During this period of transition to home-based learning, the role of teachers in communicating to parents to support students’ learning is more critical than ever. There is a multitude of evidence relating to this topic, particularly on the role of parents in their child’s education and how to build positive engagements between parents and school staff.
Parents/carers, along with teachers, school leaders, school staff, peers and the wider community, interact in ways that influence a child’s learning process. Research suggests that parental engagement (broader learning support outside school) has a bigger impact on academic outcomes than parental involvement (participation in formal and informal activities at the school; ARACY, 2015a). Parental engagement in a child’s learning consists of attitudes, behaviours and actions that provide learning opportunities outside the school and link what children learn at school with what happens in their community and society more broadly (Emerson et al., 2012). Evidence indicates that parents/carers who are engaged in learning outcomes at home can facilitate positive change in children’s academic achievement, as well as their development and wellbeing (Emerson et al., 2012).
Strategies for engaging parents/carers are more likely to be successful “when teachers know how to communicate effectively with parents, where dedicated school staff work with parents, and where there is strong support from the principal for this work” (Emerson et al., p12). Ongoing, respectful and relevant communications, and constructive, meaningful feedback are important in building trust and shared learning goals, whether they occur online or in person (Emerson et al., 2012). There are multiple ways to facilitate ongoing communication and relationship building beyond face-to-face meetings, such as through email, websites, blogs, podcasts and social networking sites (Bouffard, 2008; Hohfeld, Ritzhaupt and Barron, 2010; as cited in Emerson et al., 2012, p41). An added advantage is these online platforms allow information to be shared both more efficiently and widely.
The Education Endowment Foundation in the UK provides guidance on ways schools can work with parents/carers to improve children’s learning. Evidence for Learning also has a range of useful advice for educators in working with parents/carers to support student learning.
The School Learning Support Program (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2010) outlines considerations for effective parent/carer engagement through a website, which can be broadly applied to all forms of communication (electronic, mail, phone call, videoconferencing etc.) that support distance learning:
- Promote key messages to parents and carers about the school and its aims
- Promote home-based materials and websites
- Provide interactive workshops using programs such as Moodle and chat rooms for parents
- Provide products and resources that the parent may work through on their own or with their child
- Link parents to existing resources and publications
- Link parents with other organisations that have the capacity to provide support (online and/or in their community)
- Have an area for parents on the site (or direct parents to resources in your jurisdiction; see links in Resource 1) on specific information about how they can support their child.
The following sections provide evidence-based content on effective strategies for family-led learning at home. Through tailored communication and targeted advice, including practical strategies to support learning at home, teachers can encourage and enable parental engagement in their child’s distance education.
Principles for online/distance learning for parents
For parents of children and young people, research shows the most effective strategies for family-led learning at home, which may vary by age group, include (ARACY, 2015a, p6):
- Believing in children’s potential
- Reading together
- Talking with children
- Supporting children to develop positive relationships, including responding appropriately to negative experiences they may encounter
- Learning together, including engagement in everyday activities such as cooking and spending time learning as a family
- Creating a positive homework environment, that is, providing the child a dedicated space and time for homework, having the same rules as the school about homework, and ensuring parent-child interactions around homework are positive.
For parents of adolescents, research has shown that “family-led, home-based aspects of parent engagement, including providing a general environment that supports and encourages learning, have more impact than parents having direct involvement in the content of what young people are learning at school” (ARACY, 2015b, p3). Findings from the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth's (ARACY) investigation between 2013-15 into parental engagement in ACT high schools identified some key principles, many of which can be extrapolated for home-based learning (ARACY, 2015b, p4-5):
- Being sensitive to increasing autonomy and independence of adolescents, while retaining a supportive structure
- Demonstrating aspirations and expectations for learning
- Aiming to provide a stimulating and supportive home learning environment
- Maintaining child-parent interaction relevant to learning
- Keeping connections and communication open with school
- Providing support for homework appropriate to adolescence.
The ARACY parent fact sheet provides examples of what parents can do based on the above principles.
Setting up a home learning environment
The ‘home learning environment’ (HLE) is a reflection of the home environment and refers to the interactions in and around the home with the family (Smees & Sammons, 2018). The following studies in England and Australia show that the HLE, especially in the early years, has a positive association with children’s academic achievement, and that students across all year levels value family behaviours and attitudes supportive of their learning:
- A longitudinal study, the Effective Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE 3-16), tracked over 3,000 children in England from preschool entry to age 16 and investigated the impact of the HLE on child outcomes across childhood. After controlling for family influences, early years HLE (during preschool period) was positively related to attainment throughout primary and secondary education, with some apparent impact in late adolescence, and children were also better adjusted in terms of behaviour and wellbeing throughout their K-12 schooling (Melhuish et al., 2008; Sammons et al., 2015, 2009; Sylva et al,. 2004).
- A 2015 Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) found associations between children’s early home learning environment at age 2-3 and their Year 3 learning outcomes at age 8-9. Children who engaged in home activities and whose parents/carers read to them frequently at age 2-3 tended to have higher NAPLAN reading and numeracy scores in Year 3 (AIFS, 2015).
