Supporting parents in difficult circumstances

Despite parents being eager to support their child's learning, challenging circumstances can act as barriers to engagement. How can schools help parents integrate into school life?

Author details

Charlie Roden is a Junior Content Lead at Optimus Education. She previously worked as a member of Priestnall School’s curriculum support faculty, supporting young people with SEND. 

Most parents want to play an active role in their child's education. However, there are barriers that can prevent them from engaging with school.

These barriers may include:

  • difficult financial circumstances
  • a perception that they don't fit in due to aspects such as social class
  • low educational attainment
  • negative experience of own schooling
  • language.

How can schools provide disadvantaged parents with the skills and confidence to be more involved with their child's learning?


Many parents find it hard to engage with their child’s learning at home because they don’t always understand the work set, or they are only used to using outdated methods that they learnt at school.

To allow parents to be more involved with their child’s home learning:

  • set creative, non-academic projects for families to get stuck into
  • set up homework clubs during the week and invite parents along.

At Lessness Heath primary school, children are given a list of possible activities to complete with their parents or carers. The tasks are open ended, enabling all abilities to work successfully at their own level.

See the Sutton Trust's report for more information on disadvantaged pupils and homework.


Schools need to be clear with parents from the very first day just how critical reading with their child is.

However, many parents are at a disadvantage as they struggle with reading themselves. Schools need to make sure parents feel supported, and know how best to do this.

Because of the stigma attached to illiteracy, parents will be reluctant to ask for help. Schools therefore need to be sensitive in their approach.

  • During initial meetings with parents, give parents something to read through and ask them if they have any questions. It will be quite clear if they need support after this.
  • Once it has been established that the parent needs help, sign-post them to adult literacy courses – these are available in most communities.
  • Provide sessions in school using staff or other parents to teach one-to-one or small groups of parents. This is only possible if parents are comfortable accepting help in school.
  • Have members of staff available to read out letters and emails so no families are missing important information – this could be in person or over the phone.

Since all generations are taught to read in different ways, even parents that can read may struggle with how best to support their children. Put on sessions where parents are taught how to read with their children and introduce reading as a routine. This increases parental engagement with their child and opens up communication between the home and school.

Volunteering opportunities

Providing parents with opportunities to become more involved in school life is a great way to strengthen partnerships. Having parents actively involved in school also shows children that their parents value their education, encouraging them to want to do well.

It’s important for schools to take into account any logistical barriers faced by parents, so volunteer opportunities should be offered during the school day, after school and during the weekend. 

Provide a range of different volunteering opportunities and let parents choose what they want to participate in. These may include:

  • helping out on school trips
  • supporting extra-curricular activities
  • helping in the library
  • helping in the reception office
  • working in the classroom e.g. listening to pupils read.

Schools can also help parents widen their employment opportunities through volunteering. For example, Benjamin Adlard primary school invite parents (or any adults in the local area) to join an eight week programme at their forest school, where they take part  in craft work such as making bird boxes to sell. At the end of the programme, all attendees receive a reference and a CV workshop to get back into work.

Cost of uniform

With the average cost of uniform amounting to £212, many children are coming into school wearing it incorrectly.

This can have a devastating impact on their experience of school. Not only does being sent home negatively affect a child’s academic outcomes, but looking different to other pupils perpetuates bullying and highlights differences.

How can schools help with this?

  • Avoid compulsory branded items – having a generic uniform that can be bought from most supermarkets is more cost-efficient and easier for parents to get hold of.
  • Work with more affluent schools in your area who can donate uniforms and PE kits to your school.
  • Have a uniform bank or second-hand shop, encouraging parents to donate both old and new clothes.
  • Set up an Amazon wish list for people to donate anonymously and have sent direct to your school.
  • Set up an exchange service, where families can swap their children's outgrown uniforms for new ones that fit. This is more discreet than uniform banks – people will feel like they are giving to charity rather than just receiving it.
  • Recycle uniform in lost property and provide spare PE kits.

EAL parents

Speaking English as an additional language (EAL) should be seen as an opportunity rather than a barrier to parental engagement. 

  • Use other parents and staff as interpreters – this is especially important for sensitive face-to-face meetings. Parents know their children better than anyone, and so need the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas.
  • Rather than relying on pupils to feed important information back to their parents, use other parents and staff to translate letters and emails.
  • Encourage families to participate in their child’s home learning by setting activities that can be done together e.g. ask parents to write down simple vocabulary like days of the week, or write words next to pictures drawn by the children.
  • Invite parents in for coffee mornings to meet other EAL parents and build up their confidence. Children will also feel more integrated if their parents are more involved in their school life.

Teacher training

Teachers need to be confident in working with parents, but since this isn't something covered in ITT, teachers don't always feel that they have the knowledge or skills to support families.

Take a look at our Harnessing Parent Power training resource to explore how schools and families can find new ways of working together. 

Further reading

Last Updated: 
01 Jul 2019