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Engaging Parents, Engaging Communities, Engaging Schools: The Parent Engagement Project. (FULL REPORT)

Authors:

Abstract and Figures

The Parent Engagement Project was initiated by The Smith Family in the Northern Territory in 2011. The project was developed in response to research that highlighted the evidence that reinforced the importance of parent engagement and the detrimental effects that an absence of parental engagement (for whatever reasons) had on children and young people’s educational achievement (see for example Lea et al 2011; Mo & Singh 2008; Berthelsen & Walker 2008). This understanding sat alongside much reported research on the educational gap between Indigenous children and other Australian children and young people (see for example the 2013 ABS COAG Report ) and anecdotal evidence TSF had gathered while working with Indigenous parents and children/young people in earlier school programs. The aim of TSF through the Parent Engagement Project, was to provide a program which would bridged educational gaps by supporting the development of Indigenous parents successful engagement with their children’s education in order to allow Indigenous children and young people to succeed in educational settings. This study stemmed from a 2014 request by The Smith Family to CDU to explore the implementation of the Parent Engagement Project.
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ENGAGING
Principal Investigator: Nicoli Barnes
Research Team: Sue Shore, Rachel Mayhead, Gary Fry,
Leigh Disney, Anne Hampshire
Parents
Communities
& Schools
The Parent Engagement Project
2
Barnes, N., Shore, S., Mayhead, R., Fry, G., Disney, L., & Hampshire, A. (2016). Engaging
Parents, Engaging Communities, Engaging Schools: The Parent Engagement Project.
Darwin: Charles Darwin University.
© 2016
Funding for this project was received from the following sources:
The Charles Darwin University Developing Areas of Research Strength (DARS) Grant
distributed by the Faculty of Law Education Business and Arts through the Education
Health Research Nexus Program
The Smith Family
ISBN 978-0-646-95640-4
With the exception of logos and any other material whereby copyright is owned by a third
party, all material presented in this document is provided under a Creative Commons
Attribution 3.0 Australia http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/au
3
Acknowledgements
On behalf of the research team I would particularly like to acknowledge the three ‘on the
ground’ staff from The Smith Family who did inordinate amounts of coordination between
the schools and the research team; offered their expertise to the data collection process;
and who created strong relationships in their community to pave the way for a very smooth
research process.
We also acknowledge the people who volunteered to share their time, knowledge and rich
stories and experiences with us from the schools we visited. The passion and drive of the
school staff was inspiring and we thank the Northern Territory Department of Education
and the two department schools for allowing us to record staff involvement in the Parent
Engagement Project, as well as thanking the staff who kindly volunteered to speak to us.
Research projects do not just happen, and the amount of effort that goes into their
organisation and conduct is often unrecognised. We would particularly like to acknowledge
the work of two people: Rachel Mayhead, the Research Assistant on the project – her
knowledge of the system and ability to organise made the project run smoothly; and Leigh
Disney, our technical support person – Leigh’s understanding of iPad’s and his approach to
helping people access this technology allowed a rich source of data to be collected.
Finally, and most importantly, we would like to recognise the extraordinary courage and
strength of the parents who volunteered to be a part of the research and who provided no
end of stories for the benefit of others.
Thank you
Nicoli Barnes
on behalf of the research team
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Contents
Acknowledgements 3
Executive Summary 5
Exploring Parent Engagement 7
Introduction 7
The Importance of Parent Engagement in Children’s Education 9
Methods of Exploration 15
The Context 15
The Purpose 16
The Processes 16
The People 17
Principles and Conditions for Parent Engagement in Children’s Education 19
Principles for Parent Engagement in their Children’s Education 23
Parent Principle 1: Help me to help my child 23
Parent Principle 2: Know my child and their pathway through education 25
School Principle 1: All children/young people and their parents are significant 27
School Principle 2: Schools are Spaces of help and support 30
The Smith Family Principle 1: Establish (almost) invisible partnerships for change 31
The Smith Family Principle 2: Overcome barriers to participation 32
Conditions for Parent Engagement in their Children’s Education 35
Condition 1: Open and accessible schools 35
Condition 2: Access to specialised people 39
Condition 3: Subtle Implementation of Relevant Programs 42
Condition 4: Creating Parent Engagement and Opportunity 44
Conclusion 49
Reference List 50
5
Executive Summary
The Smith Family’s (TSF) Parent Engagement Project has been operating in selected schools
in Darwin and Palmerston since 2011 with funding provided through the Commonwealth
Government’s Parent and Community Engagement Program.
The Parent Engagement Project has developed a range of activities and events using the
input of schools, parents and community members, designed to build the capacity of parents
to effectively support their children’s education. The project is based on both international
and national evidence that assisting children and students within the formal education system
need to be accompanied by developing their parents’ capacity to provide a supportive home
environment. It uses a place-based responsive approach to making sure each child and
parent can access the support they need to be fully engaged with educational contexts and
their children’s learning.
TSF’s program has also built upon the relationships of trust already developed with school
communities since 2007, through TSF’s ‘School at the Centre’ model. This program sought
to develop long term ‘friendships’ with schools to address the barriers in each community
to children achieving a world class education. The model leveraged the considerable assets
in the community (people, other organisations, programs and funds) to build on the schools
resources.
At the request of TSF, researchers at Charles Darwin University (CDU) conducted a evaluation
of the program drawing on two school sites and the perceptions of parents and staff in those
programs. The aim was to explore, from the perspective of parents and staff, the principles
and conditions required for parental engagement in children and young people’s education.
In summary we found that the Parent Engagement Project initiative was driven as much by
the community and parents through their connections with their local schools, as it was by
schools and TSF. The TSF’s ability to act effectively in the background was paramount, TSF
became an invisible net that supported the work done in schools and allowed responsibility
for engagement to be taken by the schools and parents with whom they were working.
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We identified six key principles and four key conditions all of which are essential for
strengthened parent engagement:
Principles for Parent Engagement in their Children’s Education
1. Parent Principle 1: Help me to help my child
2. Parent Principle 2: Know my child and their pathway through education
3. School Principle 1: Children/young people and their parents are ‘significant’
4. School Principle 2: Schools are places of help and support
5. The Smith Family Principle 1: Being the (almost) invisible partner
6. The Smith Family Principle 2: Overcoming barriers to participation
Conditions for Parent Engagement in their Children’s Education
1. Condition 1: Open and accessible schools
2. Condition 2: Access to specialised people
3. Condition 3: Subtle implementation of relevant programs
4. Condition 4: Creating parent engagement and opportunity
The accompanying poster was developed for TSF use in promoting parent engagement in
children/young people’s education.
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Exploring Parent Engagement
Introduction
The Parent Engagement Project was initiated by The Smith Family in the Northern Territory
in 2011. The project was developed in response to research that highlighted the evidence
that reinforced the importance of parent engagement and the detrimental effects that an
absence of parental engagement (for whatever reasons) had on children and young people’s
educational achievement (see for example Lea et al 2011; Mo & Singh 2008; Berthelsen &
Walker 2008). This understanding sat alongside much reported research on the educational
gap between Indigenous children and other Australian children and young people (see for
example the 2013 ABS COAG Report ) and anecdotal evidence TSF had gathered while
working with Indigenous parents and children/young people in earlier school programs. The
aim of TSF through the Parent Engagement Project, was to provide a program which would
bridged educational gaps by supporting the development of Indigenous parents successful
engagement with their children’s education in order to allow Indigenous children and young
people to succeed in educational settings.
This study stemmed from a 2014 request by The Smith Family to CDU to explore the
implementation of the Parent Engagement Project. Initially all stakeholders in the Parent
Engagement Project were being considered as part of the research (i.e. all schools, parents,
children, outside support agencies, staff, school community, Indigenous community).
However funding and time limitations meant that a more focused approach was taken.
Two schools were accessed; only the perceptions of parents and staff were considered in
this report. It was planned that this pilot study would then support further research, which
would include perceptions of children/young people, greater numbers of staff and parents,
additional schools and other supporting staff and agencies that contributed to the running of
the Parent Engagement Project.
