but do encourage parents to engage their child in other activities that might be more incidental, such as conversations about world events, cooking together. On the other hand, virtually no parent engaged in numeracy-related activities, so perhaps this is an area that parents lack confidence in helping their child with and can be supported to increase.

Start with understanding and empathy

In all dealings with parents, it is important to recognise that they are coming to these interactions with prior experience, and often prejudice. Many views of parent engagement evolve around privileged middle-class values, which are not necessarily inclusive of all families. Families are not homogenous groups of people and for a gamut of reasons, parents vary in their capacity to engage with their child’s learning.

These factors have shaped the values, expectations and aspirations that they hold and the relationship they have with educators. If their only dealings with schools are negative, we need not look hard at why they be seemingly suspicious and fearful of engaging with us.