Be the best partner to parents

Parents, pupils and teachers working together is a powerful combination. However, it’s not always the easiest of relationships to nurture. So, what better time than now, to take a fresh approach to this partnership, as schools across the nation try to close the learning gap created by Covid-19.

Karen Dempster and Justin Robbins share an innovative approach to parental engagement in The Four Pillars of Parental Engagement. Here are a few tips taken from their book to help you to take a planned and impactful approach to building positive relationships with parents, meaning pupils can be at their best.

Take a long hard look in the mirror

Most of us don’t particularly like looking in the mirror or seeing ourselves on-screen during video calls – it has even shown to increase stress during the pandemic!1.

The same stressful reaction might be feared when you take time to understand how the partnership with parents is really performing.

It’s easy to assume, or even pretend, that everything is okay, or even that parents will never be fully happy. After all, parental engagement is a thankless task that you just need to accept right?

Start by searching your school online. Make notes of what people are saying. Are there any topics that appear consistently? Listen to your school team, parents and importantly pupils to understand what the ‘partnership’ feels like from their perspectives. If possible, use a variety of formal and informal opportunities such as focus groups, surveys or simply a get together over coffee.

You may not always be able to deliver what everyone wants but you can demonstrate that you have listened and considered their views to build trust in the parent school relationship.


Remove the rose-tinted spectacles

At a personal level, it’s often challenging to accept negative feedback. We may even feel a need to ‘defend’ ourselves rather than taking on board the learning for next time. When listening to others in your school, keep an open mind to the gift of feedback. Consider what you are learning that will help you to make improvements in the long term, despite the short term tension it may cause. It will ensure you focus on what will really move the dial when it comes to building positive relationships with parents.


Develop a relationship roadmap

Do you know what relationship you want to have with parents and why? 

For example, do you want to improve academic outcomes or ask for parents to help you to improve student behaviour? It’s important to be clear about what you want to achieve and how you’ll know when you’ve got there, in terms of measuring success, so you and your colleagues can feel good about the progress that you are making.


Take small steps over the long term

Consider actions you can take in four areas – or pillars: knowledge; environment; culture; and communication. Out of these four areas, which areas do you believe are the most important for your school? 

Here are some examples of actions you may want to take in each area.

For knowledge, communicate regularly to parents about why their support is so critical. Be clear with them regarding minimum actions. Maybe even recruit some ex-parents who are willing to share their experiences to help new parents to avoid making the same mistakes.

For environment, make sure your school is ‘parent friendly’, starting with appropriate signs to help them to find their way into school, ensuring that reception staff are trained in creating a great first impression and understand their role is as important as anyone else’s in the context of parental engagement.

For culture, build a trusted relationship with parents by showing them that you really appreciate their support. Find ways to formally and informally recognise and even showcase when they have done a great job. Sometimes a simple thank you is enough to reinforce positive behaviour.

For communication, put yourself in parents’ shoes before you share information with them. Check you are speaking or writing in simple language (not school speak) that they understand and regularly ask for feedback to ensure you are listening as much as you are telling.


Develop your winning story

Monitor progress, along your relationship roadmap, and take time to celebrate as you build positive relationships with parents. Show you appreciate those staff who are helping to build these relationships and do the same for parents who are playing their part. Develop the ‘success story’ for your school and encourage your school team, parents and even pupils, to talk openly about your journey.

Find out more by reading The Four Pillars of Parental Engagement (Independent Thinking Press, 2021). 

About the authors 

Justin Robbins and Karen Dempster founded Fit2Communicate in 2015. They are highly experienced communication experts, Fellows of the Institute of Internal Communications and certified DISC personality profile practitioners who are passionate about making a difference for future generations. Their unique approach harnesses the power of communication between the school, students, parents and local communities.