This research project was further refined by drawing on the assumption that every context
and individual is unique. What we did not want was to perpetuate the notion that a ‘one size
fits all’ strategy would ‘fix’ the issue of Indigenous parent engagement. The complexity of
the notions embedded in understandings of parent engagement in education disallows this
type of approach. Our research aim was to explore, from the perspective of parents and
staff, the principles and conditions required for parental engagement in their children and
young people’s education. From a researcher’s perspective, we came to the research from
the position of exploring the over-riding principles that appeared to successfully promote
engagement in TSF’s approach (i.e. the ‘thinking’, ‘beliefs’ and ‘values’ that underpinned the
practice). Alongside these principles we wanted to explore the conditions (i.e. the practical
support mechanisms for the practices themselves) set up around parents that made their
engagement with schools possible. We then drew on specific examples from across the two
school contexts to provide examples of how this practice might look in the negotiated ‘reality’
of the everyday lives of schools and parents.
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The following report includes four sections:
1. literature framing parent engagement;
2. methodological approach for the study;
3. key principles and conditions identified from the data; and
4. insights resulting from the data.
In addition we developed the accompanying poster for TSF use in promoting parent
engagement in children/young people’s education
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The Importance of Parent
Engagement in Children’s
Education
The literature concerning parent engagement is substantial and addresses a range of
aspects. The following discussion covers the most prominent issues established within the
current literature. These discussions occur around how parent engagement is defined and
the various depths of involvement implied when engagement is spoken of and establishes
a vast range of synonymous terminology. The characteristics of parent engagement are
explored here and there is an interesting comparison of what ‘good’ engagement involves
from the view of educators, which sits next to the perspectives of parents and against a
notion that this perspective is a very white, middle class construct. The final discussion is
based around an understanding of these assumptions. There is significant critical literature
which explores and critiques the notions of power relationships embedded in what has been
identified as the white, middle class discourses of parent engagement. The impacts of these
understandings equate to very different ways of engaging groups of people that are ‘other’
than white and middle class. The contributions from this review of research literature provide
a sound basis on which to explore the Parent Engagement Project and its practices.
Within the literature and within society there is a general, embedded understanding that
parent engagement in their children’s education is beneficial for educational success (Lea
et al, 2011; Mo & Singh, 2008; Berthelsen & Walker, 2008). As Lea et al (2011) report, this
notion has become so entrenched and unquestioned that organisations, such as the NT
Government, have listed parent engagement as the second of six priorities for Indigenous
education in the Northern Territory.
Both qualitative and quantitative studies support the notion that parent engagement is an
essential part of student success at school. Outcomes for preschool aged children showed
improvement in school readiness and vocabulary (Mendez, 2010), while in primary and
middle school settings the benefits include increased language, literacy and mathematical
skills, improved thinking and approaches to learning as well as better overall academic
results, attendance, behaviour, social skills (Sheridan et al, 2011; Goodall et al, 2010;
Ferlazzo, 2011; DePlanty, 2007; Carter, 2002; Barnard, 2004). Carter (2002) identified the
need to change the type of parent engagement once children reach adolescence to one
that is more broadly contextualised for the family and the community (eg attending a Parent
and Friends Committee meeting or coaching a sport team). This is more of a ‘background’
participation and moves from involvement that is more focused on the individual child in lower
year levels (e.g. attending reading groups of which your child is one) that is highly focused on
direct parent/child contact.
These improved outcomes do not come without consideration of other issues. Ferlazzo
(2011) warns that engagement needs to be the ‘right kind’ to be effective. This ‘right kind’,
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he argues, should include schools developing and valuing relationships, schools displaying
welcoming attitudes, and shared decision making. Studies conducted by both Carter (2002)
and Zhang et al (2011) also suggest that parent engagement with their children’s education
has a far greater impact on academic success when it occurs in the home, while parent
participation at school has minimal effect. In a similar vein, Mendez (2010) and Berthelsen
and Walker (2008) argue that while the frequency of engagement is indicated in success, it
is the quality of these interactions that is vital, with strong parent/school partnerships being
essential. These studies argue for the presence of the parent in their child’s education, where
parents are not just physically present but temporally engaged in their child’s education both
in and out of the home.
Definitions of parent engagement from the perspective of educators, tend to fall into the
following categories which use levels and depths of participation as the basis on which
engagement is judged (compiled from Ferlazzo (2011), Bethelsen and Walker (2008), Lee et al
(2011). Goodall
(2000), Hoover-Dempsey et al (2005), Sanders (2008), DePlanty (2007), Mo and Singh (2008),
Warren et al (2009), Redding et al (2004) and Malone (2007)):
Leave it to the experts – parents/carers believe that schools know what they are doing so let
them get on with the job of education,
Involvement – parents/carers attend events such as presentation nights, assemblies and
occasional other larger school events,
Participation – parents/carers help out at school, in classrooms, canteen, excursions, on
school projects,
Engagement – parents/carers are involved and participate in school activities and take
on more educational activities outside the school environment having both a physical and
temporal presence,
Engrossment – ‘over’ involvement, bubble wrapping/helicopter parenting, often to the
exclusion and damage of their own children and others.
Clearly central in most of these definitions of engagement is the expectation of parents’
physical presence, usually in the school. McKenna and Millen (2013) question the narrowness
and unidimensional nature of these definitions. They prefer to speak of parent engagement
as a multi-directional flow of communication between home and school that includes parent
involvement in all of their child’s life not just school, through parent presence and parent
voice. When staff involved with the Parent Engagement Project spoke of parent engagement
they appeared to be speaking of ‘engagement’ as described above. Dani, a Family
Centre Coordinator, clearly understood that while physical presence was neither absolutely
necessary, nor possible for all parents, both physical and temporal engagement were
necessary to some degree.
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You don’t have to be physically here, we can’t accommodate everyone’s parent
anyway, even if we wanted to. So I think I found over the time that the parents
expect, in a good way, that there’s going to be some sort of learning for them
somewhere throughout the year. Whereas before, well, we drop our kids off
and they do the learning. [Parents] have to carry the weight of our students
learning but also their own learning as well. And I guess a lot of the parents,
getting them to understand that wanting more for their children than they have,
is perfectly OK. (Dani – school staff)
Here Dani has identified that there was a need for parents to continue their own learning
through their involvement in the Parent Engagement Project and this contributed to their
engagement, along with the belief that the parents were the primary educators rather than
the ‘backseat drivers’.
Again Dani explains this succinctly in her und erstanding of parent engagement:
…we talk about parent engagement all the time and everyone think[s], well, let’s
join the school council and let’s go live in the classroom. But, for me, a parent
who’s at home reading a newsletter with the kids, making sure they do their
homework, asking how their day is, that is engaged as well.
In summary, for this project, we have taken parent engagement to mean that parents are
‘involved in schools, they participate in school activities, and take on more educational
activities outside school concerns’. We add to this that parents engage temporally in their
own learning and in the learning of their children. Engaged parents believe that they are the
primary educators of their children and schools are partners/supporters of this responsibility.
In taking up this understanding we do so with the critical understanding that this approach
may not necessarily, but should, take into consideration cultural, class, ethnic, Indigenous
and/or mental health understandings (Price-Mitchell, 2009; Carter, 2002; Lea et al, 2011).
Within the confines of the Parent Engagement Project, we support the notion that critiquing
the use of engagement discourses is important.
Sitting alongside educators’ perspectives of parent engagement, are studies that have
focused on parents’ understandings of their engagement. Studies, such as that of Feuerstein
(2000) identify the importance of time, expectations and levels of involvement as important
factors in parents engaging with their children’s education. Hoover-Dempsey et al (2005)
suggest that for it to be possible for parents to be involved they need to hold certain
understandings of themselves, i.e., that they feel they should be involved; that they feel that
they will be effective in their involvement; that they perceive an invitation by schools for them
to be involved; and that their life circumstances allow for their involvement.
These are interesting points when combined with the literature that focuses on Indigenous
parent engagement that is specific to both Australia and other international Indigenous
research in general. This research demonstrates that people from a range of different
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backgrounds often don’t have the self-esteem to engage with or within educational contexts,
the knowledge and ability to engage with or within educational contexts, or they don’t
want to interfere with educational experts doing their job (Barnard, 2004). However this
research also shows that engagement of diverse families, such as low income families, does
improve children’s learning (Lawson and Alameda-Lawson, 2012). Lea et al (2011) add
that in Australia’s north, Indigenous parents have often lost any expectation for schools to
understand their lives and conditions and that they trust the education system to know what
it is doing, so are therefore satisfied with education as it is and don’t feel the need to be
involved.
