Is your parental engagement a fallacy?

Adrian Burt

Adrian Burt is dad to two Primary school children, and is the founder of MarvellousMe. MarvellousMe is an exciting way for schools to enrich parent communications, by focusing home news on learning, school rewards and learning behaviours. Conceived from his frustrations as a once-disengaged parent, MarvellousMe has been quickly taken up by 600 schools, with the average engagement rate of 9/10. Built with positivity at its heart, it appeals to even the hardest to reach families. Contact Adrian via Adrian@marvellousme.com.

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Image credit: Flickr // innovationschool. Image credit: Flickr // innovationschool.

Everyone agrees: children do better when their parents show an interest in their school activities, help their learning, and praise their achievements. Attendance increases, children’s motivation is higher, and classroom behaviour, happiness and outcomes all improve. It’s no wonder that parent engagement is a key school priority, and a select intervention to help close the gap for disadvantaged children. So how are some schools getting it so wrong?

Schools invest a lot of time and money trying to find, and implement, the most effective and efficient method to reach parents. They seek to do this without adding to teachers’ workload, in ways that can be sustained across the whole school.

The challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that there is no single set of parents to whom schools can appeal. Schools need to reach “Messages were too often about organisational matters.”everyone - mums, dads, grandparents, carers... Moreover, they need to engage families from differing demographics; with varied language, reading and technical skills; those who are working or separated; those who can’t visit school often or are perhaps disillusioned about school; those who might perceive teachers negatively, or who are just disinterested in their children’s education.

Unfortunately, lots of people still see the school’s gate as a cosmic shift in responsibility; wholly passing on the baton of their children’s development and wellbeing.

A range of communication channels exists to help schools to keep parents better informed. It’s rare to see a school that doesn’t use a mix of newsletters, social media, websites and blogs, learning platforms, letters, emails, texts and app-based systems to communicate with parents. That’s a minefield of pros and cons to navigate in its own right.

But here’s the problem. I write this as a once-disengaged dad whose children’s school used all of the above well. However, I never knew what my son had done during the day, what all the desired learning skills and values were, or what he was being praised for.

Yes, his school’s communications were plentiful. However, messages were too often about organisational matters, kit, trips and money reminders, or requests for volunteers and fundraising. Little-to-no communications covered what was happening with my child’s learning. Even occasional parent meetings felt more like a tick-in-the-box, assuming I could leave work early enough to attend them.

Little inspired me. Nothing really engaged me, nor helped me to feel part of my son’s education. As a result, he might have thought that I wasn’t interested in his schooling, or, perhaps even worse, that I viewed school negatively, having no collaboration with his teacher or headteacher.

When you look at Parent View results across the country, you find parents regularly stating that they do not receive enough valuable information about their child’s progress. I imagine that’s hard for schools to hear, especially after everything they try.

My own personal frustration was deepened by the fact that, as most parents testify, trying to ask my child directly did little to demystify what was happening at school. Asking a child directly about their school day, with nothing to go on beyond the occasional ‘Well Done’ sticker, is hopeless. The shoulder shrug, “Stuff”, “Nothing”, or a similarly meaningless answer an all-too-common response.

So, here’s the conundrum simplified:

  • Parent engagement and involvement is really important, but difficult to achieve school-wide and with all types of parents.

    So:

  • Schools invest a lot of time and money trying to communicate with parents, through different channels.

    Yet:

  • Many parents still struggle to have basic conversations with their children about their school day, let alone practise what’s been taught in class, or celebrate and reinforce their children’s success.

The solution is easier than you think!

1. Content is king.

Schools need to think more about content of communication, not just the channel of communication. Yes, classroom reminders and general school messages are necessary and important, but focus needs to shift to making it easy for families to talk about their children’s learning, as well as including parents much more in their school rewards schemes, core values and target learning behaviours.

The foundation to getting better parent involvement is just to provide very simple answers to their everyday questions, like:

“What did you do at a school today?”
“What’s the certificate or sticker for?”
“Have you got any messages or homework?”

The resulting home dialogues will show children that their parents are interested and motivated in learning, and proud of their accomplishments; this will inspire greater home support. I know that first hand, familiar with the difference it makes.

