At the start of every school year, most parents would admit to feeling nervous about meeting their child’s new teacher and working out the best way to ‘break the ice’.

Simple relationship building skills – such as messages of thanks, and regular warm communication – are the keys to getting things off on the right foot, experts say.

“Building a mutually respectful relationship with your child’s teacher from day one – and viewing each other as partners in the education process – builds a wonderful base for future communication and trusting relationships,’’ says one of Australia’s leading parent engagement voices, Griffith University’s Dr Linda Willis.

It’s a concept known in education circles as ‘parent engagement’ (in other words parents and teachers working as a team).

The good news? When it’s done well, students are shown to do better in all aspects of school life.

Re-thinking the traditional parent-teacher dynamic

“In the past, parents might have seen the lives of their child at school and home as being very distinct and separate,” Dr Willis told QIS Parents Network, “but when parents shift that mindset and take an active interest in their child’s learning – it makes a difference.’’

Through her state-wide research with Griffith colleague Professor Beryl Exley, Dr Willis has seen first-hand the great outcomes for students when schools and families respect each other’s unique contributions to a child’s education.

“Parent engagement is not about schools asking parents to supervise their child’s homework more, it’s schools thinking, ‘how can we support parents to contribute in authentic ways and in real time to what their child is learning at home and school?’”, Dr Willis [pictured left] says

“When that happens, you encourage and deepen conversations between a child and their parents and those conversations tend to be more regular, more enjoyable and more fun. You can see how that can only have a positive influence on a child.’’

Okay, it’s important…so how do we go about it?

Respected Canadian parent engagement academic and former school principal Dr Linda Kaser stresses a productive and healthy relationship requires both parties (school and family) to play their part.

“In some schools, teachers fear parent involvement and only call home when they need to report a problem,’ Dr Kaser told QIS Parents Network.

Parent engagement expert Dr Linda Kaser

“But when teachers send a very short text every Friday afternoon to two parents with a ‘this is something that went well for your child this week’ information item – that can really help foster connections.’

Parents can also do much to strengthen the school-home relationship.

Dr Kaser offered these five tips for families:

  • Be genuinely interested in creating a daily dialogue with your child about what is being learned at school.
  • Make an effort to find out something about your child’s teacher that they find personally interesting. “Are they hikers, walkers, dog or cat fans…? Try to make a personal link,’’ she advises.
  • Teachers are people too! “Teachers are invaluable,’’ she says. “If yours does something good, a quick text describing the impact on your child can be a big boost.”
  • Share information with the teacher about your child. “Let your teacher know things your child is curious about outside of school,’’ she urges.
  • You are your child’s first and continuing teacher. “Sometimes the way we use skills like reading and writing and mathematics as adults is invisible to young people (because it takes place mainly at work, for example). Educators are trying to do a better job of linking learning to life. Make your use of skills “visible” (to your child) and talk about when you learned them and how you are applying them.

Start as you intend to go on

“First impressions are really important,” Dr Willis says.

“Simple things like making sure you don’t ignore the teacher, that you are visible to them and say hello so they know who you are make a difference. I think if parents or teachers are seen to be unapproachable it doesn’t allow the relationship to develop on a good footing.

“Open communication and mutually respectful relationships will often lead to productive outcomes for students, and that is something we see quite often in schools that have spent time building high quality school-family relationships.’’

Queensland independent schools already on the journey

Rebecca Montgomery is the principal of Border Rivers Christian College at Goondiwindi in Queensland’s south-west and prioritises nurturing relationships with the College’s families.

She’s one of many independent school educators already well on the parent engagement path. [Read other schools’ journeys here.]

“We have a very low-key welcoming barbeque at the start of every school year where parents and teachers can chat in a very non-formal manner but we’ve also found conversations at drop off and pick up are the best way to form relationships,’’ she says

“Parent-teacher interviews are very important, but it’s those non-structured chats before and after school where you can ask: ‘how are things going?’ that allow you to connect on a deeper level.

“During the COVID restrictions in 2020, myself and our school counsellor were at stop-drop-go every morning asking parents ‘how are you coping’ and ‘can we provide you with any extra support’ – we are always asking ‘what do parents need in this situation?’.

“Good relationships mean when serious things need to be addressed you start from a place of trust and respect.

“We know what we are doing strengthens relationships and benefits everyone.’’

A re-cap on parent engagement

‘Parent engagement’ is a concept backed up by 50 years of academic research that shows when parents and educators work together and respect each other’s unique contributions to a child’s education, the child’s academic achievement and wellbeing soars.

Download our one-page factsheet on parent engagement.

Read about the partnership between Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network and Independent Schools Queensland to develop an overarching Parent and Community Engagement Strategy for member schools.

Read in detail about parent engagement and how schools can implement effective strategies in the recently released report The Parent Engagement Implementation Guide by Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY).

There is a rich well of information and research about parent engagement on our website.

There are also many wonderful websites with tips and advice for parents who want to connect school learning with life at home, which we have compiled on our website.