Engaging Parents

Over 40 years of research has shown how important getting parents engaged in learning and schooling is for their children's wellbeing. Earlier this year the ACT Government funded a project to better define effective parent engagement in the ACT and to help schools understand and measure it in their communities.

"The project is about recognising the important role parents play in directing and supporting their child's learning, and what schools can do to help facilitate that," Stacey Fox, project manager at the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), told the June meeting of Council.

"It's about how families and schools talk to each other, how to bring together learning at home and learning at school, and how families and schools can work together to help our kids be the best they can be."
Positive parental engagement has been shown to enhance student outcomes, with higher grades, enrolment in higher-level programs and advanced classes, higher graduation rates and a greater likelihood of commencing post-secondary education. Children of engaged parents also attend school more regularly, are better adapted to school, better behaved and have a stronger belief in the importance of education and their own abilities.

"We know how important having engaged parents is, but we haven't systematically translated this into practice," said Ms Fox. "Lots of the research has come out of the US but there is not good information on what strategies work best and have the biggest impact here in Australia for our schools and our families."

The project seeks to understand what parents and schools in the ACT believe, know and do about parent engagement. All parents are invited to share what they think makes a good partnership with their child's school and what they do to help their children learn by filling in a questionnaire.

"We want to build a shared understanding because the outcomes for children's wellbeing are best when families, schools, communities and governments work together," said Ms Fox.

This year, the project is focusing on talking to school administrators, teachers, principals and parents and pulling together existing evidence and best practice into an overview for parents and a guide for schools.

Next year, the project will move onto creating a way to measure current levels of, and beliefs about, parent engagement within a school community. The resulting survey of parental engagement will be trailed at four schools initially. It will enable schools to assess how they are going — what they are doing well and what could be improved — and will equip them to try new strategies and approaches, and then reassess to see if there has been improvement. 

The project will also develop a toolbox of resources for parents and schools so that they can more easily establish parental engagement projects which suit their school communities. Resources in the toolbox might help parents to, for example, support students with homework, feel more comfortable going to talk to a teacher, or support their children to persist when challenged by school work.

"For some parents, being engaged in their kids' learning can seem daunting, but it isn't all about helping with Maths homework," said Ms Fox. "Simply talking with your children over dinner or talking about big ideas about the world on the way home from school has been shown to have a real impact on their school performance."

"So too, has telling stories," says Ms Fox. "Sharing stories with children is a wonderful thing parents can do. Experiences from your own life, family history — these are stories we all have. When we tell them to our young children it has a real impact on the development of their thinking. Stories help develop literacy and analytical skills which will help at school and throughout their life. So being engaged can be as simple as sharing family stories and encouraging your child to tell stories too."

How was school today?

Most children will have something they want to share about their busy day at school, and hearing about their day-to-day triumphs and concerns is an important way for parents to be involved in their learning and school life.

If you, like many parents, are frustrated by a one-word answer, a grunt or a shrug, when you ask How was school today?, you might like to try these tips.

  • Refuel first. Many kids need time to eat, drink and relax before talking.
  • Ask more specific questions, such as:
    What was your favourite activity today?
    What did you do in Maths/PE today?
    Was there something you found hard today?
    What did you do at lunch time?
    Did you learn a song or read a story today? What was it about?
  • Make it a game. One parent reports on how a game of "true or false" opens up her kids after school. The idea is that each child makes a statement about what they did at school and then the rest of the family has to guess whether it really happened or not. "True or false — today we played teachers versus kids in PE". Or "true or false — today Mandy wouldn't play with me". The game brings out the highlights of their day, while encouraging imagination, story-telling and family interaction.

This article appeared in ParentACTion, Term 3, 2014. See other past editions of our quarterly magazine.