Such reasons for a lack of parent participation are often credited to the assumptions
embedded in the parent engagement discourse. As alluded to above, there is significant
criticism of notions of parent engagement as being embedded within white, middle class
constructions that then act to exclude parents from ‘other’ backgrounds from being effective
‘engagers’. Price-Mitchell (2009) and Carter (2002), for example, point to the historical
requirement of parent engagement in schools that was used to assimilate parents of different
backgrounds into white, middle class cultures. There is an international sense of urgency to
address issues of parents exclusion from participation due to Indigeneity, poverty, ethnicity
and mental health by drawing on innovative approaches to address the needs of groups
that are ‘other’ than white, middle class. According to Smith et al (2011, p. 71) existing
innovations that “attract hard-to-reach parents” include:
wrap-around services, incentives, and contracts to enhance and ensure
participation; utiliz[ing] technology for advertising parent volunteer opportunities;
and involv[ing] parents in the decision-making and governance of the school.
Overall, these strategies were linked with increasing parents’ self-efficacy and
comfort level in participating in their children’s education.
Other researchers such as Lawson and Alameda-Lawson (2012) add suggestions such
as fostering supportive neighbourhood links so that resources within the community
can be used to leverage parents’ understandings of engagement. However even these
understandings are embedded with deficit understandings of parents as ‘hard to reach’,
implying that they are problematic rather than questioning the approaches that are used to
make parent engagement accessible to the ‘other’ parent.
International trends, particularly in the US, argue for parent engagement to be understood in
terms of the contexts and backgrounds in which families operate. Baquedano-Lopez et al
(2013) and Kainz and Aikens (2007) argue that educators (and others) should be disrupting
these typical, privileged understandings of what they call ‘traditional parent involvement’,
allowing new understandings to exist. This can allow for the beneficial engagement of
parents from diverse backgrounds, one that is more culturally and contextually sensitive. We
need to remain critical of white, middle class constructions of parent engagement that are
disproportionately slanted towards white, middle class parents (Smith et al, 2011).
Care needs to be taken in interpreting parent engagement, particularly when it is for parents
from diverse cultural/ethnic, economic and geographic backgrounds. There is a distinct need
for understandings that allow parents to operate from different ethnic, Indigenous, class and
family structures, rather than the normative assumptions generally applied. (Kainz and Aikens,
2007; McKenna and Millen, 2013; Baquedano-Lopez et al, 2013). Understandings of parent
engagement should act “to respect, share and acknowledge the parenting practices of lower
income and minority parents that are at times, misunderstood and undervalued by school
staff and administrators.” (McKenna and Millien, 2013, p. 43)
As with any issue, the complexity of the relationships required for parent engagement
significantly impacts on how successful any program or strategy might be. Addressing
as many of the issues within this complexity is therefore likely to influence success. The
following discussions focus on how the principles and conditions were realised within the
Parent Engagement Project. These discussions begin to explore the vast complexity involved
in parent engagement and expose how parent engagement could work with the cultural and
economic diversity of the populations TSF were working with.
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Methods of Exploration
The Context
This study is an exploration of the Parent Engagement Project, a community project
specifically designed and implemented by TSF to promote Indigenous parent engagement
in their children’s education. The Parent Engagement Project was supported by targeted
funding from the Commonwealth Department of Education’s Parent and Community
Engagement Program. This funding enabled a range of interactive workshops at the primary
schools where TSF had existing relationships. The workshops invited guest speakers to
present on topics that were negotiated with both the schools and parents based on identified
needs. Common workshop topics were ‘Reading is as easy as 1, 2, 3’, ‘Parent or Family
Yarns’, and ‘Cyber Safety’. Opportunities for activities such as art workshops and family
dinners were made possible within these workshops. Funding supported not only the
speakers and workshops, but also the attendance of parents at these events, through, for
example, providing babysitting, meals for the family and transport.
TSF implemented the Parent Engagement Project through existing and newly established
relationships within schools in Darwin and Palmerston. The two schools included in the
study were chosen from a larger group by TSF on the basis that they were representative
of schools involved in the Parent Engagement Project. One school was based in an urban
area of Darwin, the other in the regional area of Palmerston. Both schools had been working
with TSF for an extended time and strong relationships had been built. Both schools had
significant numbers of Indigenous families attending them and a large proportion of families
from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Other TSF programs were already in existence in both schools or had previously been
implemented in these schools. Both schools had well established Family Centres, one of
which was run by staff funded by TSF. TSF were also involved in running a range of other
programs which were supported and promoted through the school such as the Dads and
Kids Day, an annual event, and Families and Schools Together (FAST) program which was
run each year at the school. While these were not part of the Parent Engagement Project
they had contributed to its establishment and were supported by the previously developed
relationships. While the basis of the workshops was to educate parents, the Parent
Engagement Project was designed to do far more. The following comments from two of
the Family Centre Coordinators demonstrate the focus of the Parent Engagement Project as
prioritizing a relational and needs based program.
…it’s not about projects imposed on schools. But responding to needs in
schools and facilitating that (Theresa – school staff)
…it’s absolutely a hundred percent relationship based, and that they [TSF] trust
you to build and develop the relationships in ways that make sense in your
context, and they [TSF] provide the resourcing, the advice, to support the kind of
scaffolding around that. (Joan – school staff)
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They are like this constant underlying thread in almost everything we do. They’re
my first port of call because they are open and flexible and supportive. […] It’s
always, “we can make that work.” If it’s about a rich relationship that’s going to
help your kids and your communities, we’re with you. (Joan – school staff)
The Purpose
Given this context, in this study we wanted to explore how Indigenous parent engagement
in their children’s education might be promoted. What we were particularly concerned to
avoid was the more typical approach of describing and advocating a particular strategy, one
that then may or may not be applicable in other contexts. Therefore, we focused on drawing
out of our investigations the overriding principles and conditions for successful engagement
in this particular context, making these principles and conditions become more easily
transferable to other contexts.
The Processes
A critical ethnographic approach to data collection was used for the study in the tradition of
researchers such as Tamboukou and Ball (2003) and Youdell (2006). This involved the use
of observations, interviews and digital story production over a period of three months and
involving five to seven visits to schools during this time.
Observations involved the attendance of the researchers at both TSF functions and a number
of Parent Engagement Project sessions. Written field notes were taken at these sessions and
focused on what happened, conversations and thoughts about the events.
Interviews were held with volunteers from three identified stakeholder groups (stakeholders
and participants are described below). Interviews were recorded, transcribed, checked
and analysed. They involved questions concerning their understandings, experiences and
examples of the Parent Engagement Project.
We also generated data in the form of digital stories.
Digital stories are short vignettes that combine the art of telling stories with
multimedia objects including images, audio and video. In the words of Daniel
Meadows, they are “[s]hort, personal multimedia tales told from the heart” (2003)
(Rossiter and Garcia, 2010).
The digital story process asked parents to produce a three minute, multimedia presentation
using an iPad, requiring the development of a 250 word script which was recorded and
combined with both audio and visual components. Parents were asked the question ‘what
has been the impact of the Parent Engagement Project for me?’ Digital stories would not
traditionally be considered an ethnographic technique. However, they draw on an aural
approach that has been shown to be particularly beneficial in research with Indigenous and
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other marginalized populations both in Australia (Sprugeon et al, 2009; Dreher, 2012; Walsh
et al, 2011) and internationally (Sawhney, 2009; Wilson et al 2015; Gyabak and Godina,
2011; Reitmaier et al, 2011). The digital stories were a parent focused data source alongside
the parent interviews. Their production was supported by the researchers involved in the
project. The digital stories allowed parents a process to extend on their interviews and to
embed understandings that could easily be ascertained through interviews alone, particularly
for those parents who used multiple languages in daily life and were trying to function in cross
cultural contexts.
The People
This study focused specifically on three groups of people:
1. Parents who attended the Parent Engagement Project,
2. School staff involved with the Parent Engagement Project, from each school, these
included; the principal; the Family Centre Coordinators; and a staff member who taught the
children of a parent involved in the program,
3. TSF staff who were directly involved in the implementation of the Parent Engagement
Project in schools.
It was envisaged that these three groups of stakeholders had the greatest understanding
of the Parent Engagement Project and its impact on Indigenous parent engagement whilst
also bringing various perspectives to this understanding. In total, there were 16 participants
involved in the study: six parents, two principals, two teaching staff, three Family Centre
Coordinators and three TSF staff. The participants were predominantly female with only one
of the participants (a principal) being male. There were two additional male parents involved
at one point during data collection, however they were ultimately unable to continue their
participation due to their family’s circumstances.
