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Tutor Anne-Marie O'Hagan: Importance of Family Involvement in Learning

Posted by Peter Barnes on October 30, 2019 at 12:31 PM

My brother, a primary school Principal, told me he often noticed the kids who did well at school had families who were very engaged in their education and in the school community. 

Anne-Marie O'Hagan

That's not to say children can't achieve at school if their families are not involved.

But it's an interesting observation.

So I thought I would explore the impact of family involvement on a special category of students - those struggling with their learning.  And I spoke with Anne-Marie O'Hagan, a former teacher and now a tutor working with struggling students for her perspective on this issue.

We recorded our conversation for an episode of The Learning Capacity Podcast.

Listen to the interview

Topics covered

  • Why family involvement is beneficial for students’ learning
  • Ways to involve parents, carers and other family members
  • Teachers and the tutoring relationship
  • Homework & parent support

People & organisations mentioned

If you would like to read the podcast transcript, here it is:

Episode 105 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Tutor Anne-Marie O'Hagan: The Importance of Family Involvement in Learning

Peter Barnes:    Hello, Anne-Marie. How are you today?

Anne-Marie:     I'm well. Thanks so much for having me today.

Peter:               Yeah, pleasure. It's so good to have you on the podcast. Before we get rolling, and we're going to talk about family engagement, but before we do that, can you just tell us a little bit about you and how you got into tutoring?

School teacher turned tutor

Anne-Marie:     Okay. I'm a primary school teacher, and I interestingly hadn't ... as someone growing up never, ever thought that I would be a teacher. I thought it would be the worst job in the world because they've got a tough gig.

It wasn't until my sister studied at university and she became a teacher and I would help her with her assignments that I thought, "Oh, this actually looks all right. This is more interesting than what I was currently studying at university."

Several years later after going into the workforce, into roles that weren't very fulfilling, I decided to go back to university.

So, I became a primary school teacher. I did that for a couple of years. Tutoring was not something that was even on my radar until after I had children of my own, and I was looking for additional ways to, I guess, stay at home with my own children longer.

Since doing so, I think I started off with one or two students that were referred to me by friends, it has grown and grown until I now have more work than I know what to do with, which is a lovely way to be.

Peter:               That's fine. You're based in in Melbourne, aren't you?

Anne-Marie:     Yeah, I'm based in the bayside, suburb of Beaumaris, beautiful suburb on the water. Certainly, a number of primary schools, high schools in the area. The high schools tend to be predominantly private schools within a very close vicinity or Catholic schools.

We've only very, very recently had the local high school reopened. I think we certainly serve a cross-section of the community though.

Peter:               Are you focusing on secondary students, high school students, or the whole spectrum, primary-

Anne-Marie:     No, no, not the whole spectrum. I predominantly focus more on primary aged students, so prep through to year six. I do, however, work with a number of high school students. That sort of happened more so because they've stayed with me over the years. I certainly wouldn't typically advertise that I can tutor high school students. My real love and my real passion is in the early years and getting children, I guess, on the right step to reading.

Peter:               It's really important isn't it? If you can get the kids up to scratch, so to speak, early in their education career, early in school, the rest of it becomes so much easier for them and their parents.

Anne-Marie:     So, so much easier. So many parents will tell me, "Oh, I wish I had done this earlier. I wish I had started sooner," because what they find is most of my clients will come to me when their children are in year three or year four, and they're really struggling, and they hate school, and they don't enjoy it.

That brings with it a whole other number of issues. You know, it creates anxiety, they lose their confidence, and they're not feeling particularly good about themselves.

And that's when they will seek help, whereas if they started off on the right foot very early on, for many of these children, certainly not all, but for many, many of those issues could have been prevented.

How teachers react to students being tutored

Peter:               How do the teachers react to their students going out for tutoring?

Anne-Marie:     That's a really good question. I was shocked. I always just assumed we're on the same page. We're all on the same team. It wasn't until I returned and caught up with some old teacher friends of mine that one of them looked at me, and it was almost as though I'd crossed over to the dark side. I was like, "Oh." It was almost as though I was doing something ... I felt like I was doing something wrong.

But for me, well, no, I'm still helping the kids. Just because I'm not in the classroom doesn't mean that I can't make a difference or help them. So, certainly there can seem to be an us and them scenario at times, but not always.

I work with a number of teachers to help children, and we work together, so we email each other regularly about what is working and what's not working with the students that we're working with. I guess it's just a matter of different mindsets out there and-

Peter:               Yeah, that's really-

Anne-Marie:     ... trying to create that shift.

