If you want your child to do better academically, emotionally and socially, there is one key relationship worth investing in – and that’s the one you have with your child’s teacher.

More than 60 years of research shows that when parents and teachers work together in partnership  – respecting each other’s unique contributions and sharing knowledge, children thrive.

The concept is known in education circles as ‘parent engagement’ and it’s a burgeoning area of interest to policy makers, governments and schools due its known positive effect on student (and overall school) results.

Small tweaks, big results

The good news for families and teachers is that with the right attitude and guidance, parent engagement doesn’t have to be tricky or laborious.

“We know from our research that effective parent engagement strategies don’t need to be epic,’’ says Griffith University’s Dr Linda Willis, pictured left, one of Australia’s leading parent engagement experts.

“If I had to talk about parent engagement simply it’s about having the child in the middle and the school and the parent working as partners to improve a child’s learning and well-being.’’

So what can parents do to ‘engage’?

The first step to strengthening rapport between home and school is parents making themselves known to their children’s teachers.

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

“Prioritise building a mutually respectful relationship with your child’s teacher from day one. This builds a wonderful base for future communication and trusting relationships.”

Other things parents are encouraged to do include:

  • Having high (but realistic) expectations and aspirations for your child
  • Reading to them when they are young, and continuing to model the benefits of reading when they are older
  • Creating a positive and productive environment for homework
  • Taking an active interest in what your child is learning
  • Accepting invitations from your child’s teacher to learn more about what is happening in the classroom.

Schools have an equally important role to play

In many ways schools and classroom teachers need to take the lead in parent engagement, but Dr Willis stresses that effective parent engagement strategies – anything that brings a parent closer to what is being taught at school – don’t need to be overwhelming.

“Often it’s a matter of teachers just asking one question of themselves during every curriculum planning session and that is ‘how can I bring what I’m teaching a child and what the parent knows about what I’m teaching their child closer together?’.

“When teachers do that, it’s potentially a game-changer.”

The latest findings on parent engagement

Dr Willis and her Griffith University colleague Professor Beryl Exley spent 2021 studying parent engagement in Queensland independent schools under their ongoing research project titled Engaging Parents in Inquiry Curriculum or “EPIC’’.

EPIC 2021 – a collaboration with Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network (QIS Parents Network) and Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ) –  delivered a raft of significant new findings as well as rich examples of effective parent engagement approaches at the classroom level.

“That research showed that schools need to adopt a welcoming approach to parents that begins at the school gate,’’ Dr Willis says.

“We also now know that parent engagement strategies in a school have a much greater chance of long-term success if they are modelled and encouraged by the school’s leadership team.”

Invitations to parents should be ‘short, sharp, regular, optional and personal’

EPIC’s other key findings included:

  • Parent engagement activities should be tailored to a school’s unique context and community: what is effective for one school may not be for another
  • Invitations to parents to value-add to their child’s learning journey should be “short in duration, sharp in focus, offered regularly, always optional and personal to them”.

The researchers also found that inquiry projects provided a genuine and fortuitous opportunity for parents to share their expertise with the teacher and the students. For example, in a food and nutrition unit, parents shared information about food from their culture. In a unit on human physiology, a parent who was vision impaired talked about his experiences and another parent who was in the final trimester of her pregnancy shared some of that journey with the class. 

Samford Valley Steiner School Director Tracey Taylor and several of her teachers fine-tuned their parent engagement strategies as part of the 2021 EPIC project.

She said excitement about parent engagement had spread through the school as a result.

“The opportunity we were given to deep dive into the research on parent engagement was absolutely a unique chance for us to learn so much more and explore new ways of working with parents,’’ Tracey [pictured far left] a Steiner education teacher and leader for 25 years says.

“When parents are working alongside teachers, children feel supported on all levels and feel that what they are learning is of value.

“Often we don’t think to ask parents for help but really they are just waiting there in the wings.”

Resources shared across all independent schools

The EPIC research findings have been converted into shareable resources for all independent schools to start using straight away.

This includes three snapshot documents of the findings available for principals and teachers on the ISQ Member Hub (please note, only ISQ member schools will be able to access the Member Hub).

Find the full report and profile stories on some of the participating schools on the ISQ website.

This short video also summarises the impact of the EPIC research project.