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Parental engagement – does it have to be so hard?

date October 30, 2020Maureen Hunt


Maureen Hunt is an independent education consultant specialising in early years. She taught for over 20 years in nursery and infant schools and spent 15 years in leadership roles. On this blog post Maureen explains why parent partnerships are so important and suggests ways to positively connect with parents…

Why do we need to engage parents?

Parents are the first and most enduring educators of their child; this is not surprising considering that 86% of children’s learning takes place outside of the classroom. Parents obviously have a huge role to play.

The greatest impact on children’s learning is from the things that parents/carers do with them at home[1] so it is not hard to understand that if you have someone behind you, encouraging and supporting you in something you will be at an advantage. It follows then, that the more engaged parents are in the education system the more likely their children are to succeed.

two women talking

Parent engagement strategies

So is it just a lottery? If you happen to have supportive parents who can give you time and encouragement you will do well and if you do not – are you destined to underachieve?

Of course, that is not acceptable, which is why most early years settings have parent engagement strategies and spend a great deal of time and effort to try to get parents into the setting, offering them many opportunities to attend and interact through both planned and informal events.

Although it is great to see that lots of thinking has gone into how to involve parents, there is a fundamental problem in this approach. It can lead to parents being viewed and treated as passive participants in the life of the setting. A strategy that asks little more of parents than to turn up is unlikely to be successful in engaging them as learning partners.

To achieve successful outcomes for children, parents need to be treated as key contributors. Their engagement and contribution needs to be valued, considered and planned for in all aspects of setting life. Getting them through the door is the first step, but it is not the end. Just because someone shows up doesn’t mean that they are truly engaged in supporting their child.

Communicate with parents

The truth is engaging parents in learning is tricky and if you really want to do it properly, you need to go much further than getting them over the threshold. You will need to think of parents as equal partners and encourage and support them with this from day one.

Partnerships in practice

So how do you do this in practice? Currently, we seem to have a culture which assumes parents will engage and when they don’t, intensive and often expensive strategies are employed to try and ‘support them’. These include special workshops, parenting classes etc. all of which can be perceived as threatening and carry a stigma for parenting.

You can help to build relationships by:

  • taking the time to listen to parents
  • treating them with respect
  • being sensitive to their needs and circumstances.

Slowly breaking down barriers will require a proactive approach that is outward-facing and  reaches out to develop relationships with the whole family, signposting them to other specialist support when necessary and a commitment to strong and effective multiagency working.

Only by taking time and effort to build strong relationships based on trust and respect from the very start can you begin to build the pathway to future partnership. If the culture of your setting or school is one of ‘we are equal partners in the education of your child and we value you’ from the very first encounter with the parents it helps to set the tone.

childminder talking to parents

Top tips for successful parent partnerships

  • Listen and involve – don’t tell – spend as much time as you can listening to parents talk about their child – use the key person working for this.
  • Set expectations – establish from the start that ‘we are going to work together’.
  • Respect and encourage – build a relationship – get to know them and encourage them to do simple activities at home.
  • Make them want to come – make it fun and engaging and child-centred – avoid terms like ‘workshop’ and ‘classes’.
  • Improve whole setting participation – find different ways for them to become involved.
  • Give them time – some parents will take longer than others.
  • Appreciate their expertise – they are the expert in their own child.
  • Be mindful of your messaging – written and spoken – avoid communication that is overly authoritative or ‘telling off’.
  • Communicate using a wide variety of methods – find out what suits them best.
  • Invest in training and supporting staff to become competent and confident in working with parents.
  • Never give up – keep trying!


[1] Harris, A., Goodall, J.  Do parents know they matter? Engaging all parents in learning, Educational Research Vol. 50 , Iss. 3,2008

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