When should you talk with someone at school?

1. Introduction

2. What you can do as a parent

3. What you can do with your child

4. Impact on children

5. Some ideas and resources

6. What some parents say

7. What some principals say

8. What some researchers say

9. Some useful books on parent engagement

10. References

11. Acknowledgements

The use of the words parents and families throughout this module refers to all types of home arrangements and parental figures, including carers and legal guardians, who care for and rear children. Any images of people in this module do not indicate these people were in any way part of the project or are in agreement with any information contained in this module. Except where otherwise indicated, and save for any material in this document owned by a third party or protected by a trade mark, a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/au/deed.en) applies to this document.
This project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education through the Grants and Awards Programme 2015-16 to 2018-19.
First published July 2019
Cover image: © Sabphoto | Dreamstime.com


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When should you talk with someone at school?


The process of growing and learning is life’s great journey, a journey which opens opportunities and sometimes creates issues. For school children, these issues could come to light at home or at school. Often these issues are best resolved when discreetly shared between families and schools.

Educational issues, like all issues, are best identified and dealt with as soon as possible. Sometimes an issue might also create opportunities, if the key people involved are open to this.

Constructive engagement between a family, a school and a child helps to ensure that an everyday issue can be detected and dealt with in a positive way before becoming a major challenge.

This is helped by positive relationships between parents, students and teachers in which all parties feel valued and respected.

Parents justifiably appreciate when teachers proactively and constructively address issues they raise, usually in relation to a child’s situation, behaviour or performance.

These discussions sometimes start with a problem but they can be the basis of ongoing constructive dialogue if they are also taken as a chance to open communication.

The discussion should be two-way. Teachers also respect knowing if something has happened outside school that will affect the demeanour of a child. This may be either an advance (perhaps a trophy or award-winning performance in sport, dance or music) or a setback (an injury, a personality clash or illness within a family).

Parents have to work to engage in their child’s ongoing learning and progress and this is helped by better use of technology - whether through social media or through one-to-one contact.

This lowers the risk of parents not understanding issues arising with their child. It also offers parents the means to talk with both teachers and school leadership.


What you can do as a parent


Be alert to issues arising with your child in the school environment. Warning signs might include detachment or a reluctance to attend school. These could signal issues with, for example, learning, behavioural problems, student wellbeing and/or bullying.

Remember there are many sides to every story and issues are best dealt with if followed up as soon as possible.

The classroom teacher should be the first point of contact. There is little benefit in going directly to a principal as they will normally begin by referring the matter to the teacher. Going straight to the top can also erode trust between a parent and a teacher and this could negatively impact ongoing or future relationships.

While the teacher may not always have the answer, an agreed solution is the best way for long-term positive outcomes.

If the problem is unresolved, or is a further escalation of a previous issue, an approach should be made to the appropriate member of the school leadership team. In secondary, this could be either the form teacher or the year level coordinator. This ensures there are plenty of opportunities to resolve the issue before it needs to reach the principal.

It’s best to make an appointment and come to a meeting with notes or correspondence from your interaction with the classroom teacher. This helps the leadership team member to understand what efforts have already been made to address the issue and could assist informing what next steps might be taken.

For most classroom related matters you would usually approach the classroom teacher. While for some issues, for example, involving whole-of-school policy or practice, you could go directly to the principal or a leadership team member with responsibility for policy.

Similarly, if there is any concern about the safety of a child (whether they may feel fearful, unsafe or ashamed), the principal or a member of the leadership team should be involved. All schools are now required to have a ‘Code of Conduct’ and ‘Complaints Process’ so there will be school guidelines and processes in place for such matters and you should be aware of these. It is vital to address any concerns relating to child safety as unresolved or unknown issues in this area impact a child’s wellbeing and also their ability to learn. In many instances, mandated procedures must be followed and you should be familiar with these guidelines.

