Research shows that parents have a significant impact on their children's educational achievements.
In fact, parental engagement overrides all other factors that have been shown to influence a child's achievement. It is therefore critical that teachers and parents develop effective relationships to bridge student learning between home and school.
While many teachers report feeling ill-equipped to establish collaborative relationships with parents, there are several strategies that can be employed to strengthen these ties. (Doecke et al, 2008).
In today's article, Kate Perkins, a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), discusses the benefits of effective teacher-parent relationships, how to get reluctant parents involved in the classroom, and how to best manage parent-teacher interviews.
The benefits of effective teacher-parent relationships
There are many opportunities for parents and teachers to communicate. While face-to-face contact is ideal, there are myriad other platforms that can be used to send messages and share information.
When it comes to understanding which avenue works best for engaging parents, Perkins says you've got to really understand your parent body and the social context that you're working in.
This begins, she says, by examining your own values and beliefs, as well as your assumptions about the role of parents in their child's education. ‘I think there are some longstanding traditional expectations about how all of that works – about where the power sits, and about who is in control and why – and as long as you don't examine those yourself, then you're probably not going to get very far to be honest.'
Research shows that teachers need to think about the language they use with parents, as well as the channels that they use (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003).
‘The more formal the interactions or things that go home, the more alienating it can be for the very parents that you'd like to engage with,' Perkins says.
Building meaningful relationships (including with parents who aren't actively involved)
Perkins says that teachers should always be striving to make parents feel welcome to visit the school and facilitate discussions. But, it is important to remember that just because a parent isn't actively involved in the school, it doesn't mean they aren't interested in their child's education. ‘The research shows that it is actually quite possible to have a situation where parents have very little to do with the school and still do a really good job of engaging with their children at home and helping them with their learning.'
It is therefore crucial that a teacher does not jump to conclusions as to why a parent is not active, she adds. ‘I know having been a teacher that it's very easy to make the assumption that it means they don't care and the research will suggest that that is very seldom true.'
There are several reasons why a parent may not be active, including the fact they may have work commitments, or have other children to look after, or simply may not be available when the teacher is available (Feuerstein, 2000).
‘The research would suggest that there are a number of parents who start off with high aspirations for their children but gradually disengage, partly because the schools don't talk a language they understand, because they have poor experiences themselves with school and they find them frightening places to go to…'
Building meaningful relationships with parents is often much more difficult for secondary school subject-based teachers than primary school teachers. But Perkins notes that she has heard of several schools that actively set assignments that involve parents in their child's learning.
‘It's not parents supervising homework, but it might be the student interviewing parents or family members to find out something or taking something home and demonstrating it to them and getting feedback on what they're doing.'
Parent-teacher interviews – how to get the most out of them
Before an interview: Perkins says traditional parent-teacher interviews are ‘perfectly designed to make sure you can't build relationships under any circumstances'.
She says it's important to remember that these 10 or so minutes are not an opportunity for you to give parents a lecture, but instead a time to let parents take the lead and bring up issues they'd like to discuss. ‘First of all ask yourself, depending on where you are with that parent or if you've ever met them before, what do you want to come out of this conversation? I don't think we always stop and think about that.'
The researcher suggests that teachers really think about how they are going to organise the interview to ensure they're not the person in control driving the agenda.
Teachers should ask themselves: ‘What are the three questions you could ask that are going to be the most important and will tell you what you need to know and will perhaps help the other person to feel comfortable to talk to you?'
Starting from this base, Perkins believes this will help to establish a relationship that continues on well into the future. ‘They'll take a positive phone call from you or they'll get a note home and they'll go, “oh that was that teacher” and “I can talk to her” or “I can talk to him”.'
During the interview: Perkins says a teacher should be armed with some very specific feedback about students and they certainly should be focusing on their strengths. ‘It doesn't mean that there can't be an area that you want to talk about clearly but it needs to be couched in those terms that show that you know something about their child, that you care about their child, and that you want to find out more about their child – because they'll know a lot of things you'll never know.'
On timing, she says: ‘You need to challenge any notion that such a conversation happens in 10 minutes with 17 other people waiting to get through. …You need to schedule it for long enough to show that you actually value the conversation that you're having, the fact they've found the time to talk to you, that you want to give them time to relax enough to talk to you – all of those things become important.'
When addressing problem behaviour or negative issues regarding a student, it pays to be sensitive in the way you broach this with parents. Perkins says that while it may seem obvious, only contacting a parent when their child does something wrong immediately establishes an unproductive relationship.
After an interview: If you agree with parents to try some new strategies, it is important that you arrange a follow-up discussion and adjust them if need be. This should happen fairly quickly and you should ensure that you take good notes to help you to prepare for this discussion. ‘It means that next time you talk to them … you can refer back to something and so again they will know that you have paid attention and that you're building on that.'
She suggests it's also a great idea for teachers to send a quick thank you to parents for coming to interviews. ‘I think it's possible to work out your own ways of doing things in your own classroom, even if they're not part of the whole school's approach to reporting.'
Desforges, Charles, and Alberto Abouchaar. The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: A literature review. Vol. 433. Nottingham: DfES publications, 2003.
Doecke, B., Parr, G., North, S., Gale, T., Long, M., Mitchell, J., ... & Williams, J. (2008). National mapping of teacher professional learning project: Final report.
Feuerstein, A. (2000). School characteristics and parent involvement: Influences on participation in children's schools. The Journal of Educational Research, 94(1), 29-40.
Perkins, Kate. (June 2015) 'Parents and teachers working together', Research Developments, ACER. http://rd.acer.edu.au/article/parents-and-teachers-working-together
How do you go about scheduling your parent-teacher interviews? Do you provide a variety of meeting times to increase the likelihood of parents being able to attend?
What strategies do you employ to get more parents to be actively involved in the classroom? What has worked well? What have been the challenges you’ve faced?