Peter:               Yeah, because really for a teacher with 20 plus kids in the class, all different abilities ... and you're one-on-one. Are you one-on-one, or are you one to a small group?

Anne-Marie:     Yes, predominantly one-on-one. I've got a couple of small groups, but most of my clients are one-on-one.

Peter:               It's a big difference, isn't it, teaching one-on-one to teaching a whole group with different skill sets and different levels and different maturity and all of that?

Anne-Marie:     Absolutely. Absolutely. You just cannot do it. I mean, I've worked in a classroom. I know how that works. You cannot give the same level of attention that you can in a one-on-one scenario, so they don't quite compare.

But ultimately, we both have the same goal, so we both need to work together on that, because at the end of the day we both want what is best for the student.

Four different parties in the tutoring process

Peter:               Yeah, of course. In the tutoring relationship, I can see there's about four different parties. There's the tutor, there's the student, there's the teacher, and then there's the parents or the families.

Anne-Marie:     Absolutely.

Importance of family engagement

Peter:               What we wanted to talk to you today about is how do you engage families? First of all, how important is it for the success of the tutoring to have the families engaged in what's happening?

Anne-Marie:     It is so, so, so important to engage the families, because what we want to do is ensure that the students get the most out of it. So the parents want the best for their student. The teachers want the best. I want the best for them. We all want the child going to school feeling confident.

What we do know is that when families are engaged, the academic performance increases. There's a lot of research now surrounding family engagement, particularly in schools, and the evidence is really consistent. It's very convincing.

Families have got a major influence on the children's achievement in school and, you know, throughout their life in general. But many studies have found that students with involved parents, no matter what their income or their background, they're more likely to have higher academic results in both their grades and their test scores.

They pass their classes. They are going to attend school more regularly. And they've got better social skills, and they show more improved behavior and adapt better to school.

Certainly, that then leads on to attending higher education. And I think for our listeners, that's certainly what we ... We all want that for our students.

I know John Hattie has done a lot of work in the area. He discusses the combination of parental encouragement and high expectations from the students and found that when pursued consistently throughout a child's development, parental engagement could amount to the equivalent of an additional two to three years schooling for a child.

That adds massively to their overall achievement. So, when it comes to family engagement, very, very important.

Peter:               Yeah, absolutely. No doubt about it. And just by the way, Professor John Hattie appeared on our podcast a couple of years back.

Anne-Marie:     I have listened, yes.

Peter:               Right. Okay. From your point of view, what's a successful family engagement look like?

Building relationships of trust and mutual respect

Anne-Marie:     Okay. I think it can look different in many different scenarios is, but I think the underpinning or the fundamental thing that we're looking for there is trust and mutual respect. It's building relationships, and it's getting to know the parents and helping them understand ... working out what the parents can do to best help their child.

We're looking for solutions for any challenges that might come up so that we can get the parents involved and really, I guess, prevent any issues from popping up later on.

Anne-Marie:     The sorts of things that we might do is we might ask the parents to get involved in the sessions or provide parents with training on how to achieve very specific goals that we want the students to achieve. So it's certainly not just about, you know, a quick email or a quick text, but there is quite a lot that we can do.

Family engagement process

Peter:               Can I ask you, do you have a sort of a regular standard process for family engagement, or is it specific to each family, each student, each situation?

Anne-Marie:     It certainly is specific to each family, because what works for one isn't going to work for everyone. There's no one size fits all approach.

I guess, I use the analogy a lot when parents will phone looking to inquire about potential tutoring. They often ask me how often, how quickly will I see results. And I really put that back on them. I liken to, say, personal training or going to the gym. You can go once a week and you'll make gains and you will get some results, and it will be helpful. But if you really want to see long-term sustained growth, it's going to come back to what you're doing at home as well.

I explain that I will set them brief homework tasks that I expect to be done frequently. They're usually no more than five or 10 minutes, because I want to make it achievable. I know I how busy everyone is these days and, you know, mention of homework can often get groans, and ... you know, "Oh no."

Peter:               Yeah. Yeah. It can be a source of considerable tension and conflict in some families.

Homework support

Anne-Marie:     Absolutely can. I've got two children who are school age, and I can see some of the homework that comes in. And I see a lot of homework from other children at other schools, and some of it's absolutely fantastic. Other homework, it's not great. And I think the thing about homework is, for lack of a better word, crap homework, really crap results.

What we do know about homework is that we need it to be short, we need it to be frequent, and we need it to be closely monitored by the teachers, okay? That's what's going to have more of an impact. The more specific and precise the task is, the more likely it will to have an impact.