All these aspects of conducting the study allowed us to generate a rich set data that was
effective in allowing us to explore the principles and conditions at work in the parent/TSF/
school contexts we visited.
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Principles and Conditions for
Parent Engagement in Children’s
Education
This is the story of TSF’s attempts to engage Indigenous parents in the education of their
children. It soon became obvious, through the study, that engagement required significant
input and commitment from all the people involved. This commitment included parents,
and a range of other supporting people (from both schools and community), and was
essential to the processes engaged in by TSF. When the combination of these people, their
understandings, and a particular set of principles and conditions coalesced – the benefits
to parents (which appeared to be passed on to their children and their children’s education)
were reportedly significant. Parents had often experienced negative and exclusionary
practices in their previous engagements with schools. This had led to parents’ detrimental
understandings of themselves
and their school engagement.
This table shows the types of
words and phrases that parents
drew on in their interviews both
prior to and following their
participation in the project. These
words and phrases describe both
themselves and their relationship
with their children’s school and
highlight the change that parents
perceived in themselves once
they had participated in the
Parent Engagement Project.
The shift in language from the
negative to positive is obvious.
TSF and school staff drew on very
similar terminology to describe
the change they saw in parents.
Comments from one TSF staff
member expressed the new
found confidence she saw in
parents as follows:
I’m getting this feedback
from parents and carers
that they feel relevant and
important (Pam – TSF)
Prior to Engagement
with Parent
Engagement Project
Following Engagement with
Parent Engagement Project
About themselves
Isolated
Nothing to do
Depressed
Lost confidence
Nervous
Confident
Persistent
Mistakes are OK
Cope even when bad things
happen
Rubs off on kids
Talkative
Open
Proud
Looking forward to becoming a
better mum
Inner strength
Feel good about themselves
About their relationship with their children’s
school
Fear
Guilt
Blame
Suspicion
Worry
Shame
Frustration
Shy
Never comfortable
Angry
Unable to communicate
Learning
Helping others
Empowered to help kids
Getting out
Overcame nerves to be there
Enjoyment
Excitement
Happiness
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The differences and impacts described by parents due to their participation in the Parent
Engagement Project not only changed their relationships with schools but carried over into
their homes and often into their work lives as well.
So we have parents that have come in that have been really, oh, can’t read,
never going to read, it’s just too hard, they don’t want to pick up a book. And
they walk out [after parent engagement sessions] and they feel confident enough
to give it another go. (Dani – school staff)
While parents and teachers could not make direct or specific links between these changes
and parent engagement practices, they all spoke of the flow-on benefits these changes had
for the children of parents following their involvement with the Parent Engagement Project.
They particularly identified children’s and young people’s vastly improved confidence as
the most significant benefit, along with greater participation in school, doing things they
had previously been too scared to do (e.g. presenting in front of a whole school assembly),
improved behaviour, improved reading and faster progression through reading levels.
Where teachers had also been involved in TSF programs there were also reported
improvements in parent/teacher relationships to the extent that previously disengaged
parents now volunteered to help in classrooms.
…before she got involved with Parent Engagement, she didn’t come into the
school and she worked quite frequently so she didn’t have the time to come in
and see her kids. She couldn’t make it to school assemblies and things. It’s not
that she didn’t want to, but she was working and she had to work. So she said
she always felt a bit ashamed coming into the school, that they would judge her
on the fact that ‘you’re never here for your kid’, but she had to work. She said
she was hesitant coming in for the first [event], but she got dragged in by one
of the school staff who – they have a good relationship. And when she came,
she was like, “Oh this isn’t so bad. There are other people here that are feeling
the same way I’m feeling.” And, “Oh, I’ve learned a few things today. Oh, this is
great.” So she just started coming more and more, and now she’s in the school
and she’s one of our parent leaders and we just met with her about a week ago
now. But she is actually looking at running cooking classes for parents in the
school, has organised it on her own accord, has gone to the principal, gotten
it all approved, is looking for resources – the parents have come on board and
said, “Look we are happy to provide resources. We’ll be there. Just tell us
when and where.” […] She’s actually gone back to study as well. […] She talks
about just building her confidence in herself, […] And you could just see her, she
was really quiet at first. […] and you could see that she was coming a bit out of
her shell, and now she’s up and talking to parents. (Edwina – TSF)
21
Edwina’s story about one of the parents encapsulates much of what the Parent Engagement
Project was able to achieve and the ways in which it worked for this group of parents. It
was not just about getting parents into the school. Edwina’s account identifies much more
than just improved teacher/parent relationships, it also indicates a change in confidence,
a willingness to share with others, the parent’s effort to engage in her own learning, an
increasing ability to interact on a more formal level, and the initiative to develop and run
programs. Additionally this account identified some of the reasons parents gave for not being
involved in their children’s education. The shame parents feel when they couldn’t, or didn’t
know how to engage was a common theme in the interviews.
What follows is an exploration of how these changes were engendered through the Parent
Engagement Project. The overarching principles and conditions of engagement were
drawn out of interviews through the ways in which parents, school staff, and TSF staff each
spoke about the issue of engagement. Analysis was done separately for each group as
they brought vastly different understandings to the broad picture of engagement. Despite
these differences the overriding principles drawn from each group worked concomitantly to
influence the common conditions that were created in both of the school contexts that we
explored.
First we present the principles emerging from the various understandings central to
‘engagement’ and second, the conditions that grew from these principles, that culminated
in a range of strategies that were particular to each school context. In presenting these
principles and conditions we have drawn on a range of examples from the two school
contexts we explored, to demonstrate how each principle and condition may be articulated in
practice.
Six key principles associated with the three participant groups were identified and these
principles are embedded within four key conditions. These are listed below and also
presented visually in a chart to complement the report.
22
Principles
From parents:
1. Help me to help my child
2. Know my child and their pathway through education
From schools:
3. All children/young people and their parents are ‘significant’
4. Schools are places of help and support
From The Smith Family
5. Establish (almost) ‘invisible’ partnerships to engender change
6. Overcome barriers to participation
Conditions
1. Open and accessible schools
2. Access to specialised people
3. Subtle implementation of relevant programs
4. Creating parent engagement and opportunity
In the following two sections of the report we describe each of the principles and conditions
and make links between them and the practices that the TSF, schools and parents engaged
with in order to realise effective parent engagement.
23
Principles for Parent Engagement
in their Children’s Education
Parent Principle 1: Help me to help my child
One of the clearest findings from the data was that every parent we spoke to wanted to be
central to their child’s education. This is at odds with common perceptions that parents just
want schools to do the job of education for them (Lawson 2003). Reasons given were not
always about ‘laziness’ or ‘lack of interest’ as many educators assume, but were more often
about ‘lack of time’ or ‘lack of knowledge’. The parents we worked with did have time, what
they didn’t have was the knowledge to be able to use this time to support their children’s
education. The predominant message from them was that they didn’t expect schools to do
the work of education on their behalf. What they wanted was help in being able to do this
work for themselves with their children, in conjunction with schools and teachers.
Parents are the first teachers, hey? […] I’m pretty sure I learnt that through the
school as well. (Halle – parent)
I wanted to get my foot in the door because I knew no one and I just wanted to
do something for [my son] and help him and be part of it all. (Remi – parent)
The notion that parents should be supported in their attempts to learn about how they might
help in their children’s education was also supported in comments from both school staff and
TSF staff. Dani’s comment below is an example of this response.
Parents are more aware that teaching is not just coming from the school but
they need to be partaking in it as well. (Dani – school staff)
Once parents were given examples of how to approach education in a range of ways, they
spoke of having the confidence to be able to carry out these practices for themselves.
For some, changes might be considered only small, such as helping their children with
homework. However even these could be considered significant given the context of
some parents lives. For others, the changes in their families were substantial and involved
extended engagement. Parents moved from more surface level engagement (i.e. helping out
in classrooms, being in schools,) to life changes both in and outside the home that connected
with their children’s education as distinct from specific academic learning (e.g. setting
routines, cleaning, reading everyday, helping with homework). Remi gave one example of
these types of changes.
It’s hard to explain. I’m better at my housework because I was always leaving
dishes on the bench, always got a messy bedroom, but learning that Oliver has
24
his sensory needs, he can’t have a messy house because that would stress him
out. So it’s helped me get a clean house. (Remi – parent)
Every parent described some form of change had happened after they participated in the
Parent Engagement Project
I think it’s about empowerment, but it’s also a sense of agency that a parent
has. They recognise their role and having it recognised from teachers and
headmasters and stuff, I mean, you know, that undoes mountains of memories
where things were […] different. (Pam – TSF)
Parent engagement therefore becomes possible if parents can be assisted in their willingness
to help their children learn, in a general sense, rather than simply being provided with specific
tasks to do in their child’s classroom.
