Explore ways we can create genuine engagement with families and how this benefits everyone, with Jonathan Newport.

I recently ran an online class about child anger and it surprised me when 160 parents and carers immediately signed up. Despite the wealth of resources available online, many families are struggling, particularly with understanding their children’s behaviour, and they’re looking for support.

Understanding behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation

As educational professionals, when we consider children’s behaviour, we often focus on their experience in school. We look for patterns such as regular absences, late arrivals and missing lessons. We spot triggers that might explain why a behaviour happened. We talk with each other and external professionals to build up a picture of this young person and how we can best support them, especially if they have additional needs or disabilities. But we know behaviour doesn’t just stop at the school gates. Parents and carers encounter the same things we face in school.

That was the inspiration behind what we’re doing, so families can access free resources about parenting challenges. Often, parents and carers have the answers to some of our questions. However, it’s easy for this home experience to be relegated to a sentence at the end of a report or missing completely. There are also many students who seem just fine at school. They work hard and seem happy, but they’re masking all day long. When they get home, they’re emotionally exhausted from the effort to ‘fit in’ all day.

Moving from ‘doing to’ to ‘doing with’

We mean well in trying to engage families, but it can feel formal and ‘done to’ them. We become the ‘sage on the stage’. Instead of valuing their opinions and contributions, we’ve already got the answers we think they need. Perhaps it’s about perception. How will it look if we don’t have the answers? Isn’t it our job to know what to do?

Instead, we can approach behaviour, learning and wellbeing with curiosity and a genuine interest in understanding what’s going on for that young person, rather than just focusing on solving it.

That doesn’t mean putting it on parents and carers to find the solutions, but sharing experiences, ideas and emotions – empathising with each other and creating genuine engagement.

Getting clever about communication

Working with families takes time. That’s increasingly hard to find with squeezed budgets, but building engagement is worth it. We’re fire-fighting, lurching from one incident to another. However, proactively building engagement improves communication and creates shared understanding. We can get clever about how we communicate. Lockdown showed us the power of technology.

When I created our resource, I added a variety of formats, such as our popular podcast and live events, so families could choose the ones that suited them. Creating reusable resources saves time that we can spend developing engagement with the families in the most need.

A strategic approach to engagement

Children spend far more time at home than they do at school. Engaging with them needs to be systematic and planned, not tokenistic or an afterthought. While we will always need reactive strategies, moving to a proactive approach helps us work strategically.

There are questions we need to ask:

  • What do our policies say about the role parents and carers play in school life?
  • How are we communicating? What formats do we use? Are we including everyone and not just those who are already engaged?
  • How are we building engagement? What topics do we cover? Are these what parents want?

Building engagement also means actively looking for feedback and adapting what we do, rather than heaving a sigh of relief when something’s over before moving onto the next thing. We need to learn and evolve what we do with families to suit their needs.

Building engagement through 1:1 meetings

Often, parent and carer meetings are the end of the process. We’ve already decided what we, and often they, need to do. But what if we switched that around and brought in parents and carers at the start to talk about challenges, and cocreate solutions together? Being open to their contributions and making sure they inform personal plans and classroom practice can have a really positive impact both in and out of the classroom. True engagement isn’t just about notifying or informing parents and carers but valuing the contributions they bring and making them part of the journey.

We can treat parents and carers as experts; they know their children best, after all.

Author

  • Jonathan Newport

    Jonathan Newport is the global director of Team Teach and My Family Coach. He is a behaviour specialist with over 30 years of experience, who has worked in a range of educational settings across primary and secondary in both the mainstream and independent sectors. Jonathan is also a highly respected speaker and trainer.
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