Dr Janet Goodall, consultant for Connect, says that relationships are at the heart of effective parental engagement

4th March 2019

Building Relationships with families is crucial, says Dr Janet Goodall, consultant with parents’ organisation Connect, author and lecturer at Bath University

Every teacher knows that one of the most important parts of teaching is establishing good relationships in (and out) of the classroom. Strong, good relationships support teaching, learning and behaviour in school.

The same is true of working with families; everything hinges on relationships, so getting those right at the outset is vital.  Of course it may not be at the outset if you’re coming into an established situation – but established doesn’t mean unchangeable. 

The starting point for building relationships with family is so obvious that it is often overlooked.  School staff and family members all want the same thing: the best for the young person in their care. It’s easy for this fundamental point to get lost among all the information that goes back and forth: levels and homework and attainment and ‘please can you sign this’; there’s so much going on that often we forget the reason we’re in contact at all.

I often ask people how long their romantic partnerships would last if all they ever did was give their significant other information – if they never stopped to listen, if they never engaged in dialogue.  Estimates of longevity range from a few days to a few weeks, but I’ve yet to find anyone who thinks that ‘information sharing’ could be the basis of a partnership.

Because it can’t.  Partnerships are based on shared ideas and ideals, on communication and on moving toward a shared goal; in a marriage, that might be having children or retiring early; in a school, that shared goal is for the young person in question to do as well as she/he can in the schooling system.

That’s a very easy goal to articulate and a very difficult goal to accomplish, but unless it’s articulated, the relationship between families and schools will never be on a solid foundation.

What does this mean for school staff?  It means letting parents know you care about their children.  One of the things that remains with me most strongly out of all the research I’ve done was a mother saying to me, ‘Now I’m happy to let my daughter stay at school; now I know that the staff really care about her’. 

There are lots of ways of doing this, of course, and here actions probably speak louder than words.  Showing a parent you know their child as an individual, ‘Your son always has a smile’, ‘Your daughter knows all about dinosaurs!’, ‘Your child looks after their friends so well, it’s lovely to see’.  One teacher told me that she’d phoned a parent and said, ‘You’re worried about your daughter, and I’m worried about her, too.  You’re her mum – you know her better than I do – what can you tell me that will help me to help her?’  It didn’t transform a difficult relationship overnight but it went a long way down that road.

Relationships are, of course, two way – and parents/family members have their part to play in building relationships with the school.  That can mean responding to requests, or it can mean letting the school know things about the young person that will help staff to support their learning.  One of the most important things parents can do is show young people that they value learning and schooling.  It’s not important that parents know the answer to every question or every piece of homework but it is important that families show young people that they care that the answer gets found.  (For example, instead of asking, ‘What did you do today?’ try asking, ‘Tell me two things you know now you didn’t know this morning’ – and be prepared to share things you’ve learned, as well – let children know that the adults around them are still learning and value the process of learning. 

Dr Janet Goodall has been working in the field of parental engagement for several years. She is a consultant with parents’ organisation Connect and supports Connect’s professional learning programme for educators. Find out more about this on Twitter @Connect_ScotPL and follow Janet @janetifImust