Parent engagement is about being on the learning journey together. For parents, it's as much about providing learning opportunities outside of school as much as it is about engaging in what children are learning at school and supporting them through this stage of their life.
New research indicates that 41% of parents have increased their engagement with their child's school in the past two years. Research is also showing that parents want more information about their child's progress and opportunities. (The Future of Education Report 2019, McCrindle)
A friend once described the journey through school with her children as if she was looking through a snow dome. When her children were younger she was able to be in the village with them, inside the dome, experiencing their learning together and providing opportunities for them to learn and grow, providing guidance. Once they began their journey through school, she felt she had been removed and placed outside the dome looking in, no longer a critical or valued part of that journey, but now just an observer, sometimes even feeling like an imposter, forced to pry her children for information to be enabled to provide the support she felt as a parent was her role.
There are many parents who want to engage in learning but are lacking the tools to do so. They are not being enabled as partners and a critical piece of the school improvement puzzle. I have recently been talking with parents about their experience moving into the secondary school environment. Many are indicating a sense of frustration in no longer knowing what their role is in supporting learning, particularly now that most learning is online and out of sight of parents in the home. Behind the screen, their child is learning in a completely foreign way - foreign to parents that is. No longer are they taking notes, using pen and paper, highlighting passages in text books, rather they have their text books online and are using online resources to complete tasks.
It is clear that many parents are beginning to feel disempowered. Their role is confused. They feel helpless and unsure of what they can do. They are now being replaced by technology and screens as the main medium for connection for their children. This can lead to frustration and sometimes anger as we are seeing some parents (not all) become more aggressive towards teachers and Principals in their approach to advocating for their child.
Many parents are enthusiastic and supportive as their children journey through school and are keen to learn how they can provide the support and be engaged in what their children are learning. They just need to be enabled. Sometimes, the fear of being judged or labelled a 'helicopter parent' for wanting to be on that journey, keeps them at a distance. Some will persist and risk being judged or labelled, others will withdraw and start to disconnect, which ultimately as we know doesn't help the child.
Some will take it on themselves to provide tutoring and extra activities that they feel will benefit their children and further their academic learning beyond what the school provides. But this is not always effective as there is little or no partnership with the school. This can cause children to receive inconsistent messages coming from various angles which can be confusing. This can be the result of a lack of knowledge of parents as to what children are learning at the time, with little knowledge of the process of learning and how parents can be engaged to provide support at home.
Many schools are doing their best to engage parents at school in school based activities, however this is not always possible as many parents are working and are sometimes are unaware of the purpose of the event or activity in supporting their child's learning. We need to shift focus to how learning can be supported at home in very simple ways to have an impact on student learning.
The very first week into the Australian school year we were subjected to more media portrayals of aggressive parents. Aggression, bullying or intimidation against a Principal, teacher or other parent is never a way to solve a problem.
There are various reasons why parents become aggressive. It can sometimes stem from being kept out of the loop, from not being heard when an issue has been raised and getting to a point of frustration, or simply not being valued as an essential partner in their child's learning journey. In some cases it is irrational behaviour that needs to be addressed in a calm and considerate manner where all parties can come to an agreement and understanding.
In these circumstances, schools need to have processes in place to manage this. When it comes to children and their safety and welfare, there are plenty of emotions involved. Keeping parents out of important conversations and withholding information from them only serves to fuel emotions. The best approach is to prevent these situations in the first place and to view parents as partners rather than troublemakers or a problem.
In my work with schools, I help them to understand that there is a solution to increased animosity from parents. When families begin the school journey, the first and most important step is to build trust and mutually respectful relationships. Building relationships and connection with families is the first stage in working effectively together in partnership for the child at the centre. Our Connect Learning professional learning for teachers and leaders involves exploring perceptions and behaviours of both parents and school staff to begin to understand the benefits that parent engagement in learning and working together as a team has for students. Building collaborative relationships and a shared responsibility to support all children to thrive is the end goal.