What you can do with your child

By talking frequently with your child about their school experience, you will have a fuller understanding of what and who they are dealing with on a day-today basis. Children (even teenagers!) value the time spent with family members so ensuring that there are regular opportunities for conversation and discussion is important.

In these days of digital technology we need to deliberately ensure there is ‘device free time’ so that we are present with our children. Making time to have meals together whether that is breakfast and/or dinner is a great way to regularly check in with each other in an informal way.

When you become alert to warning signs that something is changing, you should try to understand what issues may be causing your child concerns. Be open minded on what you are told and accept there may be other sides to the story.

It’s best for your child to understand that you and the school are working with them to resolve these issues.

Your child should understand that their interests are always at the centre of such conversations, even when they are not part of them.

It’s also important that within reason, you reinforce the authority of teachers and the school and not create a situation where you are seen to be unfairly taking a stand against that authority.




Many researchers emphasise how family and parenting influence a child’s mental health. Effective parenting practices and positive parent-child relationships are very important as young people transition into secondary school.

“Parents and families are children’s first teachers and they continue to help their children to learn and thrive throughout the school years. Parents as partners with school in supporting children’s learning can have a significant and long lasting positive impact.

Research shows benefits of parental engagement include:

• improved academic outcomes
• greater engagement in learning
• children can be more likely to enjoy learning and be motivated to do well
• children can have better relationships with other children, improved behaviour and greater confidence
• enhanced relationships with others in the school community
• the development of effective partnerships — where families and schools can work together to address issues that may be impacting on children’s wellbeing and achievement”.

The above information is taken from the Progressing Parental Engagement Project, resources for parents – public school life. ACT Government, Education - this resource is available at:

The Australian Government’s Learning Potential free app and website provide information on topics about how to respond to the many impacts that secondary school has on students. Please refer to section 5 for links to this information.

The following information on transition to secondary school is taken from the Te Tari Arotake Matauranga Education Review Office (2016) and is available at:

“The transition to secondary school often coincides with important social, emotional and physiological changes in the lives of adolescents” and parents’ and teachers’ understanding of these changes can enhance parental confidence and also enhance the confidence of young people.

“When students change class within or between schools, they must adjust to new surroundings, become familiar with new teachers and peers, learn new ways of working, and make sense of the rules and routines that operate in their classes (Sanders et al, 2005). While students are navigating the formal school environment, they are also adjusting to the social changes that happen when changing schools and classes.

Why the Primary to Secondary Transition matters.

Students need to make positive adjustments to their new school and classes so that their wellbeing is maintained and their learning is coherent and continuous. McGee et al (2003) found that there was a strong correlation between the extent to which students experienced difficulty following transition and their likelihood of dropping out from education. Other research indicates that poor transitions impact on students’ wellbeing and on their achievement in the future (West et al, 2008). Where students experience multiple transitions because of transience, there are identifiable negative impacts on their achievement.”



The Australian Parenting website outlines problem solving strategies for parents and teachers.

The Australian Parenting website states:

• It’s common for children to have problems at school. Some problems you and your child can sort out at home, but some need parent-teacher cooperation.
• If you need to solve a problem with your child’s teacher, it’s a good idea to ask for a special parent-teacher meeting.
• Simple problem-solving steps can help you and your child’s teacher work towards a positive solution.

This useful site can be accessed through the link below.

Australian Government - Learning Potential

Learning Potential is a free app and website for parents, families, and carers packed with useful tips and inspiring ways parents can be more involved in their child’s learning. It is designed to help parents be part of their child’s learning and make the most of the time they spend together, from the high chair to high school. Visit the Learning Potential website, or download the app for free from the App Store or Google Play. (Department of Education & Training).

Progressing Parental Engagement School Fact Sheet: Engaging with families of children with disability

Progressing Parental Engagement School Fact Sheet: Engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australian families.

ACT Government – Education and Training.

