Helping parents to help our students

One of the most recent EEF guidance reports ‘Working with parents to support children’s learning‘ explores the ongoing issue of how schools can get better at engaging parents.  It’s a really useful document, that highlights some important points:

  1. The evidence base on parental engagement is limited.
  2. It’s tricky to get right – even more so in secondary than primary.
  3. The home learning environment is associated with children’s school performance at all ages.
  4. What parents do with their children matters more than their income or educational qualifications.
  5. Fostering better relationships with families is important for a wide range of school outcomes.

So whilst parental engagement can be tricky, it’s worth investing time in.  The ‘Millennium Cohort Study’ was a longitudinal study that looked at the development of babies born at the beginning of the 21st Century and has given us a useful insight into this.

The table above used the data from the MCS.  The percentage of children who had reached a ‘good level of development’ by the end of reception was looked at, alongide the poverty score of their families and the quality of parenting (Parenting Index Score) – further details of this study here.  The parenting index score looked at the degree to which children were exposed to:

  • Being read to by parents
  • Songs and nursery rhymes
  • Praise and answering questions

The results show some interesting patterns.  The percentage of children reaching a good level of development appears to decrease as their families get poorer.  However, it is not as simple as this.  More children reached a good level of development (58%) from poor families with a high parenting index score, than those from a rich family with a low and medium parenting index score (42% and 55%).  So, what parents do with their children can overcome any issues with poverty.

This has important implications for schools.  It’s worth us devoting our time and energy to supporting parents with doing the right things with their children.  These ‘right things’ include:

  • Supporting parents to have high academic expectations for their children;
  • Developing and maintaining communication with parents about school activities and schoolwork;
  • Promoting the development of reading habits.

Taking this a stage further, we also need to focus on the skills we want children to develop at different ages:

  • Early years – activities that develop oral language and self-regulation;
  • Early primary – activities that target reading (for example, letter sounds, word reading, and spellings) and numeracy
  • Later primary – activities that support reading comprehension through shared book reading;
  • Secondary – independent reading and strategies that support independent learning.

So, as children get older, parental engagement should focus less on active involvement  and more towards interest, encouragement and supporting them with effective learning/revision strategies.  One way that parents can do this really well, is by supporting their children with ‘self-testing‘.  We can make this easier for parents in the following ways:

  • Showing students how to make flashcards and then providing parents with guidance on how to use them.  More on this here.
  • Using Cornell note-taking in lessons and then explaining to parents how they can support their children with using these.  More on this here.
  • Giving students knowledge organisers and then explictly teaching them (and their parents) how to use them. More here.
  • Through retrieval practice quizzing at the start of lessons (low stakes questions on previously taught content) encourage children to build up a set of ‘cumulative quiz questions‘ that their parents can then ask them.
  • Provide students with completed ‘mind-maps’ but then give their parents guidance on ‘blind mind-mapping‘.  This is where students trace out a blank copy of the mind-map, that they then have to try and complete from memory.

The beauty of this approach is that it does not require parents to be subject experts.  They are not being expected to ‘teach’ the subject, they are just supporting their children with self-testing – a learning strategy with plenty of evidence behind it.  Evening workshops are a great way of sharing these strategies with parents, whilst also serving to foster a culture of school and home working together.  What the teachers are doing in school can be supported and developed by parents at home.   This is a ‘win-win’ situation – parents feel empowered and the learning that is happening in lessons is being embedded.

By Shaun Allison

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