25
Parent Principle 2: Know my child and their
pathway through education
Parents particularly needed to know that school staff had a thorough knowledge of their child
and the individualised differences and responses that would be required in order for each
child to proceed most effectively through their time at school. They recognised the difficulties
that this could produce for schools but were willing to be an integral part of that ‘journey’ in
support of the teacher. While this was a common theme across parent interviews, one of the
most telling examples was the response of a parent whose child had been diagnosed with
ADHD.
You feel like you’ve missed out […] you watch everyone going through their
milestones with their kids, like, yeah, I’m going to do all that, but you don’t get
to; because yours are going on another path. (Remi – parent)
While parents wanted the best for their children, it was also interesting to note that parents
whose children had been diagnosed with a range of educational and/or psychological
‘disorders’, were quite realistic in dealing with their child’s level of achievement. Parents
generally did not adopt a competitive approach by believing that their child needed to be the
best. Rather they simply wanted schools to provide the conditions for their child to do the
best they could.
And you get your report and you think, “Oh my God, my child got a D, I need
to push harder and harder.” But then you come to things like this [Parent
Engagement], you don’t need to [just because] society thinks you should be
getting A’s. […] I saw her the other day look at her report and she goes, “Oh,
I got a C.” It’s like, “It doesn’t matter Jillie. […] A C’s fine. Because they don’t
understand it; everything’s so competitive. (Freda – parent)
Aligned with these types of conversations was the impression that parents were often left
grieving the loss of the potential they may have once held for their child prior to such events
as an ADHD diagnosis. And this was often accompanied by a sense of shame.
I look at these families that come in and, you know, they come in and you can see their
thinking, “Oh, am I being judged or what?” (Dani – school staff)
… those families are pretty brave, […] I know for a fact that some of these
parents – if I had to do what they did, I’d be a mess […] And they still come
every day […] I know that some people judge them and they walk in that gate.
And you sit back and judge but they’re doing it, and you’re standing in your little
bubble. (Dani – school staff)
26
Parent engagement therefore becomes possible if parents can see that the people working
with their children take an individual interest in their child and their child’s education rather
than just competitive, academic success.
27
School Principle 1: All children/young people
and their parents are significant
One common understanding embedded in the interviews with school staff concerned the
significance of children and young people. For the majority of people in the project, this
was not a derogatory view of people in a more powerful position patronizing those in a less
powerful position. Staff understood all children and parents as having equal standing to
themselves and therefore the ‘power’ embedded in the position of ‘school staff’ could and
should be used on behalf of the community. From principals, to teaching and support staff,
all expressed the understanding that children and their parents were deserving of more than
life was often allowing them to experience.
I guess through all that, it was about ‘these kids deserve better’. (Nina –
principal)
It’s that chance to see value in everyone. (Dani – school staff)
This understanding seemed to stem from staff’s ability to see the ‘reality’ of the lives of the
parents and children and recognise the difficulties that these families often had to face and
endure before they even contemplated trying to do ‘school’, as the following quotes imply,
when Dani, as a staff member, reflects on her own previous experiences.
I like to reflect now – now that I don’t have to worry about where the milk’s coming from. But
when I was worried about how are we going to have milk next week, I didn’t really care how
I learnt or any of those not so factual type things. I don’t want to reflect I just want to get
through the week. (Dani – school staff)
[you] get a bit of an understanding of where they’re coming from and building
those relationships with the parents. (Sasha – school staff)
When staff acted on their understanding that parents and their children were ‘significant’,
they also spoke of undertaking two actions. The first identified that often staff were fearful of
parents and required that they overcome their fear,
… how do we get the teacher and the parents together because sometimes
there’s resistance on both parts. We have teachers that are scared of our
parents. Our parents are scared of our teachers. (Dani – school staff)
Parents terrified me which is why […] I really wanted to do this stuff […] Parents
are like, oh there’s my kids teacher, oh my God, oh my God. I am going, oh my
God there’s Joe Blow’s mum, oh my God, oh my God. We’re just as scared of
each other, […] hesitant to communicate with each other. (Sasha – school staff)
This quote from Sasha, a staff member, mirrors the following one from Freda, a parent.
28
…normally when you see a teacher and you’re like, ‘Hello,’ and they’re like,
‘Hello,’ okay are you going to say something to me or am I going to say
something bad to you; […] and I [think] what do you know, what has my child
told you. But now its like, “Hi, how are you,” as friends. (Freda – parent)
Once their mutual fear was overcome, staff and parents spoke of how relationships were able
to be established that were very different to those based in fear (see discussion below).
The second response recognised that the work required of staff would not be easy as they
were working in an environment often marked by disruption and that the constant emotional
drain they experienced could be damaging.
…when I first started doing some of these programs, it was a bit hard and now I
feel it’s a bit more organic […] burn out does happen…(Theresa – school staff)
The level of difficulty of the work is explained through the following quotes. They not only
recognise the work of school staff but also the extreme events that parents were dealing with.
You just have a steady stream of parents coming in knocking on your door
because this is wrong and that was going wrong […] and we’re now living in a
tent at XX caravan park […] their home life was dreadful […] we used to have
walkie talkies for the teachers on duty […] you’d have [one group of] kids against
[another group of] kids and it was warfare. They were full on. Sticks and stones
were thrown […]And this was every lunchtime […] We used to go and visit
homes (the principal and deputy) […] and the staff would laugh […] ‘They’ll turn
up at school tomorrow […] and tell you they’ll bash you if you suspend them’.
[…] the first home we went to we had to jump the bloody fence because they
set the dogs on us […] the next one we went around to we got abused […] (Nina
– school staff)
We’ll tell a group of six, eight, nine year old children that their father died overnight because
their mother couldn’t tell them […] We had a mum come to me and said ‘I go to gaol on
Thursday and I’m trying to keep my kids out of welfare […] and then she got out of gaol and
three days later she overdosed and died […] it’s even violent… (Paul – school staff)
However staff also recognised that their work in schools would be more successful if it began
with parents.
It’s always kids first. [But] we know if we get to parents we get to the children
(Paul – school staff)
29
When staff understood parents and children/young people in these ways they were able to
validate parents in their role as being ‘the experts’ on their children.
Parent engagement therefore becomes possible when school staff have an embedded
understanding of the ‘significance’ of the parents and children in their schools.
30
School Principle 2: Schools are Spaces of help
and support
‘Schools being spaces of help and support’ was not just a nice simplistic understanding
of schools being part of the community they exist in, although this was also implied. This
principle was closely aligned with the recognition that teachers and parents working closely
together meant difficult work, often undertaken in extreme circumstances, as described
above. Staff perceptions were framed very strongly as an imperative that schools had to do
this role because there was no one else in a position to be able to help. These comments
came from people who had extensive community networks and who liaised between
numerous organisations and so were well placed to make reasoned judgments as to what
support was available. Both the principals interviewed emphasised their involvement as vital,
with comments such as,
Somebody has to do it. (Nina – school staff)
Some of the stories I’ve got, some things that I’ve been exposed to […] it’s not
pretty and you’re not prepared for it either. And you do it ‘cause there’s no-one
else around. (Paul – school staff)
This principle translated into the development of social spaces where help could be accessed
through these schools. Staff identified a number of requirements in response. They
saw a requirement for the building of close and supportive relationships, the need to be
constantly responsive to the events of children’s and parents’ lives, and therefore a significant
requirement for both flexibility and support (see discussion below).
Parent engagement therefore becomes possible when schools develop their role to extend
beyond academic education and provide spaces of help and support for the families they
serve.
31
The Smith Family Principle 1: Establish (almost)
invisible partnerships for change
One of the strongest advantages of TSF’s links with schools was their ability to take into
account the contexts they were entering. This principle can be seen embedded in the
ways in which TSF had responded through both the Parent Engagement Project and other
initiatives they had invested in within the schools.