Following is a summary of some ways to move on issues that emerge with  regards your child’s education or wellbeing:

• The more promptly an issue is dealt with the better the likelihood of an effective outcome.
• Usually the first point of contact would be the classroom teacher. Going straight to a member of the leadership team could erode the trust of your young person’s teacher.
• Make a mutually convenient time to meet with the teacher.
• Avoid becoming emotional or confrontational.
• Be open-minded as you may not have all the facts.
• Accept that a teacher may not have an immediate response but that you are beginning a conversation which will lead to a solution.
• Keep your child’s interests at the centre of the conversation.
• If the issue is unresolved by the classroom teacher, then you might approach a member of the school leadership team and explain the steps already taken/attempted.
• The principal usually should be involved if the matter relates to a whole-of-school policy or practice.
• The principal should be involved if there is any question about the safety of your child.




The following quotes are taken from interviews conducted as part of the Re-Energising Parent Engagement in Australian Primary and Secondary Schools Project.

“So we had a lot of health things going on in the family, so personal things that our son was taking in on his shoulders and it was affecting his learning. The teacher didn’t know about those personal things … and when we talked on a personal level she kind of understood that behaviour then”.
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).

In response to a question of when should you talk with someone at school, one parent stated, “The key signs are not wanting to go to school, and feigning illness to avoid school. When a child comes home and will not talk about what happens at school or becomes withdrawn from family conversation and withdrawing to their room. The child seems unhappy but won’t talk about it.”
(Parent, regional secondary school, New South Wales).

“I was contacted by my daughter’s Year 9 form teacher who suggested that she wasn’t quite herself at school and thought a visit to the GP might be a good idea. I recall feeling a bit confronted by this and a little ‘who does she think she is making a call like that about my daughter?’ However I did make an appointment for her and indeed it transpired she was very deficient in some key vitamins. … I was most grateful to her form teacher who had seen her general demeanour and interaction with all her friends at school change. The lesson I took away was of course that teachers and particularly those involved in pastoral care have significant expertise in this area and when we work together it can only have good outcomes for our children … It is important not to let concerns slide but to act on them. This demonstrates to the school that you want to be engaged and that they have a certain responsibility to assist you. This approach generally leads to win/win situations for all concerned.”
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Western Australia).

“So we had some concern that we had about our child that we initiated communication around with the staff. … we found that by taking the initiative to meet with the staff and to communicate our concerns and have that feedback from them, and then to have that as on ongoing source of communication throughout the year, that that was very positive because it helped to manage the issues, the concerns, the behaviour that we had experienced some concern around. Then teachers were
very supportive of our involvement and our ongoing follow up and feedback and they, by the end of the year communicated to us that it made a massive difference to them to have our support on board the whole time. … it was a learning concern.”
(Parent, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).

“What I have found to be the best way is to write up notes as to what I want to discuss, and even send in questions before you go to a meeting if you think they might need to check things out …

As a parent you also must realise that you might be getting only one side of the problem so be prepared to listen.”
(Parent, regional secondary school, New SouthWales).




The following quotes are taken from interviews conducted as part of the Re-Energising Parent Engagement in Australian Primary and Secondary Schools Project.

“But directly, in terms of staff, yeah, we’ve been quite explicit about what we would like to be done at parent teacher interviews, and also, in contact with parents around when we’re concerned about boys who are at risk in terms of not reaching their potential and based on the results that they may have.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).

“One of them was no surprises on report cards; a parent deserves to know well before hand any issues with their child … so there was a very strong communication strategy, drafts not in by the due date then the parents must be contacted that night, and there were constant phone calls at that time of the year.”
(Principal, regional secondary school, Queensland).

“We have a new families’ welcome at the beginning of the year to welcome the families into the school and start building those relationships and so for parents from 7 to 12 the tutor or the co-tutor is the main point of contact between home and the school and that tutor is given time in their duties to actually ring home, to email
home, to communicate with the family to share good news as well as bad news. Parents can email staff and tend to use email a lot.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, Victoria).

