Engaging harder-to-reach parents


Not all parents are keen to engage with their child’s school. This can lead to the school giving up on the relationship and subsequent misunderstandings. In this article, Dr. Pooky Knightsmith offers her suggestions for how you can successfully reach out.


  • Consider carefully who isn’t engaged and why you want to reach them.
  • Take time to find out more about what the barriers actually are.
  • Plan your next steps with clear goals and a vision of what success might look like.

For a variety of reasons, some parents and carers are harder to reach than others. It is very often the case that the pupils who’d most benefit from familial engagement with school are the same pupils whose parents and carers are the least likely to engage. In the meantime, the workshops and information sessions we run are largely attended by the already convinced.

There’s no quick fix and, in my experience, it takes dedication and perseverance to make a real difference; but it is possible and absolutely worthwhile. 

Who aren’t you reaching?

Before you consider how best to engage your harder-to-reach parents, you need to work out who they are. You may already have a good idea about this, but it’s worth stopping to really think about it as this is definitely a situation where the quiet voices often go unheard.

A helpful guide to engagement gaps is to reflect on who is engaging with school and map how well represented different groups are. For example, when you reflect on the last year’s worth of communications and events aimed at parents and carers, did you get engagement from parents and carers of pupils:

  • from all year groups
  • of all abilities
  • of all ethnicities and genders
  • from all vulnerable groups?

The list could go on – but essentially, consider the diversity of your student body and reflect on whether this diversity was reflected in parent/carer interactions. If not, where were the gaps?

Why do you want to reach them?

Next, we need to reflect on why it is important to us to engage with parents and carers. A key barrier is often that parents and carers can’t see the benefits of engaging with the school. Parents need to know what’s in it for them.

In order for this to happen, you need to have a clear answer to this question and to then communicate that answer to parents. A quick way to reduce parental engagement is to make parents feel like their time has been wasted when they do make the effort to involve themselves with the school. A helpful exercise here is to reflect on the last 12 months of events you ran for parents and consider why each of those mattered.

If there are any events that parents did not find useful or which could easily have been communicated in a less time- intensive way, e.g. via email or a letter home, consider carefully whether, moving forwards, similar events have a place in your calendar.

What are the barriers?

Once you’ve determined who you need to be reaching and why, it’s time to understand the barriers to engagement. These will vary from school to school and parent to parent so it’s worth really taking time to understand them; otherwise we can end up trying to fix the wrong problem.

Of course, the very best way to understand why parents aren’t engaging is to ask them. No prizes for realising that this can be difficult with harder-to-reach parents. Nonetheless, with a little imagination you can relatively quickly build up some decent hypotheses for testing by talking to pupils, staff and the parents who do engage.

Some suggestions on how to aid communication are as follows.

  1. Talk to support staff: they often have a deep understanding about the families of the children they spend the most time supporting.
  2. Get frontline staff on board: they will often have a good relationship with some of your parent and carer community and will be able to provide insight and ideas.
  3. Ask tutors/teachers to explore ideas with their classes: pupils will often know exactly why their parents don’t engage and what might help.
  4. Hold informal conversations at the school gates: it’s especially interesting to talk to parents who are on-site often but choose not to engage with activities held for them.
  5. Use SMS or email to survey parents who are infrequently on-site due to other commitments or geography.
  6. Discuss parental engagement in a staff meeting and listen to ideas from colleagues about their perception and also what is working well elsewhere in either their professional or personal experience.

Learn from what’s working well

As well as taking time to understand barriers and problems, it’s also helpful to reflect on what’s gone well and why. If you’ve run some great events and parents who did attend have been effusive in their praise, consider how you can use these parents as ambassadors to reach out to other parents and encourage attendance in future.

Also consider whether you can piggyback the events that are poorly attended – but are important – with the events that parents are most enthusiastic about engaging with. A brief parent workshop following a celebration assembly or preceding parent consultation evening is a model that has been tried and tested in many schools I’ve worked with.

Have a plan and clear goals

As with all things, success is more likely if we can visualise it. Set yourself some tangible, realistic goals and have a clear idea about what success would look like. What are the first steps you need to take to make it happen?

The action planning template in the toolkit will help here. It’s important to think not only how you can engage parents and carers in the short term, but how you’ll make this sustainable and build on any success you have. I’ve generally found that once we begin to turn the tide with parental engagement, it’s possible to step into a positive cycle so long as we consciously ride the momentum we’re creating.

Be flexible and persevere

What works in one school won’t always work in another and what didn’t work last year might work next year, so persistence and flexibility are key here. Try not to feel downhearted if only a handful of parents turn up at your carefully planned event. Instead ensure that that handful of parents feel that it was time really well spent and encourage them to spread the word. Your hard work will pay off and the whole school community will benefit.

What’s worked well elsewhere?

Here are a few ideas shared by my network that might just work for you too. For a more detailed case study, see the toolkit Handout – Case study on engaging harder-to-reach parents at Ethos College (a Key Stage 4 pupil referral unit).

‘My school has invited parents into school for “fun” activities. Most recently parents came into school and spent the day with their children, learning how to cook. The kids loved it.’ @dominic_mcg

‘A “Family learning” approach was used in my old school, with childcare provided, a drop off/pick up timetable and evening slots.’ @SchoolJules

‘As a “hard-to-reach parent”, what’s worked for me is text messaging; meeting me where I’m at, no judgement, interpersonal warmth, kindness, flexible scheduling, positive reinforcement; validation of my lived experience and persistence.’ @armchairoracle5

‘More informal opportunities to come in rather than to come to learn how to do something. Often involves food. Best event served fish and chips and book at bedtime with hot chocolate for all. Having a parental engagement lead was pivotal.’ @sambocock


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Dr. Pooky Knightsmith

Dr. Pooky Knightsmith has a PhD in child mental health from the Institute of Psychiatry. She is the author of five books and is the current Chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition. You can email Pooky on pooky@inourhands.com and her Twitter handle is @PookyH. Her YouTube channel is www.youtube. com/pookyh where she uploads new videos twice a week.

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