Developing Relationships with Hard-to-Reach Parents 

Sara Spinks 6 March 2023 4 min read
Developing Relationships with Hard-to-Reach Parents   feature image

Good parental relationships are at the heart of a successful school / academy but how can this be achieved where engagement is a challenge? In this article SSS Learning content author and former headteacher Sara Rawnsley shares her top tips in developing effective relationships with hard-to-reach parents.

Positive parental engagement is a crucial ingredient if pupils are to reach their full potential, academically and developmentally, and it can have a specific role to play when trying to boost attendance too.

Whilst the current research base does not provide any clear conclusions on which specific interventions work to enhance parental engagement, it does point to the principles and characteristics of strategies that schools successful in engaging families from a range of backgrounds have employed.

Common to schools that have been successful in engaging a diverse range of families in education, is a focus on building trusting and collaborative relationships between parents and teachers, a recognition of the different needs among all families, and a persistent belief that no families are unreachable.

More specifically, research also draws out the following effective characteristics:

  • Parental engagement treated as a whole school strategy - not as bolt-on activities.
  • A strategy based on a comprehensive needs analysis which includes input from parents. The strategy is developed based on this and owned by both the school and parents. Through this shared process, mutual priorities are identified.
  • Engagement with parents focused on pupils' learning. While activities and events that bring parents into the school grounds are an important part of school and community life, the most successful strategies are those that concentrate on supporting parents with their child's learning. By actively engaging parents in supporting their child's academic learning, The EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) found a positive impact of an average of 4 months' additional progress, with even more progress if offering more sustained and intensive support for those who need it most.
  • Regular reviews which involve parents. These are used to determine what is and isn't working and build on what is successful.

Top tips for developing effective relationships with hard-to-reach parents:

  1. Know your school community: Each school community is unique. Urban, multi-cultural, rural, economically deprived or affluent, high SEND, FSM, etc. Ask yourself, are you (the organisation) a 'good fit' for the community you serve?

  2. The parent profile: No matter what the background, educational experiences, socio/economic profile of the parents at your school, one thing unites the vast majority of parents - they love and want the best for their children. That 'best' can vary for many reasons. As teachers, we too want the best for the pupils so by making this clear through sharing positive aspects of each child with their parents, we are strengthening this relationship.

  3. Technology & Communication: Many parents work long hours and/or are simply not available to get into school during school hours. You can get around this by allowing parents virtual access to your school. Class blogs highlighting good work done by pupils or a regularly updated website can be a great start. A school website has the potential to be so much more than it often is. Your website should be the central communications hub of your school. Further to this, a school mobile app for parents allows them to access the latest school news and important dates, as well as instant alerts such as an activity being cancelled. This saves time and improves relationships by keeping parents fully aware and informed. Be creative! For example, at the height of the Covd-19 epidemic, I moved from a traditional newsletter to a video which we shared as a link by text message. This was more accessible to the many parents who had English as a second language at my school.

  4. Support workshops: Supporting pupils with their learning at home is paramount but a lot of parents, especially those who may have struggled in school themselves, just do not know where to begin. Some schools run highly successful programmes teaching parents how best to support their children. Offering drop-in workshops during and after-school is a way to bridge the gap, particularly if parents know that their involvement can really make a difference. Whatever you plan, it needs to be informal, inclusive and fun!

  5. Speak their language: With an increasing number of families with English as an additional language, it is worth seeking translation support, perhaps from community leaders or other parents who understand the situation. But, also, it's about our profession having a 'faces for places' mentality; using language and mannerisms which enable your parents to feel included, respected, listened to and seen as the partners in their child's education that they are.

  6. Parents' meetings: For some parents, a parents' meeting can be a dreaded event. They may feel unable to speak to the class teacher on their level, causing deep embarrassment. Having to mix with lots of other parents could make them uncomfortable, particularly if the school intake has a wide socio-economic range. If you identify and remove many of the uncomfortable aspects, they are far more likely to attend. I made our parents' evenings a social gathering with a café, stalls selling items or demonstrating crafts, a fashion show, play equipment, it was great fun!

  7. What do THEY want? This may seem an obvious question but is often omitted. You might find asking this question opens up a continuing, positive dialogue with hard-to-reach parents, simply because no one else has ever bothered to ask them before.

  8. Unpleasant memories of school: Many parents can be reluctant to engage with their child's school because they have such difficult memories of their own time at school. Sometimes holding informal, fun events aimed at bringing parents into school can help to bridge the gap.

  9. Not just for problems: Many parents wouldn't dream of contacting the school unless there was an issue with their child. Again, this barrier can only be broken down by trying to address the ethos of home-school communications. Parents need to be helped to understand that even when their child is doing very well, they can be instrumental in driving that achievement further. I encouraged all my staff to do this daily, either face to face or by a phone call home or postcard. This action means the day you may need to have a conversation that's not so positive, parents are more likely to be supportive.

  10. Avoid the jargon! Even those parents who are fluent in English can have trouble understanding some communications from the school. Always think carefully when communicating with parents and ensure that you do not use the jargon or acronyms that you might use with your colleagues without thinking.

  11. Being visible every day: Being at the school gates at both drop-off and pick-up, chatting with parents and getting to know them, has a really big effect on developing relationships. I found that many issues were often resolved much more quickly and easily by having those informal chats. It was also a great way of initiating conversations with less engaged parents, sometimes just a friendly smile and 'hello'.

In conclusion, we need to be committed to identifying our hard-to-reach parents and persist in including them in their child's education for the benefit of pupils, the school and the school community as a whole. If hard-to-reach groups resist, the message from successful school leaders is clear - don't give up, keep trying to canvas opinion and keep inviting them, even if they turn you down.

The key is to plan ahead and to involve all staff, so that everyone is delivering the same message: that parent involvement and engagement are highly valued. Positive collaborative working in the variety of ways described earlier can bond parents to the work of the school through a sense of belonging and ensure that successful schools are those where parental engagement is at the centre of the school ethos as opposed to being at the periphery.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher

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