Building relationships with the families of the children you teach is imperative if you expect parents to support their children and the school. Communication with parents and caregivers must be a responsibility for all school staff. No one designated role or person can be expected to do that alone, nor should they. Talking with parents and caregivers is not a specialist skill; it is just part of being a community member focusing on learning and well-being. Our work with school reception staff tells us that they often feel frustrated that their role in supporting and welcoming parents to school is undervalued. Frequently having to ‘deal with’ aggressive and confrontational parents is the reason most often cited as to why schools seek training for their front of house staff. However, the problem is not lack of training. Office staff usually live in and understand the school’s community and have great interpersonal skills and good relationships with parents. The aggression and confrontation usually arise because appropriate and open lines of communication do not exist for concerns to be dealt with before they escalate. A useful school website will be easy for parents to navigate and easy to read with acronyms and ‘Edu-language’ explained or not used. A good newsletter will be regular and relevant. Think about the purpose and the audience, and remember that consistency is key. If you’re sending it out by email, check how often it is being opened and read and by whom. Information boards should be placed in areas of the school that parents have easy and frequent access to. Think about the audience, what is being communicated, and how often the information is changed. Have a focus and stick to it; if parents know what information they can find and where they will look for it. Letters are used less these days but are still important and sometimes necessary. Your letters should be clear, concise, and written in an appropriate language and tone. Make it clear where parents should go if they don’t understand the content and don’t make it the only way you communicate important information or something you need a response to. Emails and texts are an easy and expected form of communication. Although not without cost, they can allow schools to see who has responded. Make sure they contain clear, concise information, especially if you are asking parents to carry out a specific action. Telephone calls are used much less often. Time commitments and lack of resources are the most-cited reasons for this, but fear and risk are barriers that are hugely unacknowledged… by both staff and parents. Address these fears and work to reduce the risks. In place of face to face contact, the telephone is your best tool for making positive connections. Face to face contact is the best form of communication. A quick chat on the playground before or after school makes parents feel that staff are accessible and is reassuring; make space for this wherever possible. Be open, honest and approachable, but be clear about your availability and boundaries. Building positive relationships with your parents will pay off tenfold. A school app offers a whole host of communication possibilities. Make sure you fully investigate all its features and, before you invest in one, make sure it has the facility for parents to share the learning that is happening at home. A good App can help make things simple by keeping everything in one place and reducing the costs associated with having multiple apps; parents are more likely to stay engaged and up to date if they only need to check in once. PEN recommends Weduc. Parent consultations are evolving, but the long-needed change has been expedited by COVID-19 and is not happening in the planned way it needed to. Often resented by all parties, parents’ evening saw parents and teachers commit a whole evening for just five tired, hungry, rushed minutes together. Frequently there was time only for teachers to relate academic progress with little opportunity for meaningful engagement. Now, we have to change. Utilise all your tools for planned and targeted communications with opportunities that will be beneficial to all parties. The traditional format of a school information evening of teachers talking and parents listening is another area to make change. At PEN, we advocate the Model, Mentor, Coach approach. Bring your parents into school (physically or virtually) and let them experience the learning to understand better how to support their child. Communication is a two-way street, and the correct tools are needed. Other than these practical tools that schools can employ, there needs to be a bedrock of good personal communication. Everyone connects differently, and we cannot always control the way others receive and process the information we give them. With self-awareness and practice, and a whole-school approach to parental engagement, improvement can be made in presenting and sharing information and listening better to what others are saying. If you want more information on our model for change and how you can implement it at your school, come and join our network.
