Engaging with families

Back in the spring I had the huge good fortune to speak with Clare Pirie on her Connectrio podcast about what makes for effective engagement with parents and carers.

You can hear the podcast episode here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5rGI1vZ29K2WwrhK7dO9y7?si=paOrSXyPQsuPNr7NQdaYJQ&dl_branch=1

Below are also the notes that I spoke form (roughly) which are based on my recent reflections around our relationships with the families we serve.

– Why do you think effective parental engagement is important?

Before I answer that question and if it is ok, I’d actually just like to start with an explanation, because having worked with care experience children for the last two years I always like to give a heads up that when I talk about parents that encompasses birth parents, carers, foster carers, adopters and anybody who has that responsibility to care for a child, so to love them, give them a home and be part of helping them thrive, learn and develop.

I suppose for me this comes back to that African proverb that says that it takes a village to raise a child.**It’s very easy to work in silos and talk as if education is the sole responsibility of schools and teachers but actually what I’ve come to realise through my career and in fact what systems and practice models like GIRFEC, or getting it right for every child acknowledge is that you absolutely need the adults around the child to work together if we are going to make sure that children grow up living the best lives possible.

** I do want to apologise here and say that since recording the podcast, I have come to learn that this reference to an “African proverb” is in fact offensive in the way that it references Africa and that the proverb is also more accurately attributed to international oral tradition.

What that means in practice is really good communication and shared understanding amongst those adults of purpose and of the fact that we are all working together because we really care about each and every child. And the reality is that every parent is entrusting us with the thing that is most most precious to them and therefore we need to engage with them so that they know that they can trust us with that most precious thing.

It is interesting that In Scotland we have just incorporated the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child because in fact absolutely inherent in protecting children’s rights is the idea that adults as duty bearers all work together in the best interests of each child.

I think that when suddenly we went into lockdown just over a year ago and there was that blurring of those clearly defined adult roles in terms of what teachers do and what parents do, it gave us an opportunity to really look at what the purpose of school and education is, what teaching and learning is and who can play a role and how important communication and engagement between adults around learning is.

One of things I’m also really interested in is how we engage with those parents and carers who might have been labelled as non-engaging. I think there are parallels here with how we engage with pupils who might have been labelled the same way. It’s absolutely crucial that we realise that if a parent or carer isn’t engaging with us then it’s far more likely to be a result of something we are doing or a result of an invisible barrier that we might not have acknowledged, than as a result of them being deliberately difficult or resistant.

And if we fail to be curious about that then the child who we are working together to support and who we as education professionals, have a duty to support, will inevitably suffer.

– Please share an example of effective parental engagement that you have experienced as a teacher or parent.

As we came to the end of lockdown last year and I was working with many parents and carers whose children had experienced complex developmental trauma in their lives, it became obvious that several of those children had actually thrived during lockdown and developed much stronger relationships with their parents, carers and family members than had been possible before and in many cases had also learned really well and maybe made more progress in their learning than they would’ve done if they had been at school. Now the reasons behind that are complex but we do know that nationally we saw an increase in applications for home education after lockdown.

Some of the reasons might simply be to do with the fact that some children struggle with places that are busy and very people-y because their difficulties are associated with trust and relationships.

But some of it was also to do with the fact that in some households there was an opportunity for an adult to work with a child on learning in a way that was more focused and intentional and curious and wasn’t dictated by school bells ringing or timetabling.

And at the end of this one of the carers that I was working with said that she felt that she had learnt a huge amount about her child during lockdown in terms of how she learnt best and that the little girl had grown into quite a different child to the one that the school had known previously …she wanted the opportunity to share that back with school so that the school might be able to adapt some of their ways of working to help the little girl with her transition back to school.

And I think that this carer felt slightly reserved in doing this because she had this fear that the school might see it as her trying to tell the experts how to teach whereas in fact I absolutely encouraged her to do this and said that any school would absolutely embrace intelligence and information about a child that would enable the child to succeed.

– In your opinion, what are some of the barriers to effective parental engagement?

We need to be curious.

There is potential for us to jump to judgements and labels but we need to be curious about what is really going on.

So for example if we start to become curious about that parent who never returns phone calls and discover that they have an anxiety disorder which means that they can’t respond to a phone call but they would respond if we sent them a text message or email we begin to engage more effectively. Or could we swing by the house or knock on the door?

And if for example we become curious about that parent or carer who always seems to write negative and critical messages about school on the Facebook page and discover that their own experience of school was extremely negative and unpleasant, they we can maybe begin to engage more effectively and bring them on board by helping them to see that things have moved on.

Schools can come with such baggage and culture and the experience that a parent or carer had at school may be a really strong indicator of how they are going to respond.

It is difficult because sometimes as schools we lack time and space to be curious but we need that to make this work .

We need to decide what schools are about and why we need these relationships to be at the heart of what we do.

– How might we overcome barriers to increase representative parental engagement?

For me, it is very much about us challenging others to truly see and listen to each individual human being that they encounter and to develop what I have referred to as a quality of knowing.

You will have maybe heard me talk about this in relation to the children we work with in schools – it means that we use all the information, data and intelligence we can gather to ensure that we respond to and meet the needs of the actual child in front of us, rather than some generalised concept of “a child at that age and stage”.

But actually, it is also what we absolutely need to do in every single relationship we have with other humans in our lives so that we really knowing each person and all the qualities, experiences and physical and emotional aspects that make them who they are and that includes the parents and families of the children we are caring for.

We need to really know what our children and families are going through.

We need lots of ways of engaging with families….and not just the parent council model, which I sometimes despair of a bit because although many parent councils are truly amazing, they don’t allow for inclusion of the people who would never set foot in the room, for all the reasons we have discussed above.

How do we reach out to the people who would never make it to parent council?

Your ideas, Clare, on using digital platforms, are really exciting.

I love a Google form that is anonymous – I think you can get a real quality of feedback from an anonymous form. Once you have to walk into a room and be visible, how honest can you be about the things you might want to say?

We now have a whole range of ways to engage so that it does not have to be one size fits all.

Engagement is about more than talking – it is about opportunities to build trust and allow communication . We have a chance to strip away power hierarchies so we don’t view teachers as superior – yes, we are the professionals who are paid to do a job but we can learn so much form the other adults in a child’s life and work together with them to do what is in the best interests of every child.

We also need to consider that communication is often non verbal. How do we get the parents and carers with the quiet voices to be heard and express themselves?

How do we get those parents and carers in who may have a fear of walking into school? Maybe by providing less formal, communal, village-like opportunities where we build relationships and trust?

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