Facing Challenges Together
The use of the wordsparents and familiesthroughout this module refers to all types of home arrangements and parental figures, including carers and legal guardians, who care for and rear children. Any images of people in this module do not indicate these people were in any way part of the project or are in agreement with any information contained in this module. Except where otherwise indicated, and save for any material in this document owned by a third party or protected by a trade mark, a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/au/deed.en) applies to this document.
This project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education through the Grants and Awards Programme 2015-16 to 2018-19.
First published July 2019
Cover image: © Fsstock | Dreamstime.com
Facing challenges together
Positive relationships between parents and teachers favourably influence a family’s engagement in their child’s learning, and improve the ability of school community members to face challenges together. When a principal enrols a child, they enrol the whole family. And it is ideally at this point, that parents will be invited to work in partnership with the school in guiding and supporting their child’s learning and well-being.
Building relationships that are based on mutual respect, trust and shared responsibility are important from a family’s first point of contact and right through school. Parents are key to ensuring a child has further support to meet their goals and improve their learning and well-being.
Parents are also key to effectively resolving concerns, issues and challenges that may arise from time to time. Welcoming families and recognising the diversity of their backgrounds are essential for all educators, especially if relationships based on mutual respect and trust are to be established.
And maintaining such relationships with new and current families will help to enculturate authentic family-school partnerships, and positively enhance the learning outcomes and well-being of students.
Where such authentic family-school partnerships dominate, it is more likely that if challenges arise, they will be embraced for efficient and effective resolution by the key partners in the learning lives of children.
Relationship building requires varying responsibilities between parents and schools – these responsibilities may be shared or connected and usually change over time.
What you can do as a principal
One of the most prevalent themes when parents* reflected on ‘positive’ engagement with school, related to the nature of the interactions between parents and school staff, particularly when challenges arose. Examples included where school staff were considered to have proactively and constructively addressed an issue that parents had raised, usually in relation to their child’s situation, behaviour or performance. (*In interviews conducted as part of the Re- Energising Parent Engagement in Australian Primary and Secondary Schools Project).
As a principal, you can build a culture that recognises and manages challenges by:
• Emphasising the importance of regular, ongoing respectful communication between classroom teachers and parents – both recognising a shared responsibility for children’s learning.
• Building capacity for teachers (and parents) to have the skills to use technology to inform them of their child’s learning within the school’s culture and expectations for learning both inside and outside the classroom. This may include: the use of school websites, portals, social media, classroom sharing apps and simple tools like text messaging and email.
• Using interactive information sessions and parent-teacher get-to-know you sessions to ensure opportunities exist to share expectations around a child’s learning.
• Understanding that some parents may not have the skills and/or equipment to engage in this way; and subsequently identifying ways of ensuring these parents are included and not disadvantaged.
• Early on, setting in place processes that build the confidence of parents to know that when their questions and/or concerns are shared with any staff member, they will be heard and acted upon. These processes need to be written in common language, be highly visible and easily accessible to all members of the school community.
What you can do with your school
Teachers and parents have a shared responsibility for the development of a child. Your role as principal is to lead the teachers professionally and to support families if they are concerned about issues that arise in or outside the classroom.
Develop an understanding with both teachers and parents of your expectations and responsibilities and how and when you deal with situations that may arise. Approaches worth considering are:
• Where possible, making yourself visible at the times when parents are most likely to be in the school. Some principals stand at the school gate to greet students and their parents at the beginning and end of the school day. You can share this duty with other members of your school leadership team and teaching staff so they too better get to know more families.
• Advising teachers of your expectations and protocols around how a challenge raised by a parent should be managed appropriately and respectfully.
• Emphasising with teachers that parent concerns need to be listened to, noted and acted on – with any concerns only being referred to you if unresolvable at the classroom level or, for example, if it involves a whole-of-school policy, student protection or well-being matter.
• Sharing with parents how to raise questions/concerns and who they should speak with at school, e.g. first with the teacher and then with someone in middle or senior leadership.
• Encouraging parents to make an appointment or to organise a meeting so each party can come prepared - this might include having a desired outcome from the meeting.
• Providing clarity in the school’s commitment to the child being at the centre of all conversations and that the outcome should be what is best for the child’s learning and well-being.
• Where there are shared or common challenges, developing guidelines together with teachers, parents and other relevant community members. For instance, ‘how to respond to bullying’ or ‘introducing changes to the curriculum’ - two common areas that may raise questions for parents.
Everyday issues can become bigger challenges if they are misunderstood or not communicated effectively for students, parents or teachers. Effective communication is essential for understanding and this can lessen the likelihood of challenges emerging. It’s important to build communication into a culture of engagement through schoolwide actions including:
• Encouraging teachers to send home positive examples of learning (academic or social/emotional). Then inviting families to share examples in return.