“So they do follow up and the other good thing I think is that our pastoral team do a wonderful job in just getting in touch if there is a concern or if we are worried about a student or perhaps they’ve been away for a few days and we just want to check up how things are going. So it’s that genuine care and concern that I think really our parents appreciate.”
(Principal, regional secondary school, Queensland).

“So, the majority of our parents would engage at the right level. So, as far as I’m concerned, the positive aspects of those interactions is number one, they’re respectful about the role of the educators that they know what they’re doing. Secondly, they provide us information that would be helpful for the educator to make good decisions for their children’s learning.”
(Principal, metropolitan secondary school, Queensland).




"I think, the really critical piece is for us to listen to ‘family stories’, so differentiating between a story of a family, where I think I know you, or the opportunity for me to hear you tell your family story to me, so I have that insider perspective of who you are, what you believe, why you do what you do.

And I think it’s only when we move from ‘stories of families’ to ‘family stories’ that we disrupt assumptions, beliefs, judgements. We don’t walk in their shoes and we don’t know. And so I think it takes those experiences of listening to, learning from, walking alongside, to really disrupt those assumptions. So moving from thinking we know to truly knowing our families, and that’s when, I think, we begin to do our really good work with them."
(Dr Debbie Pushor, July 2019).

“Often, communication was most impactful when this was frequent and informal, e.g. at school drop-off, pick-up, through regular calls or emails home. This enabled parents to keep across their child’s learning, provided opportunities for delivering ‘good’ news, and mitigated against ‘nasty surprises’ or escalating issues further down the line. One of the biggest concerns of parents was not being informed, and experiences of only finding out about something with their child many months after it had first arisen, for instance during a parent-teacher interview night.”
(Stafford, Barker & Ladewig, 2018).


Please click here to peruse a list of useful books on parent engagement 



Lerner, N. (2018). Advocating for your child at school. Children’s Support Solutions – Morneau Shepell. Toronto.

Dr Debbie Pushor podcast with Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership July 2019 Full transcript available at:

Stafford, N. Barker, B. & Ladewig, C. (2018). Parent Engagement: Analysis of qualitative research with principals and parents. Unpublished report.



Ethics approval for research was obtained through the University of Southern Queensland Human Research Ethics Committee.

Special thanks to the following for contributing to the project.
Project partner - The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) for assistance with survey development and data analyses.
National Principal Associations for various assistance with dissemination of project information.
National Parent Associations for various assistance with dissemination of project information.
Australian primary & secondary school principals who completed surveys.
Australian primary & secondary school principals who participated in interviews.
Australian school children’s parents who participated in interviews.
Project partner - Professor Sue Saltmarsh (USQ) for ethics approval submissions, interview protocols, training of interviewers, qualitative and quantitative data analyses, research publications and presentations.
Dr David Saltmarsh for data analyses and research publications.
Presenters of preliminary findings: Professor Sue Saltmarsh (USQ), Tony O’Byrne (Catholic School Parents Australia (CSPA)), Carmel Nash OAM (CSPA) and John O’Brien (CSPA).
Interviewers: Tony O’Byrne (CSPA), Bernadette Kreutzer (Catholic School Parents Queensland (CSPQ)),
Siobhan Allen (CSPA), Linda McNeil (CSPA), Rachel Saliba (CSPA) and Greg Boon (CSPA).
Dr Tim Sealey for assistance with survey generation and survey data analyses.
Interview data analyses and generation of qualitative data report: Barbara Barker (ARACY), Neil Stafford and Dr Caroline Ladewig (ARACY).
Parent Engagement Module writers: Carmel Nash OAM (CSPA), Siobhan Allen (CSPA), Rachel Saliba (CSPA) and David Fagan (Backroom Media Pty Ltd).
Charmaine Stevens (CSPQ) for graphic design and art direction.
Schoolzine for web design and Adventure Clipz for video footage.
John O’Brien (CSPA) for project coordination.