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Parental engagement: How can schools get the balance right?

We are all familiar with the predictive relationship between parent engagement and student achievement. There is a wealth of evidence and collated best practice principles. However most of the time striking the right balance of how much to engage and communicate with parents can be tricky.

As a learning consultant at Firefly, I have worked with a range of schools who deal with parental engagement differently. Some still do everything by paper but see the possibilities that digital tools offer.  Others have invested in digital communications extensively and are trying to make sure they don’t overshare. Your school probably falls somewhere along this spectrum.

For a teacher, how do you practically communicate with a wide spectrum of parents — those that want up-to-minute updates and those that just want end-of-term reports and the school’s start and end times? Based on my experiences, a couple of context-driven questions rise to the top.

What kind of communication do your parents want?

I found parental engagement tough in my first teaching post. In hindsight, there were a lot of factors at play that I had barely started to grasp as a new teacher. Many families did not have english as their first language which created a complex dynamic for effective parent communications. 

In an attempt to improve parental engagement, the school mandated that teachers met with all parents during each round of parents’ evenings. Yes, all of them. I taught at a medium size school, but I still had 120 students.  That is a lot of ten minute conversations to prepare. 

By the end of the week, we were required to submit a record of an attempted phone call to reschedule for any parents who didn’t show. The intent was right even if the application was a bit misguided.

I should also highlight the grassroots communications around the school. Throughout the year, some of my colleagues sent home monthly newsletters that students had to bring back with a parent signature. Others made a point to call three families after school each day. Part way through the year, I tried creating a webpage that students and parents could access from their phones.

I reflect on it now and wonder: how did my students’ parents want to be contacted? What information mattered the most to them? What would make it easier for them to access information without overburdening teachers?

  1. Firstly we need to consider which communication methods will they really use? Most schools have often got email addresses and phone numbers on file and we know eighty some percent of adults use social media. Most have smartphones and can access parental apps. We’ve got no shortage of options. It’s just a question of what deserves school time and money.
  2. Then we need to look at what information matters most to your school’s parents? How regularly do they want access to it? You’ve already got a sense of the basics — permission forms, reports, and the rest. All of this is statutory.  However, you may be surprised by what your parents prioritise. They may rank things a bit differently than you.

Put another way, the question is: what information is going to have the greatest impact on student achievement? Perhaps access to students’ grades and feedback will create the right environment for students to achieve a little bit more. When parents can be involved earlier in their child’s learning journey, everyone can help the student take the right steps to get back on track or push themselves a little further. The trick is finding the right amount of information to ensure that everybody can be involved.

The right starting point may be gathering an up to date picture of your parents communications needs and preferences. Once you’ve got that, you can let that data drive your decision making. 

How many platforms does your school need?

My most recent schools perhaps rings truer to the vast majority of schools. Parent engagement ran the gambit. We had a website, social media feeds, paper letters sent home, etc. Parents could log on to our VLE, but the parent app wasn’t very good. There was also the MIS for attendance records and the markbook software’s parent portal.

Given my prior experiences, I appreciated the active approach the school took when communicating with parents. Each year, the school sent out a survey in order to gauge current parent experience among other things. Periodically, leadership refined the communication strategy in response. There was a strategy for me to follow but it also complicated my work sometimes. 

Parents who wanted a lot of communication certainly had a lot of options; however, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to ring the school to ask where they could find a particular bit of information. Occasionally, I would even find myself fielding an email from a parent about where to find something. The process of collating relevant information for a parent meeting from across the range of systems could be time consuming too.

On some level, this kind of complexity has and will continue to persist for schools. Schools employ a constellation of tools ranging from school-wide to class-specific. How do you attempt to find the right balance?

I think it comes down to structure like a number of aspects in education. If parents regularly contact the school about basic information on the website, there is probably a problem with how the information is being organised and made available. If Twitter announcements are not seen by parents, it may not be a relevant channel. What platforms mean the most to all of your parents?

What time can you and your team regularly dedicate to meaningful communication? What communications tools are going to connect with parents? Consider your opportunities to get the most out of few well and regularly used tools. Complexity in education is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be intractable. 

So, what next?

I worded the two guiding questions purposefully — what makes sense for your school and parent community? All of the best practice will only get you so far if it isn’t married to some inside knowledge of your unique school. If we treat student achievement as the summative assessment, the rest of it (i.e. parent logins, social media engagement, event turn out, etc) is just formative: low stakes and best when used to adapt for current needs. 

Perhaps the first step is to just start by gathering the collective wisdom of your staff and parents to understand what they want from your school’s communication strategy. Maybe it’s time to take inventory of your communication tools and evaluate their impact. It won’t sort out overnight or even over a few weeks.  But I have found that best practice is often continued practice.

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