Parental empowerment for better wellbeing: a case study

Kelly Hannaghan explains how engaging parents has improved wellbeing for her school community, changed lives and highlighted the power of connection

Author details

Kelly Hannaghan is a wellbeing consultant, public speaker and writer, passionately promoting positive mental health and wellbeing of all stakeholders in education. You can find Kelly on...

Two years ago, I took up the opportunity to lead on a project to change the mindset of a whole school community. The school had recently been placed in special measures and morale was at an all-time low.

I quickly understood where my focus was needed. A culture of blame had been established, and there was tension between parents and staff. Parents feared that the school was failing their children and no longer trusted staff.

Digging deeper, it became clear that relationships between all stakeholders in the school were fraught and fragmented. Creating an empathic culture was fundamental to success.

Starting with relationships

At first parents were very defensive, seeing me as someone to sound off their frustrations with. My aim was to use a solution-focused approach. This would enable me to start shifting the responsibility of ownership of triggered emotions back to the parents.

We want to understand how to be the best parent possible

It soon became apparent that many of our parents had experienced trauma in their own childhood or were currently in complex life situations. There was a strong link between the behaviours of parents and their needs. 

It was important for me to offer a real sense of understanding, while embedding an empathic approach towards the parent’s thoughts and feelings. This is where the power of connection was established.

Strategy development: from coffee to capacity building

While inviting parents in for coffee mornings was my initial response, it soon became apparent that this facilitated a space for parents to project negative thoughts. I changed my tactic and asked the parents what they needed from an empowerment programme.

The answer was clear. ‘We want to understand how to be the best parent possible and to gain the tools to help our children with life’s challenges.’

This was the starting framework for our Family Matters Empowerment Programme, which focused on the following elements.

  • Healthy relationships
  • Skills to improve mental health
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Positive psychology
  • Solution focus approaches
  • Links between behaviours and emotions
  • The introduction to a wellbeing diet and the five ways to wellbeing

Every Friday parents were invited into a safe space to explore how their own past experiences could affect their parenting capacities. Parents now understood that they were a product of their environment – and therefore their children were too.

It quickly became apparent that the need was greater than I could ever imagined. To ensure that parents shared their concerns safely and responsibly, we asked parents to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Challenges faced: families, staff and senior leaders

Engaging disaffected families was a priority. They were our hardest-to-reach audience, and it took considerable time to win these families over. Some of these families were highlighted through safeguarding procedures, and establishing strong links with social care was vital.

Encouraging staff to be on board was difficult initially. In the past parents had behaved aggressively and were hostile. This created anxiety, and teachers often avoided face-to-face contact with parents.

Taking the decision to fund a wellbeing programme at a time of budget cuts was a risk

Senior leaders were the driving force behind the wellbeing focus. Time was allocated for them to be included in the development of plans and strategy.

This was a risk at first, as there was no raw data or evidence to share with the school governors to predict impact. But having headteachers and senior leadership on board had substantial importance in steering the project forward.


As word spread on how positively the programme had impacted on parents’ lives, attendance grew. With parents feeling that their opinions and concerns mattered, they were empowered and grew in confidence – making life successes possible.

  • Parent separation was significantly reduced.
  • Relationships within families dramatically improved.
  • Parents were returning to study and securing jobs for the first time in years.
  • Parents gained a clear understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental health issues and had the skills to address these and seek help.

To date 200 parents have engaged with the Family Matters programme. We have now created a steering group of parents, who have roles and responsibilities within the programme. Graduates have even formed a social media group to empower others and signpost help that’s available within our local community.

The greatest change has been in relationships between all stakeholders within our school community. Staff, parents and pupils say that they feel safe and happy in our school, with blame and shame released, and help always available.

Releasing stigma

We have used a range of strategies to release the stigma around talking about mental health.

  • We regularly measure and monitor the emotional health of our parents, pupils and staff and form actions plans to support current needs.
  • Our wellbeing focus in included in the school development plan.
  • A staff wellbeing menu has been introduced.
  • We have created a four-tier approach for supporting vulnerable pupils.
  • Staff and parents receive regular mental health awareness training.
  • A strong link with all outside agencies has been established, with a high success rate of referral accepted and support offered.
  • Staff are offered regular supervision.
  • Wellbeing is threaded through all our school policies and procedures to ensure longevity in our approaches.

Impact on pupils 

We have noticed a decrease in pupil behavioural issues. Parents are taking responsibility for their child’s behaviours and showing more interest in their learning. 

Pupil attainment has been aided by parents signing up for functional skills workshops. Pupil attendance has also improved as a result of positive parent engagement and families seeing the value in education.

There’s been a noticeable change around the way in which people speak to each other and the consistent use of positive reflective language. This has had a profound effect on outcomes.

Impact on staff

The staff at Lessness Heath Primary School report that their wellbeing had been improved due to the whole school focus on improving relationships. Staff feel more confident in addressing parents and positive working partnerships have been formed.

Teachers feel less intimidated by parents, due to having a deeper understanding of their needs. Up-to-date information and training, based on current research, is on offer to parents and staff.

Our pupils are happy and engaged for learning

We ensure we do everything possible to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of the children and young people in education.

Prevention and risk taking

My work as wellbeing leader at Lessness Heath School will continue to evolve as needs arise. We are focused on putting preventative measures in place and ensuring wellbeing remains at the heart of our school.

Our hope is to share our strategies and good practices with the wider community, for greater outcomes in growing a resilient future generation.

Taking the decision to fund a wellbeing programme at a time of budget cuts was a risk for headteacher Kate O’Connor. Our governing body now understand the importance of a sustainable wellbeing focus and have seen the impact of this in our recent SATs results and Ofsted outcome.

We have created a family of people in education who care and look after each other, and our pupils are happy and engaged for learning.

Last Updated: 
05 Nov 2018