Facing Challenges Together
The use of the words parents and families throughout 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: © Motortion | Dreamstime.com
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 wellbeing.
Welcoming families and recognising the diversity of their backgrounds are essential for all school 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 wellbeing of students.
Some parents might believe they have completed their role in educating a child by the time they transition to high school, however this is a time when new challenges can emerge and the support of family is needed more than ever.
A role of the principal is to lead the school community in understanding and managing concerns – and often endeavouring to disseminate them before they become more complex challenges. Concerns that emerge for parents and/or staff could involve such matters as student behaviour, conflicting priorities, classroom performance or relationship breakdowns.
When there are genuine family-school partnerships that are based on positive parent-school relationships, 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 young people.
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 a concern that parents had raised, usually in relation to their child’s situation, behaviour or performance.
As a principal, you and members of your leadership team, can build a culture that recognises and manages challenges by:
• Emphasising with both parents and teachers, the importance of regular, ongoing respectful communication between the school and parents – with both embracing the shared responsibility for young peoples’ learning and wellbeing.
• Using interactive information sessions and early in the year, parent teacher get-to-know you sessions to ensure opportunities exist to share expectations around a child’s learning.
• Ensuring teachers (and parents) have the skills to use technology to keep parents up to date with their child’s learning. This may include the use of school websites, portals, social media, classroom sharing apps and simple tools like text messaging and email. Also, it is important that parents are not disadvantaged if they don’t have the skills or resources for such interaction.
• Setting in place visible, transparent and readily accessible processes for dealing with parent challenges/ complaints, advising teachers and parents of these processes, and emphasising the importance of these agreed processes being followed. Such processes help to empower parents to have the confidence to follow up with questions/concerns and to understand they will be heard and their questions/ concerns acted upon.
(*In interviews conducted as part of the ReEnergising Parent Engagement in Australian Primary and Secondary Schools Project).
What you can do with your school
Teachers and parents have a shared responsibility for the development of a young person. Your role as principal is to professionally lead the school community and to oversee the followup of any concerns that arise from in or outside the classroom.
Usually schools will have educational frameworks and underlying philosophies which guide their functioning. It is important to ensure that the school community understands expectations within these guiding principles. The agreed expectations need to be known, respected and acted upon by staff, students and parents.
Whatever the philosophical approach of the school, below are some suggested actions to assist building a culture that recognises and manages challenges as they arise. These include:
• Wherever possible, some staff and leadership being present when parents are most likely to be in the school. This includes daily informal chance meetings and formal school events. It is vital from day one for staff to better get to know more families.
• Providing processes to parents as to who to discuss any questions or concerns related to their child’s learning and/or wellbeing. This is essential for empowering parents through effective home-school partnership – nurturing a ‘no blame’ approach to working through concerns together.
• Emphasising how communication is critical for developing positive relationships between home and school. Some thoughts regarding communication to build engagement and contribute favourably to facing challenges together include:
- Asking parents to share with teachers, their unique parent knowledge about their child;
- Having staff respond promptly to a concern is usually beneficial to resolving it;
- Having guidelines for communicating are vital, e.g. agreed times and ways in which email will be used;
- Encouraging teachers to send home positive examples of student learning (academic or social/emotional) and inviting families to share examples in return;
- Encouraging teachers to regularly inform parents of what and how young people are learning;
- Sharing dates of important school events well in advance of them happening; and
- Emphasising that tone of voice is often more impacting than the words spoken.
• Noting that all decisions made by the school will impact families in some way, consider how parent voice will be invited in the making of many decisions, for example:
- when and how resources are to be purchased each year; or
- reviewing bring your own electronic device schemes; or
- the timing and content of professional development for parents; or
- reviewing the school’s behaviour management policy; or
- how to better engage parents in theirs child’s learning and wellbeing;or
- the timing and process of parentteacher interviews.
It is important, at every turn, to reinforce the school-parent partnership of shared responsibility for the learning and wellbeing of young people. And genuine parent engagement around these matters helps to lower the likelihood of concerns emerging.
• Facing challenges together is three-way (student, teachers and parents) and this three-way team approach should be a consideration as the student becomes increasingly responsible for their learning and future career pathways. When challenges are discerned, the welfare of young people needs to be always front and centre of the discussion.
• Emphasising the importance of community partnerships, especially with parents, towards maximising the learning outcomes and wellbeing of every student in the school. The National School Improvement Tool (ACER, 2012) provides an outline of what schools could be doing regarding effective school-community partnerships.
A copy of the National School Improvement Tool can be accessed through the following link:
It is inevitable that challenges for parents, students and teachers will arise, however the more robust each familyschool partnership, the more likely these challenges will be resolved efficiently and effectively.
IMPACT ON STUDENTS
Many researchers emphasise how family and parenting influence a child’s mental health. Effective parenting practices and positive parent-child relationships
are very important as young people transition into secondary school.
“Parents and families are children’s first teachers and they continue to help their children to learn and thrive throughout the school years. Parents as partners with
school in supporting children’s learning can have a significant and long lasting positive impact.
