Parent Engagement – What Works?

Jamie Billingham

Parent engagement takes many forms. The right type of engagement practices can increase parent participation, change attitudes about public education and improve student outcomes.

We receive a lot of feedback from school administrators. Their feedback inspires us because it shows that they understand that parent engagement, real engagement, is critical and they have taken steps to make sure they are doing everything they can to engage parents throughout the education process.

Elementary School Principal Mike Lundine writes,

Parent engagement is very important to us at Pauline Haarer and in today’s ever busier world it is becoming more and more difficult to hear from everyone.  Attendance at Parent Advisory Council meetings is always a challenge, as it is difficult for school administration to speak with all stakeholders as often as we would like to.   Over the years, we have tried surveys and but they are not mutually beneficial or informative to the parents and it is difficult to really know what to do with the data.  We’ve been looking for a way to connect with parents in a more efficient and organized manner.  We were searching for methods of communication that would help parents organize their thoughts and opinions before going to the next step. In this vein, I am so thankful we found ThoughtExchange.

The benefits of parent engagement

Mike hits the proverbial nail on the head. The challenges he notes are common to most school administrators. Mike knows from experience, and from research, that increased parent engagement equals increased student achievement. When parents are engaged, involved and treated like partners in education, students learn more, learn better and they succeed over the long term. In addition, teachers at schools where parent engagement is a top priority, experience less stress, feel more supported and report higher job satisfaction. There is no downside to parent engagement.

Better practices

Research clearly shows that schools that succeed in engaging parents share many common practices.

  • they focus on building trusting collaborative relationships among teachers, families, and community members
  • they recognize, respect, and address families’ needs,
  • they acknowledge and attend to class, cultural and worldview differences
  • they embrace a philosophy of partnership where power and responsibility are shared

In addition, schools that are successful in engaging parents and the wider community have leaders who place a high value on collaboration as a leadership style.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is time. Parents are busy, teachers are busy, and school administrators are busy. With more information coming from all directions it’s a real challenge to keep up with the information flow. It’s an equal challenge to try and give time, energy and attention to competing issues.

Do I spend my free half hour today on environmental concerns or on education or do I take my kids out to the park? The environment is important but if my kids don’t get the right kind of education how will they contribute to society in a way that helps the environment? Both of those are important but if I don’t maintain a healthy relationship with my children how will they learn to create and maintain healthy relationship in their lives? It’s a conundrums like these that parents face day in and day out.


Collaborative leaders like Mike genuinely want and need to hear parent’s views, ideas and feedback. PTA and PAC meetings are a great venue for engagement, sharing and listening but attendance is often low. Getting people to place these kinds of meetings at the top of their list is an ongoing challenge. The reasons people don’t show up are often legitimate. Suzy has a soccer practice and Billy has music lessons and I have a work project due tomorrow; are all very real scenarios.

Like many school administrators, Mike has used surveys, polls and other quick methods to get information from parents and other stakeholders. Surveys can have real value and can help get certain kinds of data from parents but the engagement factor is missing. Surveys tend to result in numbers that are hard to place in a larger context, gain insight from and they mean very little to parents.

Finding and using innovative ways to lessen the cost of engagement – in time and dollars – while increasing the value has to be the goal. We take our hats off to Mike and to school principals, administrators, teachers and parents everywhere, who are working hard to engage, collaborate and co-create an education environment that works for everyone.

Do you want to engage?

We have worked with hundreds of schools and districts to engage their school community more fully, and cost effectively? See what innovative educators and school districts have done to engage, gain insight from and build genuine relationships with their parent and community stakeholders.

About the Author

Jamie Billingham

Jamie Billingham