All educators and families can work together to improve student outcomes

Posted on May 12, 2017 · Posted in Conferences, Research

Research report unpacks the thoughts of families and schools about how parents facing social and financial struggles can support their children’s learning

When families are dealing with financial stress parent’s often struggle to keep engaged in their children’s education, researchers have found. In a report prepared for the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), Dr Christine Woodrow from Western Sydney University (WSU) reported, for many families, the top priority is survival, which reduces the time they have to create an environment of learning. In addition to this, schools with a large number of disadvantaged students often focus their resources on meeting the basic needs of students. This reduces the time and energy they can spend on engaging with parents and supporting successful learning.

Dr Charlene Smith, acting CEO of ARACY says successful education can break the cycle of poverty for children and young people. Education is an important part of ensuring a child has a happy and fulfilling life. Researchers, educators, and parents are working together to find ways to ensure all children, no matter their situation, have the same opportunities.

There is solid evidence for the important role parent’s play in their children’s learning. This research from WSU identifies ways to increase parent engagement and provides insights into some of the simple steps families and schools can take to help each other keep children’s learning in focus.

When teachers and families work together, children can be even more successful. Celebrating and valuing the efforts parents already make increases confidence and improves parent-teacher relationships. Community organisations can also help by taking the pressure off schools to meet basic needs. They can also help families feel more comfortable and involved in the school community.

ARACY is committed to ensuring that knowledge regarding parent engagement strategies is shared and skills continue to be developed. In June of this year, ARACY, in partnership with The Smith Family, is hosting the 2017 Parent Engagement Conference in Melbourne, supported by funding from the Australian Department of Education and Training. The Conference will maximise every family and child’s potential by providing a space where research, policy and practice can come together and look for answers, together.



Summary – Parent engagement in communities with low socioeconomic status: findings from Researching Parent Engagement: A qualitative field study

Successful education plays an important role in disrupting the cycle of disadvantage, however parents with a low socioeconomic status (low-SES) also face a number of challenges that can impact their capacity to engage in and support their children’s education. Parents and educators consulted for Researching Parent Engagement, a report prepared for ARACY by the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University (WSU), in 2016, identified that these included family economic uncertainty and resource pressure on the part of schools. The research suggested that valuing family-led learning and drawing on the support of community organisations could help schools find a clearer path to enhancing parent engagement.

Parent engagement

Parental engagement is a key part of promoting and ensuring children’s learning and wellbeing. It involves two key factors that work in collaboration: family-led learning and family-school partnerships. Family-led learning involves developing a home situation in which families work together to create an environment of learning, collaboration and positive wellbeing. This is supported by the second factor, family-school partnerships. These are built around positive parent-teacher relationships that focus on mutual communication and support (Fox & Olsen, 2014). These relationships work to further enhance and develop family-led learning and therefore improve children’s outcomes.

For their investigation into parent engagement in low-SES communities, WSU conducted qualitative research (interviews and focus groups) with families, educators and community organisations.  The researchers used the Socio-Economic Indexes For Areas (SEIFA) and the Index of Community Socio-Educational advantage (ICSEA) to identify schools and communities within scope.  Using these indexes as a guide, the researchers identified locations in three jurisdictions (Tas, Qld and NT). In total, 51 parents /carers, 34 educators and eight members of three community-based organisations providing services within the school community were consulted.

A focus on survival

The research established that a key factor in the perceived lack of parent engagement in low-SES communities by educators is the focus that families have on ‘safety, survival and vulnerability’ because of their economically precarious situation. This reduces the time and capacity to work with their children to create an environment of learning. These findings suggest that the basic needs of families in low-SES contexts need to be met in order to free up time and resources for them to focus on family-led learning.

Valuing family-led learning

The report identified that many parents engage in informal learning with their children through activities such as cooking, shopping, letter-writing and playing games. Key, however, was that many educators did not often validate or value these activities and many parents did not immediately recognise them as family-led learning. It is apparent, therefore, that further validation and encouragement of these activities by schools would enhance parental confidence, improve parent-teacher relationships and potentially increase the extent to which family-led learning occurs.

Pressure on schools

The consultations with educators highlighted that schools within low-SES communities often had to focus much of their time and resources on meeting the basic needs of ‘at risk’ children. This focus was often at the expense of investing in building partnerships with families in order to support family-led learning.

The value of community organisations

Community-based organisations, when successful, can build a bridge between schools and their families, thereby enhancing family-school partnerships. They can also work to address the basic needs of ‘at-risk’ children by connecting families to resources and programs, therefore taking the pressure off schools. Community organisations consulted in the research presented different models of working across sites and schools, but the key elements involved supporting families and children to succeed in the school environment. They often resulted in dedicated spaces in the school for families, better developed transition programs from pre-school or primary school, and supportive social networks amongst parents.

Finding a path to enhancing parent engagement

The research highlighted a number of factors that act as potential barriers to parent engagement. However it has also presented a path which, through further research, could be followed in order to enhance engagement. It is clear that the pressure on schools to meet basic needs, coupled with low-SES families often being forced to focus on more immediate needs over supporting the learning of children are the two key systemic barriers to family-led learning and family-school partnerships.

The research has shown, however, that community-based organisations have had a positive impact in schools. By helping families address basic needs and supporting positive relationships between schools and communities, these organisations can work to take the pressure off schools and help families look beyond survival. In turn this makes it easier for schools to focus their time and resources on creating a whole-school approach that values and supports family-led learning, while families have the capacity to enhance and expand upon their existing practices.

Finally, it was identified by community organisations that there are a number of barriers to their involvement with schools. These include the perception by schools that they are relinquishing power, the lack of engagement organisations have with the educational team, and the privileging of curriculum and assessment over engagement and wellbeing. It is clear, therefore, that work must be done to identify ways in which collaboration between schools and community-based organisations can be better facilitated in order to promote and support parent engagement in low-SES communities. By conducting further research into this specific area of focus, it may be possible to leverage parent engagement in order to improve the educational and socio-economic outcomes of Australia’s most disadvantaged young people.

Somerville, M. (2016). Aboriginal Parent Engagement. In Woodrow C, Somerville M, Naidoo L, Power K. 2016. Researching Parent Engagement: a qualitative field study. Centre for Educational Research, Western Sydney University, Penrith, NSW, Australia.

Fox, S. and Olsen, A. (2014). Defining Parental Engagement: Technical Report Part 1. Canberra: ARACY