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Tips for better parental engagement

Research has consistently shown that parents’ engagement in a child’s education is strongly linked to improved learning outcomes and life prospects for the child, as well as enhanced wellbeing and the alleviation of disadvantages for the entire family. But despite the immense benefits, many early childhood educators experience difficulty in engaging parents in their child’s education and developing strong learning partnerships with them.

A small team of researchers at James Cook University’s Townsville campus recently conducted a study with parents of young children. During focus group interviews, parents identified some of the barriers and enablers for their engagement and for the development of effective learning partnerships with their child’s educators. Analysis indicated that the identified barriers and enablers generally aligned with three key areas: communication; consistency; and family commitments. Furthermore, the research uncovered some simple yet highly effective strategies, as recommended by the parents themselves, that educators can implement to promote parent engagement in their child’s learning.

Parents indicated that regular, unambiguous communication from educators supported them in engaging with their child’s learning. They asserted that they genuinely enjoyed hearing from their child’s educators and that frequency of communication was important to them. Parents wanted to hear from educators even if it was just to say that there was no news. Correspondingly, periods of no communication were viewed as a barrier to engagement. Parents also valued repeated communication via a variety of contemporary and traditional modes – such as newsletters (both email and printed), Facebook, website and books to ensure that information was not missed.

Consistency of learning opportunities was important to parents and, correspondingly, inconsistency of opportunities was viewed as a barrier to engagement. Parents were keen for their child to participate in a rich, interesting and varied suite of teaching and learning experiences (such as special guests, home readers, Mother’s/Father’s Day events, end of term/year celebrations, and so on). Whilst parents were sensitive to the fact that each educator had their own signature approach, they still had concerns about their child potentially missing out on an interesting and beneficial learning opportunity due to program inconsistency. Making everyone take an identical approach to planning, programming and curriculum delivery is, of course, impossible. However, this research suggests that educators could benefit from emphasising the importance of being responsive to children’s learning needs and interests, as well as making the most of spontaneous ‘teachable moments’ when communicating their rationale for perceived (or real) inconsistencies in children’s learning journeys. Educators who lack confidence in communicating with parents could seek advice from colleagues and access professional learning opportunities.

All parents indicated that they were ‘very busy’ and had a lot of family commitments. Accordingly, they desired a more ‘working-parent friendly’ approach and a supportive ‘community of parents’ culture from their child’s education setting. This research indicates that educators could strengthen parent engagement in their child’s learning by: being particularly sensitive to the needs of working parents; ascertaining parents’ preferred communication and engagement methods upon enrolment; the sharing of parent contact details (with consent); and, by organising a designated ‘contact’ parent (who is already familiar with the setting and the various protocols) to help welcome ‘new’ parents and support them in learning the ropes.

Dr Claire Campbell is a lecturer and early years specialist at the College of Arts, Society and Education, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland.

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