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Engaging with families at Key Stage

There are many a strange phenomenon you encounter as a teacher: Where does all the spare P.E kit go? Why does PPA time go so quickly? Why do we bring our own cake on our birthdays?

The strange phenomenon I wanted to explore in this article is the apparent “dip” in parent interaction the higher up in education you go.

If you have ever taught in Key Stage, you may be familiar with this. Your parents’ evenings, coffee mornings (or whatever online versions you are able to recreate) and playground chats pale in comparison to that of your EYFS colleagues. But why?

We can posit some theories:

·         Parents of very young children have likely made arrangements that provide them more time to be involved in things happening at school. Many parents and carers work long hours and may increase their hours as their child gets older.

·         The beginning of school is viewed as a more crucial time to be involved due to it being a new experience for the child. Partnership with parents is a key aspect of the Early Years.

·         One positive reason could be that the older the child gets, the more trust is built between school and relative; they then feel more comfortable with letting the school “get on with things.”

While that trusting relationship is a wonderful thing, the way that it manifests isn’t always beneficial for the child.

We all know the importance of interconnected support networks - we've seen the impact of the lack of this first hand during the pandemic. This isn’t only true for children at school, it’s true for human beings. This goes back all the way to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (1979) which, in short, examined the different types of social contexts every individual involves themselves in, and the profound effect they have upon that individual’s development. The idea that these different social contexts are all connected is key to this theory

We all require and, if we are lucky, maintain, multiple support networks in our day to day lives: family, friends, colleagues. On the surface, it may appear you go to each one for a different purpose. But they are all interconnected. They all affect you and your development as a person.

Not that many years ago, the idea that school was for academic learning, and home was for developing as a person, was prevalent. As Comer and Haynes put it:

“At the same time, our society has created artificial distinctions about the roles that parents and teachers should play in a young person's development. We tend to think that schools should stick to teaching academics and that home is the place where children's moral and emotional development should take place.”

We learn teamwork skills with our colleagues and at home with our family. And we learn compassion with our family as well as our friends. These groups and their teachings are ever connected and equally important to development.

There are reams more research on the importance of effective parent-teacher relationships: The University of Sussex published this paper on the topic. More specifically, they were exploring the supposed correlation between strong parent-teacher relationships and higher academic achievement of the child. Spoiler alert: there is a positive correlation between those two. However, it is also heavily reliant on the degree of satisfaction the parent has with the school as a whole. So it’s not a be-all-and-end-all solution. There are a lot of factors. But it is very important nonetheless.

 

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Julian Owen wrote this great article exploring the importance of parent-teacher relationships. In it, he says:

“Positive parental involvement in a child’s education can have a significant impact on their success at school. A pupil’s personal development, academic achievement and emotional wellbeing are all influenced by the nature of parent-teacher relationships. Teachers and parents also benefit from a positive relationship – stress will be less of an issue and both parties will feel more valued and supported.”

I want to expand on the last point in that quote. This is something I never actually considered when I was a teacher, but in retrospect Julian is correct. If I think back to two children I taught recently - same year group; same class. In a very broad sense, both these children were similar academically. The key difference was the depth of the relationship between school and parents. One child had a very involved family. I would talk to either mum, dad or nan in the playground every day and at least one of them came to every parent’s evening.

The other child’s parent I met once at the very beginning of the year and saw one other time after that for a parents’ evening.

If I think very honestly about both of those children, I did feel less stressed about the first child.

Teaching sometimes feels like you’re rowing on a poorly constructed raft in the middle of a vast ocean. But occasionally you float past an island. Islands are where you can stop and rest your tired arms. Islands can be your colleagues, your SLT, your weekends! And they can be having supportive parents of your students.

We have to know our children and their families. Thinking about what the barriers are to engagement for parents will help us be creative in the way we connect with them. Is there a language barrier, a time constraint, a legacy of negative feelings about their own schooling, do they know they are valued by the school because they know their child best? In some cases, the requirements of social distancing and reaching out in different ways to families has been very positive, in others it has created another barrier. 

Another important note is that the apparent “drop off” of parental engagement might not be attributed just to the parents/carers. In my personal experience I have seen a lot of “push back” from the students themselves, especially Year 6 pupils.

When running something like a coffee morning, where parents were invited into the classroom to join in with some of my morning lessons with their children (you remember when we were able to do that sort of thing!), I know some of my students told their adults not to come. Sometimes, when a pupil reaches a certain age, the presence of a parent at an event stops being “comforting” and starts being “embarrassing”.  

That being said, this can go both ways.

Seeing their adults at home actively engage with their life at school, can help to reinforce the fact that they have a strong team of connected adults who have their best interests at heart. It’s important the child knows it’s coming from a place of compassion and shared interest and it’s not an attempt to control or apply pressure to them.

 

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So, we have some theories as to why parent interaction might drop off. We have talked about the importance of strong parent-teacher relationships. The next logical step is how can you maintain these very important links?

There’s no easy answer. It depends so much on your school, the children, the teachers, the parents, the area, the leadership. To combat the nitty gritty reasons might require a more careful look at the specifics of one or more of those things. However, I do have two pieces of general advice which might help whatever your situation.

1.       Strong and supportive leadership in school.

Some teachers may not feel confident reaching out to parents, especially if it’s to discuss a difficult topic. Teachers need to know they have the support of their SLT if needed and that they are not in this alone.

2.       Be proactive.

Whatever the reason you don’t see as much of your key stage parents as you might like, be proactive in getting their attention. Seek them out in the playground. Call home. Get them to book in for parent’s evening. And think about what barriers might be causing it to be difficult to engage, and how you can make it as easy as possible for parents and carers to overcome them.

 

Most importantly, think about how much it will help. It may be difficult and require some extra work and time occasionally. But in the long run it will help everyone involved. The parents, you and the child.

 


References

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1979. The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Jack Dabell
Jack is part of the Product Support Team and the Education Team at Tapestry. He taught in Key Stage 2 for four years but now spends most of his time stroking his beard and thinking about how to make his articles funnier.

Edited by Jules




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This article reminds me so much of the importance of the  parent - staff relationships I had as a Year 1 teacher. I was lucky enough to have taught some of the children in the Nursery, and so had already built relationships with some of the families. This foundation with parents and carers helped the children transition from Reception to Year 1. And it helped me to learn more about them. The parents also provided a support for the Year 1 staff, always offering to help in any way they could. 

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