Research shows benefits of parental engagement include:
• improved academic outcomes
• greater engagement in learning
• 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
• enhanced relationships with others in the school community
• the development of effective partnerships — where families and schools can work together to address issues that may be impacting on children’s wellbeing and achievement”.
The above information is taken from the Progressing Parental Engagement Project, resources for parents – public school life. ACT Government, Education - this resource is available at:
The Australian Government’s Learning Potential free app and website provide information on topics about how to respond to the many impacts that secondary school has on students. Please refer to section 5 for links to this information.
The following information on transition to secondary school is taken from the Te Tari Arotake Matauranga Education Review Office (2016) and is available at:
“The transition to secondary school often coincides with important social, emotional and physiological changes in the lives of adolescents” and parents’ and teachers’ understanding of these changes can enhance parental confidence and also enhance the confidence of young people.
“When students change class within or between schools, they must adjust to new surroundings, become familiar with new teachers and peers, learn new ways of working, and make sense of the rules and routines that operate in their classes (Sanders et al, 2005). While students are navigating the formal school environment,
they are also adjusting to the social changes that happen when changing schools and classes.
Why the Primary to Secondary Transition matters.
Students need to make positive adjustments to their new school and classes so that their wellbeing is maintained and their learning is coherent and continuous. McGee et al (2003) found that there was a strong correlation between the extent to which students experienced difficulty following transition and their likelihood of dropping out from education. Other research indicates that poor transitions impact on students’ wellbeing and on their achievement in the future (West et al, 2008). Where students experience multiple transitions because of transience, there are identifiable negative impacts on their achievement.”
SOME IDEAS AND RESOURCES
Progressing parental engagement school fact sheet - parental engagement in high school, ACT Government.
Effective communication benefits everyone. It helps improve relationships, increase understanding, and model positive interactions. Please refer to the information about communication skills in the following link
9 Techniques for Building Solid ParentTeacher Relationships, Kechia Williams, Scholastic.
Using a variety of communication methods throughout the year can keep parents connected to the middle school Classroom Grades 6–8.
Better education outcomes for Indigenous students, Andreas Schleicher, Teacher: Evidence + Insight + Action, ACER, 18 September 2017. Article is available at:
Department of Education, Family - school partnerships framework - a guide for schools and families.
Progressing Parental Engagement School Fact Sheet: Engaging with families of children with disability
Australian Goverment - Learning Potential
Learning Potential is a free app and website for parents, families, and carers packed with useful tips and inspiring ways parents can be more involved in their child’s learning. It is designed to help parents be part of their child’s learning and make the most of the time they spend together, from the high chair to high school. Visit the Learning Potential website, or download the app for free from the App Store or Google Play. (Department of Education & Training).
What some Principals say
It is vital that when developing a genuine family-school partnership, both parents and the school work together. This is especially the case when a concern or challenge begins to emerge either at school or at home - each needs to be proactive in informing the other and taking a shared approach to resolving any issues.
The following quotes are taken from interviews conducted as part of the Re-Energising Parent Engagement in Australian Primary and Secondary Schools Project.
“If parents want to talk to somebody I’ll always answer the phone call … it solves the problem sooner rather than later.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).
“I think in terms of professional development what the staff need would probably being able to just be open to listening, not to be on the defensive. I think every kind of parent calls them for a meeting and they actually think that there’s something wrong and sometimes parents do come in really upset about something whether it be academic – their daughter performs in an academic test or something like that all the way through to they feel that their child’s been bullied. But in the same breath they’re the only advocate for their daughter. So that’s their role and so to be able to prepare staff a little bit better to listen, to not go in to be defensive and normally it actually unfolds, especially with teenagers. So as it unfolds we normally find out that we’re all on the same page because the same struggles that they (parents) are having at home they are the struggles that we might be having in the classroom.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, Australian Capital Territory).
“For phone calls we’ve put together some templates, some scripts for our staff. Sometimes our graduate teachers and our new staff are very intimidated by the phone call.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, Western Australia).
“So our first port of call is the home room teacher, if that can’t be resolved then you might go to a year level co-ordinator, and if that can’t be resolved you might go to the relevant deputy head of campus, if that can’t be resolved it comes to me.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, Victoria).
“Now I think parents will tend to believe their kids over two or three different teachers at times. I don’t know whether that’s a change in the culture of parents generally or change in the culture of the schools that I’ve been in.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, South Australia).
“When you started that question, my mind went actually to professional development, or professional learning for teachers around how to work with parents, how to communicate with parents … I think we need to recognise that negative relationships and poor culture are going to really hit hard on teachers who may be early career, may not be as personally confident as some others ... And that, I think, is a great service to teachers, so that they can, I suppose, have a greater sense of poise in the moment when they’re interacting with parents. Plus they (early career teachers) need to know that parents are going to fight for their kids, you’ve just got to invite them, once they’ve finished the flurry of the first few rounds of the match, to sit down and work on a way forward. So be solution-focused. … And so whilst you have consistency and transparency, that’s not the same as rigidity, and I think it’s in those moments where you interact with parents, where you’ve got to set rigidity aside and say okay, we’re not here to defend anything, we’re here to find a solution to a moment in a child’s life.”