A parent’s perception of home learning will very much depend on what phase of education their child is in. In the Early years’ and foundation stage, play based home learning is inclusive, exciting and fun. It is also, for the most part, easily facilitated and supported by parents. All parents want their child to do well, to thrive and achieve, academically and in life, and it is at this time more than any other during a child’s education, that parents have the confidence and resources to engage with their child’s education. If this enthusiasm is harnessed, and an explicit link between the learning that happens at home and school explained and built upon, foundations are set for parents to engage in their child’s learning and development for the future. Sadly, all too often this opportunity is missed. Either by schools who eschew play-based family centred homework for a more academic focus, or by parents who don’t necessarily understand or see the value of apparently ‘simple’ activities and so don’t prioritise playing actively with their child. Up to the point of starting school or nursery parents have largely been their child’s main and often only educator. Both schools and parents need to recognise how much learning has already taken place prior to this point. This needs to be talked about and celebrated as the family learning unit expands to teachers and school staff. Instead of developing partnerships to support learning, more typically, the teaching baton gets handed quickly and firmly over to the school. Parents very much take the lead from school in terms of teaching and learning. Many parents of primary school age children report positively about the experience of having regular contact with a member of staff who knows their child well, but some parents quickly lose their confidence in their ability to support their child’s learning. Overwhelmed by the language of the curriculum and learning…phonics remains a mystery to many parents! This is the perfect time therefore, to acknowledge and support the role of all parents in their child’s learning and establish the foundations for a parent-school learning partnership that needs to endure throughout the child’s entire schooling journey. But often this doesn’t happen. Instead, we frequently hear teachers’ frustrations saying parents are not supporting their children and then the opposite, of parents clamouring for homework and teachers setting homework just because parents want it. Parents then complaining about homework that is too challenging, too easy, too much, too little and of course the cost and time implications of providing costumes/equipment/ingredients. But listen closely and what you hear is parents asking to be engaged in their child’s learning, and teachers valuing parents input and support. What is missing is the connection, the communication, the knowledge and understanding of how to work effectively together to support learning. Schools are often under the misapprehension that their parental engagement is good because they have an active PTA, good attendance at events and plenty of parent volunteers for activities. And of course, this kind of support is fantastic for schools. But at best it is parental involvement in school life, and not an opportunity that all families can access. It is vital that every parent has the opportunity, knowledge, understanding and skills to support their child’s learning. As children move through school and become more independent, the often-daily contact with teachers appropriately disappears, but this is also the time when there is an increased lack of understanding and parental confidence about how to support their children. Homework gets ‘harder’ and as anxiety about the pressure to perform and meet academic targets increases. This can lead to increased stress at home spiralling quickly into a what we hear frequently described as a daily ‘battle’ around homework souring all other essential opportunities for conversation and learning. Add to this that the language used by teachers becomes increasingly riddled with educational jargon, unexplained learning acronyms and ‘new teaching methods’ and the gap becomes ever wider still. Overwhelmingly when parents are asked what they want for their children it is for them to be happy, to do their best and have friends and we know that teachers value the importance of this too. Opening two-way channels of communication and building effective learning partnerships, committing to their maintenance will go a long way to ensuring all children are supported both at home and in school to meet their full potential. Join the Parental Engagement Network for resources and support to better engage your parents in their child’s learning.
Learning is naturally self-directed. It happens at an individual level, and is enabled and supported by our family, friends, neighbours and wider community. Learning experiences are available to everyone, us humans are naturally curious, constantly wondering and asking questions, and there are many opportunities for us to explore and to find out, both on our own and together. And this is what we mean when we talk about family home learning here at PEN. Learning is often thought of as something that happens as a result of formal teaching; something that we must achieve e.g., to learn the times tables. Yet, before we even begin the first part of our educational journey, we have already learned so much. From the minute we are born, we have been learning, taught by our first educators… our families. And every opportunity and experience we encounter in these first years sets the foundations for much of what and how we will subsequently learn. When school starts, learning can soon lose its organic playful context and we are suddenly bound by an agenda outside of our control. All too quickly a family’s only acknowledged experience of learning is reduced to resentfully and stressfully completing set homework tasks. Making time for this at the expense of important family time leads, too often, to anxieties and negative feelings that can then become associated with all formal learning – difficult to reverse and stressful for all parties, teachers included! If we only accept that teaching and learning is something that happens within a set programme of study delivered by teachers to pupils between the hours of 9.00 to 4.00, we are significantly underestimating the role that families and the wider community can have in enhancing the learning experience. By rethinking the way we approach learning, to exploit the natural capacity of families, teachers can begin to build productive and supportive partnerships where information flows back and forth, rather than the one way street we are used to. So how does that happen? The world around us is an exciting place, with infinite opportunities for teaching and learning. Families facilitate learning through these organic opportunities every day, almost without being aware of it. For instance, watching or listening to a news item together, talking about it, allowing opinion, asking questions, checking facts and looking up information are powerful tools for learning. Particularly when involving the whole family who all have different experiences and who may have lived through different times. There doesn’t have to be a consensus, nor do all the facts have to be known or understood. What is important here is the awareness of the existence of knowledge, the thirst to know more and the gathering of tools to find out. Some of our fondest memories are often of learning how to do something with a family member. Whether it’s tying shoelaces, kicking a football, planting vegetables or making a favourite family dish, research states that a collaborative style of learning between children and their families can help develop their knowledge as well as linguistic and social skills. Children themselves view collaboration as a valuable learning strategy, particularly when appropriately structured and organised. The experience of doing this together is not just the learning of a task, but also the learning to learn. By connecting the accomplishment to a happy moment in time, learning becomes a positive experience. This blog post is the second in a series addressing the recent legal requirement to provide remote learning to any student who cannot attend school due to COVID-19, and also to promote a wider discussion on parental engagement in learning. Find out more, and access our unique, curriculum based Family Home Learning Sheets by becoming a PEN member. Members enjoy many other benefits including: a wide range of resources covering Early Years up to secondary schools, a network of similar schools, opportunities to pilot new resources as well as priority when booking PEN training or applying for funded projects. Find out more at penetwork.co.uk or join the conversation with us on Twitter, facebook and Instagram @PENetworkUK.