Strategic Parent Engagement 

by Thomas Hitchings

International schools in increasingly competitive markets are now vying for a more diverse pool of potential parents. Parallel to the fluctuating market conditions, we are also encountering parents who receive their news from a wide array of perspectives and platforms. This piece is not meant to tell leaders what they already know; rather, it is designed as a thought piece that acknowledges the needs of Gen Z and Millennial parents exploring the possibility of engaging with them in the same way we do with our employees. Parents essentially share the same motivation as our teachers: student learning and development. 

Traditionally, look at school engagement with parents as a tool to help children reinforce their habits and ensure families are aware and supportive of the school strategies, developments, and student progress at critical points during the year. This model does not need to change; however, we do need to consider a tweak in approach of how all stakeholders feel about their school, not just what they know about the school. This subtle difference between ‘feel’ and ‘know’ is more important to the new generation of parents coming through. 

So, back to the main point of this blog – how can we help children? 

Assuming you have a school strategy, vision, mission, desired ethos or aspirational direction (and it is assumed that you probably do, otherwise you would not be reading this), there are two comparative groups we always try to engage with that I would like to explore: employees and parents.

Basic Needs

The four essential elements of quality employee engagement start with the simplest: basic needs. Staff need to understand what is expected of them. These expectations should be clearly outlined in the form of clear job descriptions and outcomes, coupled with clear and concise interactions with the leaders who follow the same message. Without fulfilling staff’s basic expectations as an individual, staff will struggle with direction, and will be left guessing if they are meeting expectations. 

Individual Needs 

Secondly, staff need to feel recognised as individuals. This is the all-important understanding about their feelings towards their work. People’s voices need to be heard and ideas acted on where possible. Circling back with quality feedback where it is useful. 

Feeling of Being Part of a Team

Alongside being recognised as an individual, staff need to feel that they are part of something bigger than them too. Once people understand, and more importantly buy into the strategic vision of the school or department within the school, they feel much more ownership over their work as an individual who represents their team for the greater good. 

The Need for Growth

The last part of the four, and topping the pyramid, is growth. Staff need to feel movement and progress in their own role. Providing opportunities for growth through meaningful, purposeful, and relevant professional learning is essential to the culture of the school. It also does not hurt to remind staff of when they are experiencing this, as long as you always start with ‘why’. Understanding why we are doing something always makes it feel relevant to even those who may be slow to join the movement. 

None of these elements of employee engagement will be a surprise to any of the leaders reading this. However, the next part of this piece is to explore the other most influential people in our pupil’s learning through the same lens by asking the question: What if we thought about parental engagement in the same way as our employee engagement?

If we hypothetically consider parents as employees when considering engagement, we would be tapping into a group that is well-motivated, untrained in the most part, and as they have already joined the school, have some connection with the vision and mission, possibly the culture of the school. Let us explore what this might look like through the four elements of employee engagement.

Basic Needs 

To tap into a parents’ basic needs from a school, I will rely on my own simplified educational philosophy to start with: parents need to know their child feels safe, feels happy, and feels they are being challenged. It is a simple recipe and as we are talking about basic needs, it fits the bill. What is essential though, is clear communication and reinforcement of the basic needs to the parents; what is expected of them as parents in terms of fostering their child’s individual education. 

Individual Needs

Parents in an international context are usually well-motivated to support their children’s education, and as we look at this area through an employee engagement lens, parents need to feel recognised. It is more about their feelings than anything else. If parents feel listened to, heard, recognised, and involved, they will be engaged. Action based on listening needs to be pointed out too as this will build trust in the system. Non-action must also be justified clearly. Setting clear limitations through strong leadership and communication is an essential element of this process. It is at this point we can connect with the next and most relevant engagement element. If their individual voice is being heard, they can then be given opportunities to feel part of something bigger.

Feeling of Being Part of a Team

Parents who are brought into the school’s values will most likely feel like they have joined something bigger when they are actively engaged with community events and communications from class teachers. Community events and other activities run by the school for parents and children are easily connected to the growth element of this process. 

The Need for Growth

Parents would benefit from seeing growth in two ways. One is by enabling them to live vicariously through their own children’s growth within the school. We see this already with report cycles, certificates, showcases, performances, etc. The second is much more personal and highly rewarding to parents. Schools which provide their parent body with training in elements of education are engaging in parental growth already. More elements of this can come in the form of communication, celebrating parental interaction in reading programmes, community events, and other school-led initiatives are also great. The smaller moments are often the bigger impacts on individual growth. In conversations with parents, an acknowledgement (positive feedback) to how well their child is doing because of their hard work often is the simplest form of evoking their feeling of growth. 

To sum up: parents are a high-value asset in education and with a well-thought-out parental engagement strategy, we can tap into and maximise their impact on children’s learning, their habits, and their mindset towards school.

Thomas Hitchings is the Head of Primary, Nord Anglia Chinese International School (NACIS), Shanghai

To connect with Thoams on LinkedIn, click here


2 thoughts on “<strong>Strategic Parent Engagement </strong>”

  1. Thanks for this insightful article!

    To our international school community: What are some creative ways you’ve seen schools engage parents and make them feel like part of the team?

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