TSF objectives were to change children and young people’s lives for the better and they did
this by developing partnerships that helped drive change. Their approach, however was not
about entering a school and telling people what to do as Edwina described,
I just left her with all these resources, booked in Emma and then she did the
rest. So that was really good to see that they were taking it on and can do it
themselves. […] and that’s what we like to see, schools take it on and have it
work into their schedule and we don’t have to be a part of it. […] In an ideal
world, we’d love to see schools take on all these things themselves and have it
embedded as part of their school life. (Edwina – TSF)
TSF acted on the principle that they were (almost) invisible partners. We identify them here
as ‘almost’ invisible because it was widely known by school staff and parents that TSF were
involved. What was unclear to most staff and parents was just how this involvement was
happening. This was in no way detrimental to the staff or TSF but allowed capacity and
support structures to be built within schools and for parents so that it was not problematic for
TSF to withdraw and leave support would still be available.
What was particularly distinctive was the way in which TSF always adopted a celebratory
approach to their work that was family directed. Their celebrations were of what others had
achieved rather than what they had done to precipitate those achievements, turning the focus
from the achievements of TSF to the achievements of others.
They are like this constant underlying thread in almost everything we do. They’re
my first port of call because they are open and flexible and supportive. […] It’s
always, we can make that work. If it’s about a rich relationship that’s going to
help your kids and your communities, we’re with you. (Joan – school staff)
We get funded [but] we don’t really do the funding […]. They [TSF] are the
funding agents so they write the applications, I don’t have anything to do with
any of that. (Nina – school staff)
Parent engagement therefore becomes possible when support organisations and programs
operate in the background and maintain a focus on what is possible for parents and
families to achieve with school partners in their particular contexts.
32
The Smith Family Principle 2: Overcome barriers
to participation
TSF acted as troubleshooters in addressing many of the barriers that prevented parents from
participating in the TSF/Parent Engagement Project events run by the schools. TSF access
to a range of funding allowed for diverse responses. Decisions about funding appeared to
be based around the individual needs of each school. Primarily the use of funding related
to enabling parents to attend events. The assumption was that if the reasons prohibiting
parents from attending events were eliminated and people then could come to events, that
this allowed them to be included in the educational environment.
[…] they’ve kind of set us up with this model, as well, which is like, okay, the
workshop is free, the catering is free, the babysitting is provided. So you’ve
eliminated all the barriers to participation. (Joan – school staff)
TSF support was seen as particularly vital by school staff who expressed the struggle of
just getting enough time to do their basic school based work, without having to organise
additional events outside of standard school hours. One example was the organisation
of family/staff dinners. As Therese and Nikita explained below, the TSF support not only
provided for the event but also freed up staff to make meaningful contact with parents as they
were not also required to make such events run smoothly.
…often those are the kinds of things that make it difficult for a school to do
something because our staff are busy doing a whole lot of things (Theresa –
school staff)
… lots of times when teachers organise community events they’re harried
because they’re the ones that have been organising it, and they don’t often get
to sit and actually be part of the event and I think that’s a big difference […]
they’re (TSF) support so that the teachers aren’t doing everything, so its not an
add-on expectation because teachers nowadays are really overworked (Nikita –
school staff)
The actions taken by TSF to break down barriers is discussed in greater detail in the next
section concerning the condition of creating parent engagement and opportunity for parents.
What we want to recognise here is that the understanding of the TSF staff was to identify
barriers and then act to remove them wherever possible. This principle worked by giving
parents a true choice to be involved, rather than being excluded from participation for
reasons beyond their control and, paradoxically, by removing ‘reasons’ not to be bothered
participating. Once parents were almost ‘coerced’ into participating and were engaged with
others, they often came to enjoy being caught up in the dynamics of the school and wanted
to be further involved.
33
Parent engagement therefore becomes possible when support organisations and
programs remove barriers to participating and at the same time provide a persuasive
argument and conditions for further participation.
34
35
Conditions for Parent
Engagement in their Children’s
Education
Condition 1: Open and accessible schools
An understanding of open and accessible schools was an important condition as TSF
targeted schools that demonstrated open and accessible characteristics. These particular
characteristics acted as the basis for the establishment of partnerships and related to the
success schools had in connecting with parents. Both parents and school staff spoke
of particular school characteristics. However it must be recognized that a simple list of
characteristics requires complex relationships in order for them to function successfully
so therefore the following discussion is limited. We have identified and discussed four
characteristics from the interviews of what it looked like when schools were identified as
‘open and accessible’ below: the school environments and the particular relationships built
within the school context, resourcing, and partnerships.
School Environments
The two schools environments were described by parents, school staff and TSF staff using
words such as stability, strength of leadership, and were family like in their functioning.
Schools in the NT are typically characterised as having high staff turnover. Stability was
therefore a central focus of both schools. This manifested in what was described as strong,
stable leadership that ‘stayed put’. The length of stay was not mentioned but more than 3-4
years was implied. The strength of leadership was also implied in the retention of staff for
longer periods of time as it demonstrated that staff were happy to stay. Other characteristics
that were described as beneficial were: evidence of ‘family like’ environments; the use of
clever timetabling that suited more than just schools (e.g. putting a family dinner night on prior
to parent teacher interviews); teachers who showed appreciation for the help and involvement
of parents in their school and classrooms. An example of this appreciation was given by
Halle, a parent, who described the activities of the Parent Engagement Project developing her
understanding of the school as ‘caring’.
just coming to these groups, I know that the school, like that’s proof to me that
the school really does care about my child’s education (Halle – parent)
Relationship Building
The relationships established within the school in terms of parent engagement, were
predominantly outward looking. Rather than focusing on the inner workings and relationships
of the school only, schools appeared to be concerned with the relationships with parents and
36
community – however not to the exclusion of those internal relationships. Such relationships
were linked to the understanding that parents were ‘significant’ and therefore relationships
with parents were important – not just those with the children/young people. School staff
reported on these relationships being flexible, supportive and based on the needs of parents.
Words drawn on by parents and staff described the relationships of school staff and TSF staff
with parents as being ‘welcoming’ and ‘familiar’ (meaning consistent and comfortable rather
than casual). These relationships provided a safe parent engagement (both physically and
emotionally) for parents to be and accommodated parents’ fears of being involved in their
children’s education. Parents were encouraged to participate, and they described a sense
of ‘togetherness’ between them, the school staff and their children where ‘connections’ were
being built. Keeping in mind parents’ feelings of shame and fear, these types of relationships
were important.
…it gives us a chance to build relationships in a safe spot. (Dani – school staff)
The Parent Engagement Project additionally allowed sharing on a level where parents could
speak openly about issues that they had with their children/young people and they regularly
reported that they found other parents had the same or similar problems. This allowed the
delivery, of specific information sessions and training by external ‘specialised staff’ who were
brought in with funding from the Parent Engagement Project. Workshops such as Parent
Yarns were noted for this.
[We] were doing things where they were actually setting up atmospheres for
parents to hear each other, and that in itself is incredibly powerful. (Pam – TSF)
As mentioned previously, a significant part of building relationships for both schools and
parents was overcoming a reciprocal fear of each other. Dani had questions as to how this
might be achieved.
… how do we get the teacher and the parents together because sometimes
there’s resistance on both parts. We have teachers that are scared of our
parents. Our parents are scared of our teachers. (Dani – school staff)
However the Parent Engagement Project allowed a space in which this fear could be
addressed, as parents and teachers describe below.
… and (you) realise that the teachers aren’t unapproachable. You can talk to
them. (Carey – parent)
And I was becoming more confident with parents as well and not just saying what they
wanted to hear. I’ve been a bit more honest […] having the confidence because we built
those relationships to be able to – yeah, have those honest conversations with them. (Sasha
– school staff)
37
I’ve just come from the meal (TSF funded and run) and just met with kids and
families […] it would be difficult sometimes to talk to some of these families
because the kids aren’t behaving well in school, and sometimes you’re
communicating negative information, and it’s a really nice opportunity to counter
that and have some other, more natural conversations. (Nikita – school staff)
Resourcing
In an understandably strategic way, TSF had to make often, difficult decisions about where
to place resources. They therefore took an approach to school partnerships similar to that
of Gilbourne and Youdell’s (2000) notion of educational triage, one where funding is applied
where it is most likely to be used successfully. This was done with the recognition that it was
an entry point strategy only. While TSF worked primarily through developing partnerships
that allowed access to those living in disadvantaged circumstances, negotiation of programs
that were mindful of the boundaries of parent and family experiences, can be challenging.
Therefore schools that were identified as having more difficult environments would be added
to the TSF network of support once the initial program was successfully established in less
difficult school environments. Pam describes this selection as being based on capacity and
readiness.