- A 2016 study on the views of Year 3 to Year 12 students enrolled in government, Catholic and independent schools across Western Australia showed that, across all year levels, students valued family members who showed an active interest in their learning, such as spending quality time talking and listening, encouraging learning progress, and communicating with the school regarding their learning (Commissioner for Children and Young People, 2018).
Early Primary School
Support for a positive home learning environment is critical in the early years. The 2015 Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) identified four broad dimensions of a child’s home learning environment that affect both reading ability and numeracy levels as measured in Grade 3 (AIFS, 2015):
- home activities, including teaching the child a song, playing games, and doing arts and crafts
- number of days per week the primary carer or an adult in the family read to the child
- number of children’s books in the child’s home
- out-of-home activities (where possible), such as going on picnics.
Evidence suggests that parents who engage in the following activities at home encourage thinking and talking, and support their child’s development (National Children’s Bureau, 2019, p.2):
- reading and sharing books
- playing with print (letters and numbers)
- singing songs and nursery rhymes
- drawing and painting (making meaningful marks)
Late Primary school and Secondary School
For parents of adolescent students, the following are things to do to stimulate and support a home learning environment (ARACY, 2015b, p4):
- have books and other learning resources available in the home, where possible
- model behaviours that promote learning and demonstrate education is valued (e.g. parents reading in the home, conversations between parent and child about learning)
- engage the child in out-of-school learning activities, such as gardening
- provide a supportive environment for child health and wellbeing more generally. For adolescents, this may include managing fatigue and ensuring adequate sleep (between 9-10 hours), supporting stress and emotional anxiety, providing adequate nutrition to support brain and body development, and help with time and resource management.
There also considerations in the physical space when setting up a home environment conducive to virtual learning. Virtual learning involves not just integrating with software tools, but also physical tools that can be found in the learning environment, such as books, educational materials and toys, whiteboards, and physical artefacts that connect with computers (Dillenbourg et al., 2007).
Several education theorists emphasise the importance of physical and social environments in supporting children’s learning (Child Australia, 2012, p10). Indoor/outdoor spaces are meant to encourage exploration and curiosity and questioning and discussion. Examples include having natural resources such as wood and beeswax crayons to encourage exploration and displays and photos of children’s work to make the space more engaging (Child Australia, 2012).
On a practical level, the NSW Government provides a learning environment checklist to guide parents/carers in setting up a home learning environment, which includes creating a quiet and comfortable learning space suitable for extended learning.
Ensuring student wellbeing during home-based learning
The transition from school-based to home-based learning may be a difficult time for students, particularly since they will be unable to access the kinds of social interaction they are used to. This transition could negatively impact their wellbeing. Parents are also under considerable stress, particularly as their role in their child’s education has increased to become more direct, hands-on and time-intensive, so their own wellbeing may also be tested.
The shift to home-based learning means parents and teachers may need to set more structured time for checking in with children about their wellbeing. When communicating about these topics, it is beneficial if parents use statements that show pride, unconditional support and acceptance without judgement (ARACY, 2017). Practical support, such as provision of materials and resources, a focus on exercise and good nutrition, discussions about learning experience, as well as general encouragement can also enable positive coping approaches in children (Sollis,K., 2019). Families can make the most of this situation by taking the time to strengthen relationships and bonds, discuss and practice reading, learning, and communicate about the transition to home study (ARACY, 2017). During this time, as schooling transitions to the home environment, it will be important to monitor the mental health of children as well as their physical wellbeing.
Evidence shows exercise is a proven treatment for stress and depression, with a recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity for 5-17 year olds. However, the challenge for children is not a lack of guidance, but motivation as the driver of physical activity (Trost, 2005). Motivation to exercise stems from attitudes and beliefs, which take time to form. Self-esteem plays a key role, as perceived competency, social support and enjoyment shape motivation (Owen, 2015). To help motivate children to exercise, which will be particularly important during this period of home-based learning, teachers and parents can create challenges for students to participate in, have motivational discussions, design physical activities so that they are fun and help children learn about their own growth (Weiss, 2000). With online digital media resources readily available, parents can also make use of home exercise equipment and/or green space in backyards.
In addition to making sure the physical wellbeing of students is considered during this period, parents and teachers will need to monitor student wellbeing online even more so than usual. Transitions from school to home will increase reliance on online learning platforms and social networks, yet, a sizeable percentage (33%) of parents do not feel confident about their ability to manage cyberbullying (eSafety Commissioner, July 2018). For parents, their child’s school is the most reported source (56%) for cyberbullying guidance, highlighting the role of teachers and school leaders in advising parents on this issue (Katz et al., June 2014). This indicates that parents need support in differentiating between potentially problematic use of digital media, versus normal use. Problematic use may be characterised by changes in mood after online activity, changes in overall personality, stress, issues with schoolwork, changes in sleep, avoidance, decline in physical health and secretive online behaviour (eSafety Commissioner, 2020). By using the framework provided in section 2 regarding quality of screen time, parents and teachers can monitor student wellbeing regarding online experiences. Helping children to build digital resilience by having conversations about online content/experiences (such as what to do after coming across a distressing news article, for example), and modelling appropriate digital behaviour and values, is a potentially positive effect of the increasing reliance on online platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic (Livingstone & Blum-Ross, 2017).