• Ensuring teachers communicate with parents what and how children are learning in real time, not only through formal reporting such as written reports and parent-teacher interviews.
• Linking everyday activities (like shopping or sport) with school learning – make learning authentic and contextual so children know learning happens everywhere.
• Sharing dates of school events well in advance so parents can make time to attend and/or participate in various engagement in learning initiatives.
• Asking parents to share with teachers, their unique parent knowledge about their child.
• Developing school activities that enable parents to be engaged and share their knowledge and experience with teachers and students.
Examples* shared by principals include:
• Parents sharing their work experiences or skills with teachers and students
• Class and year level parent liaison officers who act as an on-going support for parents and the school
• Genuinely collaborative parent-school decision making
• Daily parent coffee mornings
• Information sessions that are linked with learning
• Classroom learning walks and talks
• Three way learning conversations between student – family - teacher
• The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Project and
• Various learning area initiatives such as parent engagement in STEM committee.
It is inevitable that challenges for parents and teachers will arise however, the more robust each family-school partnership, the more likely these challenges will be resolved efficiently and effectively.
(*Taken from interviews conducted as part of the Re-Energising Parent Engagement in Australian Primary and Secondary Schools Project).
IMPACT ON STUDENTS
Parents and families are children’s first teachers and they continue to help their children to learn and thrive throughout the school years. When their family’s love and support is combined with the expert knowledge of teachers, it can have a significant and lasting impact:
• Children can be more likely to enjoy learning and be motivated to do well.
• Children can have better relationships with other children, improved behaviour and greater confidence.
• Children can do better at school and are more likely to graduate and go on to college, TAFE or university.
• Children can be less likely to miss days at school.
Extract from the Parent Fact Sheet, ACT Government, Education Directorate - available at:
Researchers highlight that the family and effective parenting are central to children’s mental health. Parenting practices and the quality of the parentchild relationship have implications for children’s development in the early years as well as their academic achievement, social competence and behaviour at school.
Understanding the range of changes a child is likely to encounter as they transition from early childhood education and care into school, can enhance parental confidence and in turn, also enhance children’s confidence.
(Hirst, Jervis, Visagie, Sojo & Cavanagh, 2011).
SOME IDEAS AND RESOURCES
The value of building relationships with families is reflected in the increased volume of resources available to guide all participants - principals, teachers and parents.
Following are some valuable tools that inform your staff of a range of approaches.
Building relationships with parents.
Impact on families.
A guide to engaging with families of
children with a disability.
Parental Engagement: Engaging with families ofchildren with a disability
Problem solving strategies for parents and teachers.
Welcoming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families at school.
Transcript of the video embedded in above link (July 2014) is available in link below:
Australian Government - Learning Potential
What some Principals say
“So if there’s something happening in a child’s life at home that will impact their education, then we should know about it, conversely if there’s something happening at school that will impact on their life, then we should be informing the parents about that”.
(Primary principal, metropolitan school, Queensland).
“We also have a communication protocol … that parents need to go to the teacher, discuss the issue, find out, these are the strategies that we use and then if there’s still no resolution then they come back to the Assistant Principal or Principal, as need be”.
(Primary principal, metropolitan school, Western Australia).
“Every day we make at least one phone call per person to deliver some positive genuine news about our students because we’re very conscious that many of our parents can’t really make their way to the school”.
(Primary principal, regional school, Victoria).
“As you would well know, it prepares parents, so when the tough conversation does come along - well the relationship is already in place.”
(Primary principal, regional primary school, ACT).
“I was on duty also every afternoon out in the carpark, so that I would be spending that half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon. Rather than being confined to the office, I could have always found work that I could do there, but it was far more important for me to be a visible presence for parents in the school. It often short circuited a lot of issues, small things that might have come up but it also gave parents the opportunity to come and talk with me and establish relationships with me.”
(Primary principal, regional school, Western Australia).
The following quotes are taken from interviews conducted as part of the Re-Energising Parent Engagement in Australian Primary and Secondary Schools Project.
“So making sure that the communication is there, that if there are any issues, that you can raise them straightaway with the teacher, so they’re addressed, rather than snowballing into something bigger. So, as soon as you can see any sorts of problems, being able to address them early is really important.”
(Parent, regional primary school, Victoria)
“We go to a great school where the school was very willing to listen and be involved in any issues and problems and help us solve that.”
(Parent, metropolitan primary school, Victoria).
“I had a recent experience with my daughter and some friendship issues as does occur at particular ages and the school’s policy on communication is for parents to try and speak to the classroom teacher first before they escalate it to one of the leadership team members, and so I emailed the teacher explaining my concern”.
This matter was handled well by the teacher and the parent was pleased with the teacher’s “proactive response to the concern that I had raised with them and that had a particularly positive impact on my child’s learning because it dealt with the issue before it escalated to anything bigger”.