[they] had the capacity and they were ready, but the main one was that they
already had a partnership with us. (Pam – TSF)
Partnerships
The guidelines for Parent Engagement Project funding targeted Indigenous parent
engagement. TSF did this by developing partnerships with NT DoE schools. These were
mutually beneficial partnership as TSF were able to access the groups of people in school
communities who required support, while school policy requirements for community
engagement were also being met as Paul describes,
Part of our performance with the department is how well we engage with our community. So
we’ve got a really strong reputation as a school that does that (Paul – school staff)
This being said, it was not for these reasons that the partnerships were primarily developed.
TSF and school staff’s primary aim seemed to focus more on the practicalities of ‘helping
others’, whereas meeting policy requirements appeared to be more of an extraneous
but necessary advantage of the partnership. This meant that participating schools were
purposefully targeted based on their ability to create or select opportunities for the TSF
funding to most successfully be utilised. It should also be noted that once relationships with
schools were established funding was readily available for a range of supportive activities
identified and specific for each school context (see discussion below). TSF therefore
described their relationship with partners as being flexible, tailored, consultative and
supportive as the following quotes demonstrate.
38
I’ve never been involved with schools previously, but the word around the trap is that they’re
very busy people, it’s hard to get hold of them, it’s hard to get in there. I think it’s really been
our flexibility about what we can offer and what their needs are and how we can try and
work together to meet them […] we do have the ability and the resources to be so flexible
and work with the schools needs and what they’re after, and tailor fit it to their parent cohort.
(Edwina – TSF)
It’s in a sort of consultative way, finding out what parents and carers and the school and the
teachers and the staff in the school think they need to get support so they can support their
kids to learn. (Pam – TSF)
39
Condition 2: Access to specialised people
Parent engagement required the commitment of different people who were central to the
workings of the Parent Engagement Project. As Joan (one of those central and specialised
people) explains, it was a combination of relationships that coalesced around the Parent
Engagement Project that contributed to its success.
I think it’s having the people with the right skills in the right place at the right time
(Joan – school staff)
As described above, part of this group of people were the schools principals and staff who
had to be strong, stable, willing to work with parents and appreciate their input. However it
was the Family Centre Coordinators, in particular, who appeared to have the greatest impact
on parent engagement.
The three Family Centre Coordinators we spoke to had very different personalities. However
all had a set of common traits that were evident in their work with the parents. These traits
seemed to help develop parent engagement and appeared to be strongly linked to their
understanding that the parents and children in their schools were ‘significant’.
The three Coordinators could be (kindly) described as audacious and insistent in their contact
with parents. Their descriptions of themselves are less subtle.
There are so many avenues you have to take to get to a parent sometimes it’s
ridiculous … but if the end result gets you there, assuming you’re not being
manipulative or anything. You feel like a stalker sometimes. But as long as it
gets you to the parent and to a safe place with the parent, that’s the win. (Dani –
school staff)
I wore them down […] We nag multi, and we also bribe and cajole […] getting
parents to come, enticing them and doing the programs. (Joan – school staff)
As they describe, stalking, nagging, bribing, cajoling and enticing were all part of their initial
repertoire for getting parents involved. To get parents to come along and be involved in the
school they did use typical avenues such as flyers, newsletters, notice board posters, notes
home via children, and invitations through teachers. However these three women were more
likely to use (and had more success with) multiple face-to-face invitations, cold calls, and
reminder texts to ‘encourage’ engagement. As parents describe, they saw through the co-
ordinators subtle, and not so subtle, approaches.
Dani introduced herself and started talking to me about it. (Carey - parent)
And then I remember Dani walking up to me one day, and she was just having a
little yarn with me, like, “How are you?” and she was actually inviting me to one
of the first programs. (Halle - parent)
40
Theresa. No, it was Theresa […] came and forced us. You know Theresa, hey?
[…] No. No choice at all, but not in a bad way. […] And texting us. The texts
worked before […]. So it was the kids that wanted to […] They know, because
the teachers enforced it on the kids. “Tonight is Parenting Yarns. Make sure
your mum gets in the car and comes back,” And they got to sit down and have
dinner together. (Freda - parent)
I’ve had no time to go to that thing on Friday and they kept texting me and I’d
say “Okay, I promise, I promise.” But when you get there everyone’s just kind
and friendly and happy and love kids. (Freda - parent)
What is particularly apparent from these parents comments is that although they felt targeted
in some ways by these insistent approaches, there is a definite sense of appreciation once
parents attend the Parent Engagement Project events. What parents also identified was the
coordinators and teachers love and care for their children.
There’s no one screaming at your kids or telling your kids – and they accept the
kids the way they are instead of saying “Why aren’t they sitting?” […] Naomi,
Joan and Theresa are the mothers and fathers and teachers and carers and
protectors and they do it all in their days […] it’s just crazy what they do. (Freda -
parent)
The development of a depth of relationship over time with parents also allowed the
coordinators and teachers to speak far more honestly with parents. Theresa describes
below the result of a conversation with their parent about ‘correcting’ their child’s behaviour.
She had reminded the parent of the Parent Engagement Parent Yarns that had dealt with
managing the behaviour of their children.
…she took that well. […] you can’t have that sort of conversation unless you’ve
got all the other layers. So I wouldn’t have had the right to make a comment on
her parenting unless I’d, you know, boosted her with the art workshop, given her
the opportunity (Theresa – school staff)
TSF staff facilitated contact with, and were a part of, this specialised group of people. Within
the Parent Engagement Project they were often the catalyst for access to others who could
provide expertise according to the needs of each of the schools they worked with. As Paul
and Theresa explained, they didn’t just contact people but would take the extra step of
providing the funding that allowed these people to be part of the project.
The Smith Family recruited well, they got the right people, the right skills. (Paul –
school staff)
41
I remember one of the teachers said to me they wanted to do some dyeing. Did
I know anything about Indigenous artists? […] So I ring The Smith Family. “Oh
yes. We know a woman.” So then they actually help by funding her. (Theresa –
school staff)
The outcome of these actions was significant for parents. As Remi’s statement below
suggests, the contact with these ‘experts’ was done in a way that made parents feel safe.
The expert provided the advice they were seeking but it was given in an environment that was
set up to reduce their fear and shame about needing that advice.
It’s like going to all these professionals, but you’re sitting there having a coffee
and speaking to everyone. (Remi - parent)
42
Condition 3: Subtle Implementation of Relevant
Programs
Relevant Programs
Parent Engagement Project workshops were offered in response to the needs of schools
and parents. They were therefore appropriate to the parents needs in the contexts they were
offered. This meant that at one school the parents and staff negotiated for a cyber safety
workshop while the other school asked for a reading program.
TSF always made a point of speaking to both the parents and schools about what they
wanted. One of the activities that funding targeted was ‘Dads and Kids Day’ – an event for
dads and their children from a number of schools where TSF focused on the role of dads
in education. This was in response to parents (mainly women) who wanted something that
would ‘push’ their husbands/partners into educational and family relationships with their
children.
Subtle Implementation
When school staff and parents were asked about parent engagement very few (except
the principals) were able to define this project as separate from other TSF programs that
were also run in the schools. The TSF had an established reputation in the schools that
meant that the Parent Engagement Project was expected to follow suit and for most people
was connected under the banner of TSF rather than being a separate parent engagement
program.
Actually I find it a bit confusing ‘cause TSF fund my position, they fund other
stuff. Parent engagement funding comes from them. (Dani – school staff)
As I said I don’t really know what parent engagement is. (Sasha – school staff)
We’ve got these parent engagement programs, and then other programs
that the school has done, and they cross over a real lot. You can’t attribute
one to the other because all of them worked together to increase this parent
involvement. (Theresa – school staff)
This ‘confusion’ did not seem to impact on the success of the program, so we are
suggesting that this is probably not a bad thing. The principals and TSF staff were quite able
to distinguish between the programs. Distinguishing is relevant for them as this is where
policy, funding and programming requirements intersect between schools and TSF. However
other school staff and parents appeared unaware of where one program started and another
stopped. This had little impact on their willingness to engage and it did not appear to impact
on the effectiveness of any of the programs. It was more important for school staff and
parents that the program was running and that it was relevant to them. What the program
was called and how it was funded was irrelevant. There is a sense that project’s success
came from it being linked to other work being undertaken within the school context. The
work that TSF does appears to be a highly integrated support mechanism.
