5 tips for working with hard-to-reach parents

Building good relationships with parents requires time, honesty and a willingness to listen, writes Kate Martin

Kate Martin

How schools can build strong relationships with hard-to-reach parents

Parental engagement is one of those tricky things that appears on many a school-improvement plan, particularly for those infamous "hard-to-reach" parents and carers.

But is there really such a thing as hard-to-reach parents, or is it really a case of us, as schools, approaching our relationships with parents in the wrong way?

When new pupils attend their induction at our alternative-provision academy, they are often sullen, quiet or cocky. These are all understandable responses for pupils facing a new, potentially intimidating, environment – particularly for those who've had a negative relationship with their previous school.

When parents and carers attend these inductions, they are very often angry, too – either with the pupil for "ending up here" or with their child’s previous school for unfairly "kicking them out".

Listening to families

The first thing we do is listen.

No preconceived ideas or understanding. No barriers. Just fully engaged listening. And as they are listened to, invariably both parent and child physically unwind: an actual tangible easing of days', weeks', months' and even years' worth of muscle tension.

Now that’s not because we do things better than the child’s mainstream school, or even that differently. But it is a sign of the relationship between home and school turning to anger and hostility over time.

I think all schools need to consider how this happens. What creates this apparently insurmountable wall of non-engagement? How has this family become so hard-to-reach?

Forging relationships with parents

I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers, but I can explain the five key factors we use in building our relationships with parents.

1. Honesty and transparency

From the outset, we are open with parents about how we work, our relational approach, but also our academic expectations.

We try and build a working relationship from that very first meeting, by getting the balance between being genuine and natural but also being professional.

2. Regular positive communication

Many parents, especially by the time their child reaches us, are practically hiding from phone calls and meetings with the school. Because, the minute that number appears on the phone screen, they know it’s going to be bad news.

Imagine the weight on their shoulders, the shame they may feel, or even the way this might trigger their own memories of a fractious relationship with school.

We make sure that we make positive phone calls to celebrate good days (or even just good lessons), we send regular text updates, and sometimes even just call to see how things are.

3. Caring about them, as parents and people

Our parents know that we are there if they need us. Our team have spent time supporting families with benefits claims, finding adult education classes, looking for healthy-meal recipes.

We are often a place for parents to turn if things aren’t OK for them, and we find this to be a great stabilising factor in their child’s education.

4. Genuinely showing care for our pupils

Furthermore, knowing that we love their children allows parents to believe that we have the best interests of their child at heart.

That means we very rarely get any pushback when putting in sanctions or making those more challenging phone calls.

5. Allowing and supporting parents to be the experts about their children 

We believe that the majority of parents and carers want what is best for their child and that they can be the expert in supporting them.

With support from the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in London, we provide a parent coaching programme, which allows parents to learn about the how the teenage brain works, and to work together to support their children and each other through challenging times.

Working with parents and carers is essentially similar to the brilliant work we all do with pupils – building strong, trusting relationships, based on acceptance and open communication.

If we can get this right with parents, then being "hard to reach" may be a thing of the past.

Kate Martin is vice-principal at Restormel Academy, an alternative-provision school in Cornwall. She tweets @k8martin

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