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Overcoming 10 common barriers to parental engagement

School Parents

Parental engagement can be a very powerful tool in raising achievement. One of our most popular courses ‘Working with Parents to Raise Achievement’ helps you do that.

By working together with the school, parents can create a fantastic home learning environment and help to reinforce lessons learned in school.

Unfortunately, all too often, parents become disengaged with the school and may even appear disinterested in their child’s education. This often isn’t the case, instead parents are often falling foul of common barriers which prevent them from engaging fully with the school.

So what are the barriers and what can you do to overcome them? 


Unpleasant memories of school

Many parents can be reluctant to engage with their child’s school because they have such difficult memories of their own time at school. They may be only a few years out of school and still consider it to be quite a daunting place. Open, honest friendly staff who communicate positively with parents can help to break down these barriers, though it can be hard to encourage the first step. Sometimes holding informal, fun events aimed at bringing parents into school can help to bridge the gap. Just make sure you make them feel really welcome when they get there.


Forbidden by children to ‘make a fuss’

Parents speaking to teachers can be a real no no for a lot of kids. They think their parents are stirring up trouble and making a fuss. The only way to get around this barrier is to slowly chip away at the entire ethos of school-parent relationships at your school until everyone can understand that regular communications between teachers and parents is normal and helpful.


Only get involved if there’s a problem

Many parents wouldn’t dream of contacting the school unless there was an issue with their child. Again, this barrier can only be broken down by trying to address the ethos of home-school communications. Parents need to be helped to understand that even when their child is doing very well, they can be instrumental in driving that achievement further.


Infrequent communication from the school

Many parents hear only very infrequently from the school – they might get sent home the occasional newsletter but in terms of actually hearing information about their child, it may be limited to one report and one parents evening a year. That’s not a useful dialogue. Think about how you can usefully increase the frequency of your communications with parents – and how you can make it a two way conversation.


Can’t get into school

Many parents work long hours and just aren’t available to get into school during school hours. Whilst they might be able to attend the occasional parents evening, this is unlikely to sufficiently engage them.  You can get around this by allowing parents virtual access to your school – class blogs highlighting good work done by pupils or a regularly updated school website can be a great start.


Think it’s best to leave teaching to qualified teachers

A lot of parents, especially those who may have struggled in school themselves, just don’t see themselves as able to help their child to learn. This isn’t the case though. Even if their child gets to a point where they are learning beyond a level that their parents are comfortable with, their parents are still able to help them learn by asking challenging questions, testing learning and even just making sure they’ve had the time and space and encouragement they need to get their homework finished. Some schools run very successful programmes teaching parents how best to support their children – maybe this is something you could consider at your school if this is a particular problem.


Not enough information to act on

Even if you only communicate with parents infrequently, you need to ensure that you do it effectively. Often schools end up simply reporting – telling parents what their child has achieved. This is great from an information point of view but it doesn’t help engage the parent in their child’s learning. Instead, think about not only what a child has achieved but what their next aims are – can you think of any ways that parents could support this at home? If so… tell them explicitly.


Language barrier

An increasing number of parents do not speak English as a first language so they are unable to understand communications from the school. This can be a real issue and you should assess whether you are in a position to address this. When it comes to things like parents evenings you can invite some of your older students in to act as translators (this can be great work experience).  You can of course invite the child themselves to act as interpreter for their parents – but I would advise an impartial third party is a better option if you want an honest conversation!


Don’t understand the jargon

Even those parents who are fluent in English can have trouble understanding some communications from the school. Always think carefully when communicating with parents and ensure that you don’t use the jargon you might use with your colleagues.


Parents’ evenings are a nightmare

Think back to your last parents’ evening. Did it resemble a cattle market? If not – well done.  If so, you’re in the majority – but you really need to think with your colleagues about how the process can be improved and made less horrific for both parents and teachers. Smaller more focussed parents evenings can often be far more successful and enjoyable for both parents and teachers – though obviously this also means there are more of them. If you don’t want to extend the number of events, think of ways to get things really organised and stick to it. A strict appointment system can work. Oh, and make sure there is plenty of tea and coffee to go around and plenty of kids’ work on show to engage parents’ interest.


Interested in courses focused on engaging with parents? Book on one of the courses below or get in touch we can build an in-house training day to suit your needs. 

Working with Parents to Raise Achievement

Working with Parents to Tackle Problem Behaviour

Dealing with Difficult Parents?

In-house course: How to Engage Parents with Your School



  • A reason it can be hard to engage parents of struggling pupils is that parents don’t want to make the effort to come to parents evening to be told their child is a failure (regardless of the fact the school wouldn’t express it in those terms).

