If schools want to develop a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing, engaging widely with all members of the school community is essential and should be a key part of a school’s mission and values.
This broad engagement should include parents and carers – building important links between home and school, empowering them to voice their ideas and opinions, and communicating effectively with them to promote their child’s learning and educational experience.
Parent/carer engagement is important because working together (with mothers, fathers and carers) has been shown to have a promising impact on the wellbeing, attendance, behaviour, sense of school belonging, intellectual development and attainment of children across a range of social and economic backgrounds.
What schools can do
School inspectorates will often look at parental engagement as part of their assessment of schools. It can involve a number of activities and actions such as:
- Directly involving parents and carers in their child’s academic learning. This can focus on building skills with parents/carers (e.g. familiarising them with the curriculum, building parental literacy, maths or IT skills) so that they can support their child.
- Helping strengthen parent/carers’ abilities to build resilience in their children and in themselves – reducing risks affecting wellbeing and learning. Some schools run programmes for parents/carers which aim to strengthen children’s mental health or de-escalate common problems. Bear in mind that although parents and carers value opportunities to learn about mental health, the word can be daunting as there is still a great deal of stigma attached to it.
- For children with behavioural difficulties, for example, there is strong evidence that some parenting programmes help parents and carers develop additional techniques and approaches which, if used consistently, can help children manage their own behaviour more effectively. These programmes can also result in improvements in parental mental health.
- Putting on information/training sessions about a particular theme can also be useful. For example, running a session on academic stress, especially at times when parents/carers will be worrying about it.
- Noticing when parents/carers are in distress and considering how it may be impacting on their child’s learning. In a study of parents accessing Place2Be’s school-based parent counselling, parents said that discussions with school staff on children’s wellbeing and progress had been a major prompt to getting help for themselves.
The reception teachers saw I wasn’t coping and the bairns weren’t coping. They saw things I didn’t.
- Seeing every parent/carer contact (even if it’s a difficult exchange) as an opportunity to support protective factors, so they can work with you to help their child flourish and learn. Use existing networks and events to ask parents/carers how they are doing.
- Being consistently available and in sight on the playground in the mornings and after school so that parents and carers begin to get to know staff. They’ll also become more familiar with staff roles and will develop a trusted point of contact if they need additional support or someone to talk to. Investing in parents and carers in this way can also reduce the risk of conflict.
Before school the head, myself (school leader) and the learning mentors will be outside most mornings... So, we are all available there on the morning, we’re all visible and we stay out there for half an hour making sure everything is okay and answering any questions. They won't see you if you're in your office; they won't approach you – but we’re out there saying ‘morning, morning’.
– Centre for Mental Health
- Being welcoming to parents and carers who come into the school; communicating with them in a non-judgemental and positive way.
It's good for them to see everything, to see the staff here working so hard to support the children. I think that's good for them and when they’re going round the school and they’re looking at the books and the marking on the display and seeing what goes into making learning fun for their children; I think it really helps to create a positive relationship (with parents).
– Head teacher
- Having an open door policy for school leaders and making sure it is communicated to parents and carers.
- Creating a parent engagement strategy – with a clear plan for engaging harder to reach parents/carers. Activities could include:
- Non-academic-related social or ‘taster’ events for parents/carers to build up confidence and trust and help them to become more familiar with the school.
- Parent/carer ‘walkabouts’ in schools to familiarise them with what happens in school and what teachers are seeking to achieve with children.
- Uniform swap shops or banks. These sorts of activities and resources will help parents/carers feel more involved and can be useful for showing that schools can be supportive.
- Parenting support groups.
- Parent/teacher associations.
- Identifying staff development needs and gauging how confident staff members are in relation to speaking to parents and carers. Making sure that staff are kept up-to-date about internal and external services that support parents and carers and have a list of services to hand that parents can be signposted to for more specialist help. The section of our website on risks and protective factors may help school staff better understand some of the challenges that children and families face and how staff might best use routine contact to help parents and carers link to support.
What else schools can do
More information, advice and ideas about what schools can do to engage parents and carers.
- Parents and carers should feel that they belong to, and are an important part of, the school community. They should feel that they are partners in school activity rather than ‘bolted on’ as passive recipients of school initiatives.
- Recognise that all parents/carers are different and may want to engage in school activities in various ways. Make sure that events, meetings, workshops and sessions are put on at times and in places to suit a broad range of parents/carers.
- Help to shift and develop the culture of the school from ‘my child’s school’ to ‘our school’ by constantly emphasising to parents/carers that they are an integral part of their child’s learning and school experience. This process may take some time, especially if parents and carers have had negative school experiences or are just anxious about communicating with school staff.
- Is the school’s physical environment welcoming to all parents/carers? Is there a physical space for parents/carers in school?
- Is there a forum for parents/carers to express opinions and to support the school? Is there information for them displayed where they can see it, such as a parents’ noticeboard?
- Do school newsletters, websites/intranets (where accessible to parents/carers) include contributions from parents and carers and their views and opinions?
- Are parents and carers regularly canvassed through surveys/questionnaires about their views on the school curriculum, children’s behaviour, wellbeing, parental/carer involvement, feeling welcomed and informed etc.?
- Are events advertised widely and in different ways? Some parents/carers will want text or email reminders, others will want simple flyers or posters, and a few may want an informal chat to encourage them to take part.
- Are parents/carers recognised for what they can offer in relation to their own skills and expertise?
- Try something! We are all unique and one approach will not work for all parents and carers. The important thing is to persevere and try different methods.
- Explain to parents/carers that you value their views and you want to develop ways to communicate even more effectively with them. Ask for feedback from them and explain your decisions; tell them what you’re doing and why.
- Think about your communication – when was the last time you contacted a parent or carer to just say something positive about their child? Create opportunities for letters and phone calls home that help build effective relationships.
- Ensure that the school governors or parent councils are involved. Parent governors/councils already have a good ear for the issues that may be affecting parents/carers. They can be a good bridge between the parent/carer community and the strategic priorities of the school. Share elements of the school improvement plan with parents and carers so they know what the school is focusing on.
- Could parents/carers be invited to some after-school Inset sessions for teachers, where relevant?