(Principal, regional secondary school, Victoria).
“I think our teachers need to have some training in active listening and in being able to be compassionate and understand from the parent’s perspective where they’re coming from so that the two can meet in the middle ... So I think that communication was very, very important. The other thing is in our behaviour management program, one of the strategies we use was something called the round table. When a child was not doing so well academically … we would get the parent in, it might be behaviour issues as well, and then we would sit around a table, a round table and we’d all give our perspective on how the student is going. And the child would be in the room as well, but the big thing about it is, it was to be a positive, so the teachers are told very firmly ‘Okay say the behaviour you observed, don’t say things like the child is lazy, it’s more he doesn’t seem to be focused on his work or she seems to be particularly energetic with her conversations’, but always give them a sense of hope. And often that was a very good communication strategy because everyone in the room heard good things about the student, but there’d also generally be commonalities of issue. Then we would all work out what’s a good strategy to work this forward, and the student would be there, but with the parent hearing it all, and they could see that they weren’t actually being seen as the worst kid in the world, that we could see hope in them.”
(Principal, regional secondary school, Queensland).
WHAT SOME PARENTS SAY
“ … and so I feel like I’ve got a fairly good relationship with the school. I feel like if I’ve got any issues, I can contact the school about anything and know that they’ll hear me out.”
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Tasmania).
“I was probably having a bit of a rant and they calmed it down, they made it all very calm but I guess what was positive was that they actually listened and then they actioned, they got back to me but they also communicated to my child as well.”
Interviewer: ‘That had a positive impact on the learning?’
“Yeah, absolutely, and their participation, because at that point they were probably just about not participating and withdrawing from the school, and they recognised it, saw it, spoke to my child but also spoke to me about it so we could – we all spoke together.”
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).
“Professional development and access to resources are paramount in this area. Challenges are difficult anyway but even more so if there is not a positive culture around relationship building. A culture of open, mutually respectful and positive relationships is beneficial to everyone in a school community and in particular from a wellbeing perspective.”
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Western Australia).
“I’m thinking of one example in particular, listening to what happened with the parent it was an issue where the parents didn’t feel that their voice was being heard. They really didn’t feel that they were being valued.”
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).
“I think in line with that too they constantly need to be mindful that there’s a whole lot of other challenges, issues, concerns that might be impacting on a family. And that a child’s engagement or learning or behaviour might be particularly relevant to what’s going on and to be constantly mindful about checking in with students and with families to see how they’re going, on a regular basis.
“… And to know that at any given time there’s going to be not one but a number of challenges that might be affecting families, and that, that could have a massive impact on their learning
“... So if the things were, you know, communicated early and if concerns were raised early and teachers knew about that in advance or knew about the issues at home or knew about the challenges, then as a complete time saver in reverse, a lot of their behaviour engagements, learning issues would be lessened if parents
communicated more. And parents don’t communicate often so the workload on the teachers is minimal but their management of kids and issues and concerns becomes greater because communication doesn’t come from home.”
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).
What some Researchers say
“One of the most common challenges to the formation of positive relationships was the pre-eminence of deficit-based interactions. That is, the tendency for parents and teachers to sometimes only really converse when there was an issue with student performance, behaviour or development. Parents were often complicit in this, approaching schools and engaging in discussions only when they had a concern to raise or felt a need to ‘vent’ about something. For schools, this could lead to some staff perceiving parents as a ‘nuisance’ or ‘problem’, engendering distrust, conflict and subsequent reticence to engage. While far from universal, an ‘us and them’ culture could manifest, which was clearly detrimental to effective parent engagement and difficult to counter through short-term measures.”
“... A further obvious challenge here was in the formation of relationships between parents and teachers at secondary school, given the different structure of secondary school compared with primary. Some strategies taken to tackle this and maintain relationships between parents and staff included focusing on the role of home group tutors, especially if these individuals followed the same cohort through the school years, parent / communityliaison personnel, and more innovative
approaches to parent-teacher interviews and interactions.”
(Stafford, Barker and Ladewig, 2018).
“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)
“Family–school partnerships are most effective and sustainable when implemented as a collective effort between families and school staff—one that is fully integrated with the school’s overall mission and goals, supported by leadership, and provided with sufficient staffing and funding. When all family members in a school community are meaningfully engaged, supported, and respected as equal partners, their “voice” and experiences are invaluable in creating innovative solutions that support a student’s academic success and healthy development at home, at school, and in the community.”
The above quote is taken from Creating Conditions for Meaningful Family Engagement from Pre-K to High School. Safe School Healthy Students. Retrieved from:
Some useful books on parent Engagement
Piccoli, A. (2019). 12 Ways your child can get the best out of school. ABC Books.
Stafford, N., Barker, B. and Ladewig, C. (June 2018). Parent engagement: Analysis of qualitative research with principals and parents. Unpublished report prepared for Catholic School Parents Australia as part of the Re-energising parent engagement in Australian primary and secondary schools project.
State of Queensland (Department of Education, Training and Employment) and the Australian Council for Educational Research. (2012). National School Improvement Tool.
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.