Words by Tom Bateman, Head of Delivery
‘Parents hold the key to accessing the young people we work with and building attachments. Without the trust of parents, you are limited in what you can achieve.’ – Antar, FBB Project Lead & Head of North West Programmes
At FBB we have always recognised parental engagement as being a core part of our programme, understanding that impactful, wrap-around support can only happen when meaningful relationships with parents exist.
Parents almost always act as the key attachment in a young person’s life, and any other attachments with adults will often need parental support. They also hold the key to truly understanding the context in which a young person is living and the experiences which have shaped them to this point. And finally, it is well understood the influential role a parent plays in the attainment of a young person. If we are truly committed to supporting a young person to achieve their GCSEs, then the parent must be a part of that journey.
Lockdown has meant that parents have now become an even more important player in the attainment of their child and during this period we have found our relationships with parents have driven high engagement with our sessions. We have seen a direct correlation between programmes with the highest attendance and high parental engagement.
Parental engagement can be daunting for many reasons. Making professional phone calls for many is an anxious experience let alone when you know the person who answers may be very busy, not speak the same language as you or may have had very negative experiences of similar calls before. While we cannot get rid of this anxiety, a core part of our staff development at FBB is to train our staff in some key principles to try to aid the parental engagement process:
Advocate for the child:
One of the most daunting things to do when speaking with a parent is to contradict the view they have of their child. However, often the negative perception of a child’s academic ability can be warped by the parent’s own experiences and that of their family. This can lead to a fixed mindset that can be damaging to the child’s own perception of themself as a learner. We encourage our staff to focus on the assets of the child and champion the achievements of their child in school. We think that understanding the educational history of parents is important in building the picture of the young people we work with and to be well placed to counter negative narratives in a sensitive manner.
One of FBB’s first participants had extremely low expectations entering secondary school, he often spoke of school not being for him. This was counter to our experience of this young person – he freely expressed his ideas both verbally and in writing while also being a keen reader and someone thirsty for knowledge. We soon discovered that his family had very low expectations of what he could achieve at secondary school – even taking bets on how long it would be before he got excluded on the eve of his first day in year 7. Our practitioners worked tirelessly to change this perception by showing parents their son’s school work and ensuring that we regularly sort to communicate praise from school. To encourage the parents to attend school meetings and parents evenings, an FBB member of staff would accompany them so they could hear the achievements of their child first hand, we were aware this may be a daunting experience as multiple members of the family had been excluded from the same school.
Work closely with other agencies:
Free flow of information between all agencies involved with a child is key, as well as sharing of best practice with organisations such as School-Home Support who have some excellent ideas on parental engagement. Schools have been hugely helpful to our practitioners in creating a bigger picture about the family before we make contact. In turn, as we develop relationships with families, we are able to inform schools of key information on a weekly basis, often this will be new information to the school. This enables both the school’s and our parental engagement to be better informed and tailored to take into account language, employment, living situation, safeguarding concerns and wider family education history.
Inform but do not rely on schools. The temptation for external agencies is to rely on schools to take action when it falls outside of their immediate focus. With schools being stretched and dealing with large cohorts of young people, we have found that we can often act faster and in a really targeted way. In recent months, due to our direct weekly engagement with parents of young people we work with, we were quickly able to establish who was struggling to access online learning. This allowed us to act quickly as we personally delivered laptops within 2 weeks of the start of term while many schools were waiting for their Department for Education laptop deliveries. By keeping the school informed, we were able to work together to ensure that all young people who needed them received laptops as soon as possible.
Remember the principles of youth work: All too often when communicating with parents, some of the basic principles that youth workers and teachers live by in their day to day work go out the window. These principles that we hold dear when building strong trusting relationships with young people should also apply when speaking to their parents. With so many phone calls from school often being negative, there is no better way to start a conversation than with some praise. At FBB, an asset-based approach underpins our work with young people and that continues into our conversations with parents. In our work with young people, we believe in unconditional positive regard and FBB being a non-judgmental space: both values that are carried over to our communication with parents. Empathy ensures that you strike the right tone in each conversation you have. At FBB we start from a position that a parent will always have their child’s best interest in mind. Approaching conversations from this standpoint supports the building of a trusting relationship, in which the parent understands that you are there to support and not work against and that by empathising with their position, you also have the child’s best interests at heart.
For one parent that we worked with, the relationship with school had completely broken down. Over a prolonged period of time, using the values above, enough trust had been built for this parent to ask FBB to help her understand and navigate this confusing situation. Her son was facing a managed move and yet was refusing to engage in the process leaving the possibility of a permanent exclusion. After the news that the school was hoping to arrange a managed move, the first thing FBB did was ask the parent what support she required. At first this led to 1:1 support for the young person and a source of advice for the parent and a non-judgemental space to vent frustrations. Through our trusting relationship with the parent we were able to organise a restorative with the school, and while this was not going to change the school’s position, it did allow for the parent to engage in the managed move process. We were then heavily involved in supporting the parent to select potential suitable new schools with our understanding of the child’s assets. The school identified was a partner school of FBB, so we used our relationships within that school to advocate for them taking on the managed move while we were able to support with initial meetings and the transition process as our staff were present at the school.
**For the purpose of this article the phrase ‘parents’ is referring to Parents/Carers of a young person.