2. Be positive. Make them smile.

Everyone loves good news. It’s the best way to get someone’s attention and break down even the hardest of barriers. Just think of what an impact it will have when you tell a parent with low self-esteem how marvellous their child’s achievement is. When you tell someone something good, they respond positively. A positive attitude is infectious, and will help to foster a positive dynamic at home.

A great way to do this is to surprise parents. Not every day, but regularly. Send them a learning newsflash, or tell them that you’ve just praised their child for their ‘never-giving-up’ attitude, or the like. It will make them smile and feel proud, likely to generate a “Well done you!” from the parent to their child after school. If the child knows that you’ve told their parents the good news in real-time too, the impact will be magnified and that important teacher-parent-child triangle fortified.

Some teachers might try to do this with a phone call home, or by email, but you can make it more high-impact, and quicker, with an app notification. Even sending it to more than one family member at the same time, or separated parents. We live on our smartphones, so it's the perfect channel to share exciting news as it happens.

Of course, there are times that schools need to communicate less positively. But not to alter the slant of this article, I think most agree that this should really be done through a face-to-face discussion, or 1-2-1 call. Any other way risks misinterpretation and possible confrontation, or even children being taken unfairly to task.

3. Be personal.

“We learned to do column addition today.”
vs
Billy learned to do column addition today.”

A tiny difference, but a big hit with the parent reader!

The problem with most school communications, even when they deliver valuable news about learning, is that they lack personalisation. Social media, websites, class blogs, newsletters and the like fall into this territory by design. If a message doesn’t feel special to the parent, the chances of it getting their attention, being read and having any lasting recall are vastly diminished.

All this isn’t to say that teachers need to spend a lot of time writing individual messages. I know that teachers’ time is continually being stretched. In Primary school classes, children tend to do the same learning activity together. Therefore, teachers can quickly send the same message to everyone, or praise multiple children at the same time, with just a few taps. Let the technology do the hard work, automatically personalising your message, making it feel unique for each parent.

A noteworthy scenario of this is when teachers send an e-postcard home as part of a plenary session, writing it with the class on the big screen to reinforce their learning. Naturally, the children love being involved, as making parents proud is a strong intrinsic motivator. It doesn’t need to be every day, just a couple of times a week.

4. Make it regular, consistent and keep it going.

The next challenge is to have a consistent approach school-wide and to keep it sustained. All too often, schools leave parent communication “A positive attitude is infectious.”in the hands of individual teachers. This means that parents get disparate experiences as children move through the years, or if they have more than one child at the school in different classes. The best practice is for leaders to implement an approach that is easy for everyone to adopt, and to suggest guidelines that clarify to teachers what’s expected, when and how often.

An example policy might be:

  • Ensure that parents receive positive and personal learning-led news at least twice a week.
  • Tell parents whenever you praise their children for a school reward or learning behaviour that warrants home reinforcement. Try to do this fairly and regularly, without missing the ‘invisible’ few children.
  • Keep general classroom messages and reminders positive whenever possible.
  • Thank parents personally and regularly for strong attendance and punctuality, as well as for helping out.

Again, technology helps to keep this effortless for teachers, assistants and office staff, no matter what their IT skill-set. Plus, reply restrictions mitigate teachers being taken off-task or contacted out-of-hours by overzealous parents.

As well as helping to keep everything positive, the latest technical offerings make it easy for school leaders to see how teachers are really engaging parents, and to maintain focus on priority learning areas and school values. With parent engagement being such an important area, I personally see this as a must-have for every SLT. After all, how can you manage something if you can’t measure it?

The blended approach is best.

Truth be told, schools need a mix of communication methods, to offer both valuable learning-led and praise-led news, as well as general school-matter messages. Mixing the two ensures that parents are kept informed and engaged, no longer frustrated with monotonous and impersonal memos home. Parents are already accustomed to using multiple school systems, so there’s no obstacle there. It’s simply about making sure that whatever method you use in your school, the content sparks real engagement and improves the relationship between home and school.

By means of a simple summary, here are some parental engagement checkpoints to consider:

  • Do you help parents to have simple and regular home conversations with their children about school?
  • Are your classroom messages really focused on learning and praise?
  • Do you send a lot of positive news home?
  • Do your messages feel personal to parents?
  • Do you link parent engagement to your improvement plan, learning and behavioural priorities and school rewards?
  • Do you track parent engagement through every class to make sure it’s consistent and sustained?

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