It was also important to note that there appeared to be a point at which it became possible
for parents were able to engage. Prior to this point it may not have mattered what parent
engagement or any other project attempted. If a particular, and very practical point wasn’t
reached in the context of parents lives, then the Parent Engagement Project and similar
programs were not likely to be successful. Dani identified that there was a time when this
was true for her.
When I was worried about, mmm, how are we going to have milk next week, I
didn’t really care how I learnt or any of those not so factual things. I don’t want
to reflect, I just want to get through the week. And that’s how I felt a lot of our
parents responded. (Dani – school staff)
In responding to this type of barrier, the Parent Engagement Project provided a number
of things such as food, transport, relevant workshops, food vouchers and babysitting as
ways to address these types of very basic needs so that families could be involved. This is
discussed further below.
43
44
Condition 4: Creating Parent Engagement and
Opportunity
Physical Space for Parent Engagement
Both of the schools provided a physical space for parent engagement that was dedicated
to the use of families and the Parent Engagement Project (and other programs) workshops.
These were identified as Family Centres and were established and staffed primarily by
TSF funding. The parent engagement represented far more than just being a physical
parent engagement for the parents and staff. As Dani and Theresa explain below, it also
represented home and safety to parents.
…this was turned into a bit of a family room and its turned out to be a fantastic
space […] some of them (parents) are a little bit hesitant but once they’ve been
here for a while – well, you can tell the parents that are here all the time ’cause
they come in and its home. (Dani – school staff)
There were parents flooding into this room […] and I thought […] we were so
fortunate that we established this space […] The Smith Family support set up
this room, this actual physical space […] to make it a warm and comfortable
place that parents can come in here […] it’s an enormous thing that they feel
safe enough to be here. (Theresa – school staff)
Temporal Space for Parent Engagement
The Parent Engagement project also made space for the temporal engagement between
parents and staff. Staff, in particular, were appreciative of what Parent Engagement Project
funds were able to provide for them in terms of parent engagement in which they could
connect with families. They clearly identified what the funding provided and the TSF staff
themselves were able to free them from the organisational and logistical necessities of events
so that they could more freely interact with parents and children in positive ways both socially
and academically.
…often those are the kinds of things that make it difficult for a school to do
something because our staff are busy doing a whole lot of things (Theresa –
school staff)
…we wouldn’t be able to be moving as fast as what we are now. […] I can then
get on with the teaching and learning which is our core business. (Nina – school
staff)
45
Removing Barriers
As discussed above, the removal of barriers that prevented parent engagement was key to
getting parents to attend any of the TSF events and workshops. Schools, parents and TSF
staff were able to identify the types of broad issues that prevented participation in school
activities, such as fear, shame and self-esteem.
For many parents, the persistence of people like the Family Centre Coordinators, and their
associated ‘stalking’ and ‘coercion’ tactics, helped to overcome some of these broader
issues as they reinforced to parents that they were worthy of chasing up. For Remi this was
particularly important
What keeps you coming back?
The people. Dani. […] It helps when you’ve got someone that will pull you
in; won’t just say ‘Oh come’, and then you don’t think you’re really welcome
because they haven’t bothered with you again. She’s like “Where are you? Are
you coming down?” (Remi – parent)
While these approaches allowed parents to feel encouraged to be involved, and worthy
of that encouragement, they had also identified that practical issues needed to be
addressed. As Joan describes below, the Parent Engagement Project attempted to cover all
contingencies.
they’ve kind of set us up with this model, as well, which is like, okay, the workshop is free,
the catering is free, the babysitting is provided. So you’ve eliminated all the barriers to
participation. (Joan – school staff)
While fear, shame and self esteem were identified as reasons for a lack of engagement with
schools it appeared that for the parents, these were not as big a barrier to participation once
the more practical reasons for not engaging were overcome. Finding the ‘thing’ (usually their
children) that was greater than the fear/shame/self-esteem issue, allowed engagement to
begin. Paul’s and Edwina’s pragmatic approaches identified the requirement for ‘a hook’ and
‘incentives’.
…you’ve just got to find what the hook is, what is it that needs satisfying, what’s
in it for them. (Paul – school staff)
One of the schools actually said to me the other day, they really like our
programs because they use it as a bit of an incentive or almost as a bit of a draw
card. (Edwina – TSF)
The types of logistics mentioned above by Joan, appeared to be more of a barrier than fear.
For example, once logistics such as ‘babysitting’, transport, meals and someone parents
knew to attend with them, were overcome, parents attended. Food appeared to be essential
and was provided in the form of meals for the whole family, leftovers being distributed at the
46
end of family gatherings, and food vouchers for local supermarkets being given as prizes for
attending workshops. Parents felt food was important.
[…] just tell me food and I’ll be there (Halle - parent)
They give you a free voucher at the end. […] You get to go shopping. […] you
even get a prize. Yeah you get to meet people and you get a prize (Remi –
parent)
Offering food and other types of activities that brought parents and school staff together had
additional advantages as described by Nikita.
It gives you an opportunity to sit down and talk with the kids in a social setting
and it gives you a chance to talk to the families […] I think some of the parents
that are intimidated by teachers, I found it a nice leveling field […] (Nikita –
school staff)
As a teacher Nikita found these events to be a leveler particularly for one art event where (as
the art teacher) her inadequacies as an artist were made obvious.
it was quite funny […] I think it made them feel more comfortable, my
inadequacies being shown as an artist. It was just silly things like that. (Nikita –
school staff)
Child minding was another practical issue addressed by Parent Engagement Project funding.
This was a more complex issue as it involved not just the practical support of providing
someone to act in this role but it also needed to be done in a way that parents trusted and
felt comfortable in leaving their children with ‘strangers’. Parent responses about leaving
children with unknown ‘babysitters’ varied from it being a large issue for some to not being
seen as problematic to others. TSF had tried various forms of support for children during
the times parents were involved in workshops. These ranged from providing games and
novelties such as Dani describes,
So with this funding, too, because we do the things like we had a clown or fairy
or some creative person […] The food – you get to say that – come have dinner
with me and 80 families (Dani – school staff)
to a full blown program for children that ran alongside the parent workshops provided by
organisations such as Good Beginnings and Corrugated Iron, also organized by TSF.
The outcome of child minding was that parents were freed to participate in workshops.
So they take all the little ones out of the room, so it’s all the adults and I don’t
really have that kind of support where people take my kids […] just to sit there
and have a conversation without saying, “Sorry, what was that darling?” (Halle -
parent)
Therefore parents could focus on their own learning while being confident that their children
were happy and gaining something from a program offered specifically for them.
It’s the resources to support the parents to attend […] having the ability to offer
child minding. A lot of parents say, “I come because I know I can have some
parent engagement, and the kids enjoy it. The kids tell me to come.” They hear
it’s on and they want to be at one again because they love it. The children report
to us saying they love to meet other kids. They are not just in their classroom
any more, they are in the whole school environment. (Pam – TSF)
Transport was another significant barrier. However when it was provided it was appropriate
and again, done in a way that made people feel significant and showed them that their
specific participation was of value.
Transport’s big. Not for everyone, but for a lot of them […] we’ll book a mini bus
[…] it’s a proper taxi ride and they don’t have to pay. (Pam – TSF)
Outside School
These incentives for parents provided benefits beyond the school environment, making
participation worthwhile and also initiated understandings that parent engagement extended
beyond the school academic environment. Halle spoke of how her connections within the
Parent Engagement Project began to extend her understandings of education and how this
impacted in her family life through books. She explained that she now read to her children
constantly and this had started with the ‘Reading is as Easy as 1, 2, 3” program from the
Parent Engagement Project.
Dani has resource books that they let us borrow. I’ve borrowed books from
Good Beginnings. (Halle – parent)
[…] and the fact that you get a free book with it as well. I had no books at home,
now I’ve got a big collection of books at home. (Halle – parent)
47
48
49
Conclusion
We recognise the significant impact that the work the TSF does in what can only be
described as a difficult and often thankless space. The individuals that we worked with
demonstrated a deep understanding and empathy for the vast range of people that they
worked with and for. The willingness, at an organisational level, to undertake constant
review and critique demonstrates TSF’s ability to adapt and change to the circumstance and
people they are addressing and to respond and adjust to the constantly changing issues and
‘thinking’ that influence their responses. The TSF in the NT are perhaps better placed than
most to take a lead in addressing the challenges and understandings that influence policy
and program adaption nationally that often frustrate efforts.
50
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