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Parent Engagement: Simple yet game-changing

[This is Story One in our special three-part series on Parent Engagement]

ONE of Australia’s leading researchers on parent engagement says schools inviting parents to be part of their child’s learning journey is “fundamental’’ to successful teaching and learning.

Dr Linda Willis – who taught in primary and middle years classrooms in Queensland schools for more than 20 years, has a PhD in parent engagement, and now collaboratively leads ground-breaking research on the topic – says parent engagement has such a powerful effect on a student’s academic achievement and wellbeing that it should be an essential course in every teacher preparation program.

And Dr Willis says while diverse views exist about what parent engagement is, at its core it’s based on simple principles of respect and trust and can start with thinking of ways to improve the quality of contact and communication between parents and schools.

This involves educators and parents seeing each other as partners in the education of children and respecting one another’s unique knowledges and roles.

“Engagement is bringing parents closer to their child’s learning and schools are best placed to take a proactive role in fostering that,” Dr Willis says.

“Parents are the first and continuing teachers of their children, so it’s important for schools to recognise this and to think of parents in a positive way by asking: ‘How can we help bring what the child is learning at school and what the parent knows about what their child is learning at school closer together?’.

“When schools do that, it’s potentially game-changing.”

Re-framing the approach to parent engagement

In the past, parents were often only invited to participate in schools by volunteering for working bees or helping in the tuckshop.

But over 40 years of research has redefined parent engagement as when parents take a keen interest in what their child is learning at school and then help their child continue and extend that learning through conversations, questions and support.

Research – both in Australia and overseas – shows that when parents are engaged in their child’s learning in this way, the effect on them is overwhelmingly positive.

Students have been shown to do better academically, stay in school longer, be more engaged in their homework, behave better, have better social skills, be more motivated to learn, and go on to higher study.

It has also been shown to add up to two years to a child’s learning achievement and is a better indication of academic success than social-economic status.

What’s working around Queensland?

Dr Willis, a lecturer in Curriculum Studies and educational researcher at The University of Queensland (UQ), is a chief investigator on two current research projects.

The first is in Catholic Education schools, funded for two years by a UQ Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty Partnership Funding Scheme grant, which is investigating engaging parents in inquiry curriculum.

The second research project is in Queensland state schools and funded for three years by the Department of Education’s Education Horizon grant scheme. It is investigating what techniques are being used by principals and schools identified as effective in parent engagement around the state.

She says schools that are “knocking it out of the park” in terms of parent engagement are often doing simple, practical things, but they all come from a place of deep understanding of parents and the communities in which their schools are situated.

“One regional school that identified parent engagement as an area for improvement found that having school leaders and teachers focus on approachability has created more trusting relationships with parents,’’ Dr Willis says.

“Part of this has been creating a parent engagement room with comfortable lounge chairs, a coffee machine, microwave and school resources which has encouraged parents – especially parents who do shift work – to linger after morning drop-off and network with parents and school staff – enabling lots of powerful connections.

“This same school has looked at consistent practices of communication. All the teachers now send out a ‘week ahead’ newsletter at the same time each week, the principal uses text messages to communicate directly with parents, and the school uses Instagram and Facebook as other forms of communication.”

Schools leading the way with practical strategies

Another school has collated an inventory of parent occupations and interests and they call on parents to become actively involved in the curriculum or deliver talks when a subject matching their skill set is being taught anywhere in the school.

Dr Willis also cites a school in north Queensland with a large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student population that employs a community liaison officer to work closely with the leadership team, teachers and Indigenous Elders and community members to enable parent and community knowledges to be infused throughout the curriculum.

“Other schools host open classrooms where parents can come in and sit with their child while the teacher keeps teaching or they have days where families come in and do a whole school meditation.”

There is no “one-size-fits-all” to parent engagement, she says.

“It has to be highly contextualised to your school and your setting and it’s also constantly evolving because parent cohorts change.”

Tapping into parents’ rich knowledge

Dr Willis says it’s also important to note she’s not talking about turning parents into “pseudo teachers” but instead encouraging schools and teachers to recognise parents’ rich knowledges about the world, communities, families and especially their child. This creates opportunities for conversations to enable an ongoing exchange of information and ideas among schools, parents and students.

“Parents often ask, ‘What did you do at school today?’ But if a teacher has sent out an email or weekly update to say, ‘This is what we are learning on Tuesday’, on Tuesday afternoon the parent can instead ask more critically-framed questions like, ‘Oh I know you were learning about the circumference of a circle today, what did you do?’,’’ Dr Willis says.

“A whole extra conversation might then follow where the parent can value-add to that subject. All kinds of opportunities and spaces for a parent to contribute to the student’s learning open up and that benefits not only that child, but also parents, teachers, the whole class, and sometimes the school.

“Simply talking with a child and discussing how they’re going at school can make a difference – it shows the child that the parent values the learning they are doing at school and helps them connect that learning to what the child does at home.’’

Making parents feel welcome is key

Parent engagement is “all about relationships”, Dr Willis concludes.

“It’s inviting parents in and making them feel welcome.

“I think we need to be cautious not to develop the kind of relationship with parents where we say, ‘Let’s have a working bee’ – that may benefit the school but not necessarily the child’s learning.

“If initiatives with parents are on the school’s terms and the school sets the agenda then you’re often only going to get a couple of parents turning up.

“The key is to shift our thinking and link engagement to a child’s learning. If parents can see a school is genuine about inviting them and what they are being invited to do is linked to their child’s learning the research tells us they are more likely to invest.

“And we also see vibrant partnerships among schools, families and communities that tend to be sustained over time.’’

Read our second story in our three-part Parent Engagement series: Respect and Courtesy: A healthy relationship with your child’s teacher can help you negotiate tricky moments when they arrive.

Read our third story: The power of parents: Children soar when parents get up close and personal with their learning.

Want to find out more?

There is a rich well of information and research about parent engagement, which we have compiled on our website. | LEARN MORE

There are also many wonderful websites with tips and advice for parents who want to connect school learning with life at home, which we have compiled for you here. | READ MORE

If you’d rather listen to a summary of the data, QIS Parents Network Executive Officer Sue Kloeden explains what parent engagement is in this webinar for Queensland independent schools | LEARN MORE

Download our one page guide to Parent Engagement here and share with your network. |DOWNLOAD