(Parent, metropolitan primary school, Queensland)
“And I think too that any kind of life event that has impact on the child, such as the death of a grandparent, a pet or relationship problems within the family situation or an accident or something that’s had an effect, teachers need to be aware of so that they can give that child … support and understand that maybe their behaviour or whatever is going on for that child and that’s about understanding the whole individual.”
(Parent, metropolitan primary school, Victoria)
WHAT SOME RESEARCHERS SAY
Dr Karen Mapp speaks of Partnership Schools where engaging with families is seen as a commitment and a key component of the school’s functioning. A key element of a Partnership School is families and school staff have developed a clear, open process for resolving problems.
(Mapp, Carver, Lander, 2017, p. 41).
Hepworth-Berger and Riojas-Cortez emphasize the importance of effective communication between parents and teachers. They indicate the need to “Emphasize that concerns are no one’s fault. Teacher and parents have to work on problems together to help the child. They use concerns as forums for understanding one another”.
(Hepworth-Berger and Riojas-Cortez, 2016, p. 131).
“Every morning Dr MacNeill and one of his deputy principals stand at the school gate to greet students and their parents and to talk about their child’s progress. Over time, parental engagement has played a critical role in achieving change. Parents have reinforced the change process and highlighted the improvement the school is making. Parents regularly tell teachers that their children are advancing more quickly than children they know at other schools; through positive reinforcement, success breeds success.”
(Jensen & Sonneman, 2014, p. 10).
“... when schools attend to children, as situated in the context of family and community, there is much greater promise for educational achievement in the broadest of senses. Although it is important to engage parents on the school landscape ... it is equally important for educators to move comfortably in the worlds of families and communities off the school landscape.”
“Parents want to know when things go wrong at their children’s schools and the sooner the better. If something is heading off the rails, parents want to know and to be able to seek assistance about the kind of strategies to use at home to help. On the flip side, teachers also want to know what’s happening at home. It helps teachers to know if things are going on at home that might impact on a child’s behaviour or their schoolwork or motivation …”
(Picolli, A. Parents partnering with schools and teachers. Teacher: Evidence + Insight + Action, 12 February, 2019).
Some useful books on parent engagement
Hepworth-Berger, E. and Riojas-Cortez, M. (2016). Parents as partners in education – families and schools working together (9th edition). Pearson Education Inc., USA.
Hirst, M., Jervis, N., Visagie, K., Sojo, V. & Cavanagh, S. (2011). Transition to primary school: a review of the literature. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Jensen, B. & Sonneman, J. (2014). Turning around schools: It can be done, Grattan Institute.
Mapp, K. L., Carver, I. and Lander, J. (2017). Powerful partnerships – a teacher’s guide to engaging families for student success. Scholastic Inc., USA.
Piccoli, A. (2019). 12 Ways your child can get the best out of school. ABC Books.
Pushor, D. (2012). Tracing my research on parent engagement: Working to interrupt the story of school as protectorate, action in teacher education.
Ethics approval for research was obtained through the University of Southern Queensland Human Research Ethics Committee.
Special thanks to the following for contributing to the project.
Project partner - The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) for assistance with survey development and data analyses.
National principal associations for various assistance with dissemination of project information.
National parent associations for various assistance with dissemination of project information.
Australian primary & secondary school principals who completed surveys.
Australian primary & secondary school principals who participated in interviews.
Australian school children’s parents who participated in interviews.
Project partner - Professor Sue Saltmarsh (USQ) for ethics approval submissions, interview protocols, training of interviewers, qualitative and quantitative data analyses, research publications and presentations.
Dr David Saltmarsh for data analyses and research publications.
Presenters of preliminary findings: Professor Sue Saltmarsh (USQ), Tony O’Byrne (Catholic School Parents Australia (CSPA)), Carmel Nash OAM (CSPA) and John O’Brien (CSPA).
Interviewers: Tony O’Byrne (CSPA), Bernadette Kreutzer (Catholic School Parents Queensland (CSPQ)), Siobhan Allen (CSPA), Linda McNeil (CSPA), Rachel Saliba (CSPA) and Greg Boon (CSPA).
Dr Tim Sealey for assistance with survey generation and survey data analyses.
Interview data analyses and generation of qualitative data report: Barbara Barker (ARACY), Neil Stafford and Dr Caroline Ladewig (ARACY).
Parent Engagement Module writers: Carmel Nash OAM (CSPA), Siobhan Allen (CSPA), Rachel Saliba (CSPA) and David Fagan (Backroom Media Pty Ltd).
Charmaine Stevens (CSPQ) for graphic design and art direction.
Schoolzine for web design and Adventure Clipz for video footage.
John O’Brien (CSPA) for project coordination.