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Engaging unresponsive parents in their child’s education

Getting an unresponsive parent to communicate with you always starts with understanding why they haven't been. Shannon Hazel offers 5 tips.

4 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

Streets of New York City. USA. An abandoned telephone receiver. for article on non-responsive parents

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One of the best predictors of student success is parent involvement in a child’s education. When parents show up, kids do better. 

How they show up can take many different forms, such as supporting learning at home, reading with their child daily, attending parent-teacher conferences and special school events, or facilitating social opportunities. By being involved, parents are signaling to their child that school is important and that they value education.

Knowing this, it is imperative that teachers do their part to establish open communication with the parents of their students, communicate to parents how they can be contacted and create opportunities for parents to be involved in their child’s learning.

But what can teachers do when a parent is unresponsive?

Start by determining why

The first thing teachers can do is try to determine why the parent is unresponsive.

It could be due to a school issue; however, it may also have nothing to do with the school. So, it’s important to try to understand the root cause. Talking to the child’s previous teachers, administrators or other school professionals involved with the child may help shed some light. If appropriate, you could also ask the student.

I would also recommend checking the student’s school record to see if there is any useful information on file.

If you can discern the reason a parent may not be engaging with the school or, more specifically, their child’s teachers, you can tailor your approach accordingly. I’ve found that unresponsive parents often fall into one of two categories: Either they had negative (even traumatic) school experiences themselves growing up, or they have a life event that is a barrier to them being more involved, such as their work schedule, an illness or heavy life responsibilities.

Whether your attempts to discern a reason are successful or not, persist. Here are some suggestions for things to try.

5 ways to engage unresponsive parents

  1. Regularly make good-news calls home or send messages. If parents do not answer your calls, leave a message about the good news. The source of the good news doesn’t matter as much as the parent receiving a positive message from the school about their child. If you make this a regular habit, the parent may just pick up the phone or respond to a message at some point. If they do, you then have something to build on.
  2. If the parents pick up or drop off their child at school, try to go out to their meeting spot and let them know how well their child is doing or that they had a great day. Again, the goal is to have a quick, positive interaction and then try to build from there. Even if their child is struggling with school, find something positive to say and avoid trying to address learning or school issues until you can establish regular communication.
  3. Be willing to accommodate a parent’s needs if it will establish lines of communication. If parents have a legitimate barrier to being more involved, brainstorm ways that you can remove the barrier. This could mean calling them after school hours if that is the only time they are available to talk or asking someone to cover your class if they are only able to meet at a specific time during the school day. 
  4. Consider whether a parent’s first language could be something other than English. If all your communications thus far have been in English, a language barrier could be the cause. In this case, enlist the help of your school district to provide an interpreter to make phone calls or write messages for you in the parent’s preferred language. 
  5. Ask for help from other school professionals. If you have been trying to engage a parent for several months, perhaps someone else — the principal, another teacher or a support staff member — can give it a shot. Sometimes it takes a different voice to relay the real importance of communicating with you to get results.

As with our students, sometimes we speak and feel like they are not listening — but they are. Although parents may not respond to your efforts, they are likely getting the messages, and you are most likely making some progress, even though it may not be immediately apparent.

When making efforts to interact with an unresponsive parent, remember your why. It may be easier to give up and place the onus on the parent to connect with you. But if you remember the bigger picture — that a parent’s involvement in a child’s education is a huge predictor of long-term student success — you will be more likely to stay the course.