    By encouraging students to participate in extra-curricular events, eg. sports, drama, food fares etc, and maarketing those events to parents, schools can build relationships based on children’s successes. These relationships are a firmer foundation for discussing academic improvement, than ones which have focussed on the problems from the start.

  • Yet again, a great post Pooky. I may pick it up on the Head’s Office!

  • Dear schools, you may not realise but you may be sending really negative messages to your parent community. Review the last ten letters you sent home. How many contained nags – eg Don’t park in front of the gates…some parents are still forgetting to send in .. please try to make sure you are on time … it has come to our attention …. school uniform is STILL not being labelled correctly
    You may be making reasonable requests but often a behaviour from 10 % of parents is met with a letter to 100% of parents. Why send a letter to all when talking to main offenders is most productive? This can be very wearing and leads to a reluctance from parents to get involved. Take a minute to review your home school communications from a parent perspective!

    • Really good point Jackie it’s easy to fall into this kind of trap…

    • I agree as a parent, but as an ex-school governor and soon to be PGCE student, I wonder if head teachers prefer to address all the parents, instead of facing up to individuals, in the hope that the main body of parents will support them; or at least highlight that the school is trying to deal with some problems that affect everyone.

  • I agree with Jackie about schools sending negative letters to everyone rather than just dealing with the parents responsible. Also agree with Ed on parents sending their kids to some extra-curricular activities suggested by the school to develop their child further. But then can every parent afford to send their child to these activities, unless it’s available within the school at a very low cost?

    To make a start I would suggest that the school along with the newsletter also sends valuable information (not just leaflets of courses/workshops), tips, articles, etc. to support the parents with their parenting concerns or worries. This can be done via email communication or written if needed. Rather than asking parents to pay hefty fees for the courses, start by sending some tips to help them on a particular worry or a concern. This will strengthen the relationship between the parents and the school.

  • A great post with some ideas to consider.

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  • On the subject of parents’ evenings, the federation of secondary schools that I work at take a different approach. We do not have parents’ evening at all, but teachers instead have four parental consultation appointments every Wednesday morning during term time (with a few exceptions for some occasional staff meetings).

    The appointments are 15 minutes long and thus allow for much more thorough discussion than many secondary parents’ evenings can usually afford, where appropriate. Students are welcome (and, indeed, usually encouraged) to come along too.

    Parents can contact the schools to request an appointment at any time, while teachers are encouraged to proactively request appointments throughout the year as well. There is an expectation that we see (or telephone) three parents each week.

    The obvious benefit is that it provides a formal structure through which any concerns can be addressed in a very timely fashion. The system was already in place before I joined the schools, but I think that it has helped to bring more parents into school – some will perhaps come for such a personal meeting more readily than they would attend a general parents’ evening.

    The most obvious potential drawback with a system like this in terms of parental engagement is that the consultations become too ‘reactionary’ and used to address ‘problems’ but not so often to report on progress, praise effort or – as your article rightly highlights is important – to discuss what students should be aspiring to next and how parents can support them in achieving those goals.

    Other concerns include parental availability during the working day, as opposed to in the evening when many are more likely to be free (although in practice we do not have seem to have much difficulty with this) and the issues surrounding timetabling and directed time. In our case, the appointments take place in place of the first lesson of the day and the day finishes 50 minutes later as a result (so students effectively have a late start and a ‘matching’ late finish).

    I realise it will not be for everyone (as your article identifies, some will not want to extend the number of events held) but I thought it would be of interest and at least worth some consideration!

  • Hi – really enjoyed this blog, and agree how important it is to develop good relationships between parents and teachers. It inspired a blog I’ve just written, more from parents perspective –

    I’d be interested in your response. Thanks again

  • Dr Janet Goodall, Institute of Education, at the University of Warwick has been doing research into parental engagement. Here is an article about her work and findings:

    Interesting stuff!

    • Tom Hesmondhalgh

      Thanks – that’s a great and very interesting summary. I’ve just sent it to the Twittersphere1

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  • Hi,

    Just came across this from my twitter PLN. Really helpful!

    I’ve heard of teachers baking treats for parent teacher evenings and also awarding students with ‘participation points’ as an incentive to get their parents to the interviews.

    Many schools sent out introductory letters to the parents which I think is great but only works if the child’s new teacher wrote and personalised the letter themselves, as opposed to using a standard template.

    Thanks for the tips,

  • Tom Hesmondhalgh

    Yes you’re right. It’s very valuable but the key issue is time isn’t it. Different perhaps in primary school where you have just one / a few classes and secondary when you could be teaching hundreds of kids!

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