Meet the parents to improve relationships

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
A structured approach to talking with parents is paying dividends with hard-to-reach families

PARENTS ARE often categorised in schools as either engaged or difficult. This is a limiting and dangerous approach. While a family’s situation and/or judgement of the school can get in the way of their child’s needs and learning, the same can be said of the school’s own judgement of the family.

There is much a school can do to maximise the relationship with parents, regardless as to how engaged they might have been in the past. The starting point for this new kind of relationship is what we at Achievement for All call structured conversations.

The school leadership teams and teachers who Achievement for All is working with using this approach are, time and time again, demonstrating just how powerful their relationship with the parents can be – not only does it positively impact on each child’s wellbeing (building that crucial confidence and resilience) but, as a result, on their focus, attendance and learning in class.

Here’s how it works.

Schools target those pupils who might be struggling and create a termly meeting of up to an hour (any cost involved can usually be covered by pupil premium funding) between parent and teacher.

This gives parents and carers the time and the space necessary to discuss their child’s interests and hobbies, fears and dislikes, friendships and foibles. This, in turn, gives teachers an opportunity to discover and explore what works for the child, and how they can transfer that into the classroom.

Secondly, it should be stipulated from the outset that the conversations have a zero-judgement atmosphere and that this is not a conversation about results. Instead, parents might talk about some of the difficulties they have in supporting homework because of pressure on the family, or a child’s caring role at home, or some of the challenges their child has, perhaps with sleeping, friendships, eating and more. Nothing is considered unimportant. Everything helps create a picture of the child and their needs. It’s never used to judge the family or explain away low achievement, but instead is used to open up opportunities for new interventions.

Thirdly, with a new atmosphere of collaboration, families and teachers can communicate their aspirations for the child and agree shared learning goals and potential interventions and support for schooling at home. This comes with a promise of regular meetings – structured conversations have to be ongoing – so if early interventions haven’t worked, the teacher can try something else instead.

Crucially, structured conversations make it clear to everyone that schools can’t reach and teach every pupil in the same way to achieve the same ends. It’s helping teachers see that they’re not expected to know everything about pupils, and that part of their job is learning something new from them, from other staff, and from families. It is about having a conversation about the child as a person, not about the child as a student.

Neil Humphrey, professor of psychology of education at the University of Manchester, perhaps sums it up best, When evaluating the programme, he concluded that “it became clear that schools often think they know how to talk to parents, but, of course, this is about knowing how to listen”.

Sonia Blandford’s new books for teachers (Love to Teach) and for leaders (Take the Lead) are available from

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