Kate Perkins discusses the importance of effective teacher-parent relationships in engaging parents in their children’s learning.
Research clearly demonstrates the significant influence of parents over their children’s engagement with learning, and over their children’s educational achievements, yet this is a relatively new, and challenging, area for many schools and for many teachers.
Seeking to enhance the way in which teachers and parents relate to each other can be confronting, calling into question long-held beliefs and assumptions about the nature of education and learning, about roles and responsibilities and about power and control. There are also major logistical issues that cannot be ignored.
Yet despite these barriers, it is worth persevering to find ways to support parents in their engagement with their children’s learning, and to support parents and teachers to work collaboratively rather than in parallel or at cross purposes. As the research demonstrates, the benefits – for all – can be significant.
Benefits of parental engagement
Meta-analyses of relevant research have identified clear, measurable benefits for children when their parents are actively engaged in their learning.
These studies demonstrate that the children are more likely to develop positive self-esteem, be motivated to learn, be positive about school and achieve good grades. Adolescents are less likely to have discipline issues, get involved in substance abuse or drop out of school. Young people are more likely to maintain high aspirations and plan to go on to further education and build a career.
Importantly, the power of parental engagement overrides other factors that have been shown to influence a child’s achievement. Various studies have shown that, when parents are actively engaged in their children’s learning, their influence appears to outweigh factors such as parental education, socioeconomic background or the quality of the child’s schooling.
Why parents disengage
Although almost all parents begin with high aspirations for their children, some become increasingly disengaged from their children’s learning.
One research review observes that, ‘parents will be engaged to the degree that they see that supporting and enhancing a child’s school achievement is part of their “job” as a parent, and in so far as they feel they can make a difference.’ Parents are more likely to want to be involved if their child is a high achiever, but may opt out if their child is struggling, believing that they lack the skills and confidence to provide support. Many things can undermine parents’ motivation and self-belief, including their interactions with schools and teachers. A major barrier for many parents appears to be the language of schooling itself. This has been shown to be a particular issue for parents with low educational attainment, for those from low socio-economic backgrounds and for those whose cultural background differs from that of the teacher.
Children themselves can also have a significant influence on the way in which their parents and teachers interact. While younger children may enjoy, or at least be comfortable with, their parents’ direct involvement in their schooling, older students are more likely to discourage it.
‘At home’ engagement in learning
Although many parents strive to become involved in school-based activities, or feel guilty because they cannot, and many schools focus on ways of involving ‘hard to reach’ parents in such activities, the research suggests that it is what parents do at home that really counts.
Even though parents may not be actively involved with their child’s school, they may well be supportive of what teachers are doing, taking an active interest in what their children are learning in school and helping them relate this to the world beyond school. Research suggests that, in families where at least one parent or significant adult is engaged in this way, children are more likely to be motivated to learn, to see the school in a positive light and to enjoy productive relationships with their teachers. However, many parents do not realise this.
Parents need to know that they can make a big difference when they:
- hold high expectations for their children;
- show interest in the things their children are interested in;
- value learning and model the behaviours of successful learners;
- give specific, rather than general, praise; and
- establish routines that promote health, well being and regular study.
Promoting the power of parental aspirations and interest can help parents value, and build on, the strengths of what they are already doing.
Building effective teacher-parent relationships
Effective teacher-parent relationships can help foster parental engagement in learning. As the developers of the What Works program wisely suggest, ‘you can’t have a relationship without a conversation.’
It can be a challenge to create the circumstances for a conversation. Parents generally expect their child’s teachers to initiate contact, and the way this is handled is likely to determine the quality of the subsequent relationship, and even whether any sort of relationship can begin.
Things a teacher can do to support interactions that will gradually lead to mutual respect and understanding include:
- making parents feel welcome;
- listening to parents and focusing on their priorities;
- providing positive feedback rather than just reporting misbehaviour; and
- keeping parents in the loop with timely, personalised communication.
When schools and teachers operate from this perspective, they focus on ways of connecting with parents to support what parents are doing at home, and lay the foundations for a collaboration in which the actions of parents and teachers complement each other.
Facilitating teacher-parent collaboration
While there are many ways of enhancing parent-teacher collaboration, a review of international and Australian research suggests that there are some consistent principles that apply across different contexts.
Be clear about why
Avoid fragmented, unfocused and ultimately ineffectual activity by being clear about the purpose of collaboration.
Be clear about what
The way in which the intended relationship is envisaged and described can also make a difference. The relationship between teacher and parents is more likely to be effective when those involved acknowledge and respect their individual areas of expertise and influence.
Teachers and parents may have different ideas about what constitutes a ‘good’ education, about the ‘right’ way to teach and about the respective roles of teachers and parents. Find ways to acknowledge and talk through the differences, and, in the process, lay the foundations for enduring conversations between parents and teachers. This in turn helps the children, who are otherwise caught between the worlds of home and school. ■
This article is based on the Queensland College of Teachers Research Digest, issue 10, ‘Parents and teachers: Working together to foster children’s learning’, written by Kate Perkins and prepared by the Australian Council for Educational Research.