On the other side of that, the more complex and open-ended and unstructured, the lower the effect size would be. When I'm working with families I really want them to be able to feel confident that they can complete the tasks given, so they need the tools. I need to provide them with the tools to do that.

Peter:               Terrific. Can we come back to how the parent supports that homework and the work you set for home in a minute?

But before we get to that, just on the question of engaging the family members to begin with, I imagine there'll be parents who contact you, they've got a child who they believe has an issue, and they bond with you pretty easily.

They're expecting good results, and they'll trust you. You know, it'll be easy for you to engage with them.

Then there's probably, I imagine ... I don't know, tell me if I'm off the track here, but there are parents who may be a bit sceptical of you. Maybe the mum's fine, but the dad might be ... you know, "Who's this lady going to try and teach my kids something?"

Anne-Marie:     Absolutely.

Parents outsourcing their child's education

Peter:               Then I guess there are other parents who just want to outsource their kid's education to an expert, i.e. you, and don't want to be involved or just don't have the time. They might be busy professionals or busy business people or whatever it is.

How do you deal with those three categories? I mean, the first one obviously is easy. They like you, they trust you, away you go. But the other two may be a bit skeptical and the one who wants to outsource, how do you handle that?

Anne-Marie:     Certainly the first category are a lot easier. Those who want to outsource, if we look at a number of reasons as to why they're outsourcing it, one of those reasons you mentioned is because they're too busy.

Certainly the way life is these days, everyone is busy. Everyone is working, and we all are doing probably more than we need to at times, and that's okay. So, they may not have the time, and so they want to feel that, "I've got somebody else there that can do this. They're dedicating that time, and they're investing that time that I just don't have," but the same outcome: the child's getting support.

That's a win for everyone all round.

The other thought that I do encounter is they want help. They don't know how to help, or they just don't feel confident helping them themselves, because maybe they found school tricky. Maybe they had challenges. Or maybe they found it really easy at school and they just don't understand why their child is having difficulties, and then that causes frustration and tension between the two.

Again, then it's easier to outsource so that it's not creating that conflict within the household.

But I guess when, you know, particularly when we meet with these parents who want to outsource it, they're too busy. I guess that's about having the harder conversations and saying, "I can do this for you, but if you really want help, there are things that I need you to do."

Again, I need to make them accountable over time. It's about providing them with things that they feel comfortable doing, things that are easy, and things that are going to very quickly produce positive outcomes for their child.

Because once they see those outcomes and once they see the difference that their input has made, they're on board, and suddenly they're feeling a little bit more comfortable to try something different and something extra.

I'm not about creating more work for the parents at all. Nobody needs more work. But certainly I do want to provide them with the tools that they can just do short snippets each day or sort of four or five days of the week for them to see measurable outcomes for their child.

Peter:               What do you want the parents to do at home? Do you want them to actually do some of the teaching that you're teaching, or do you want them just to be primarily motivators for their child to do what you've asked them to do at home?

Anne-Marie:     I do want them to be both. I think, again, this is coming back to the mindset that we cannot ... You know, the schools are not the primary educators of our children. They are one source of education, but we cannot say, "Well, that's the school's responsibility. They have to do everything. They have to do all of it."

What I do want the parents to do is I want them to motivate their children. I want them to provide opportunities at home to make learning fun and to get children engaged.

But I also want them to do some of the learning tasks. One way to do that is have them sit in on the sessions and say, "Okay, this is one activity that we're going to do. I want you to watch, and this is why we're doing this activity. This is how it's done, because I want you to mirror this at home." That might be an activity that takes three or four minutes, and if you do that each day the child is going to have that repetition and you will see the results. Because it's brief and it's not too time consuming, it becomes quite achievable.

The other thing that I would ask them to do is sometimes I might teach a lesson or a series of lessons, and then I would provide the parent with some questions and say, "Look, here are some questions. These are the key points that I have been trying to get across to your child over these lessons.

These are the things I want you to reinforce," because we know that when we learn something, if we do not review that after a couple of days, over time we forget.

I don't want the child to forget these things. So, giving the parents just a couple of quick questions to ask throughout the week, you know, they get the questions, they get the answers.

Again, the child doesn't have to write anything down. The parent just has to sort of read a few questions, and it's bringing that information back to the forefront and the student's mind and making it stick.

Peter:               That's great. That sounds like it makes it a lot easier for the parent to do the supporting at home when you've actually ... You're actually teaching the parent as well, from what I've just heard you say.

Anne-Marie:     Absolutely.

Coaching parents via parent groups

Peter:               You're getting them to come and sit in and watch you do it. You said earlier too something about you have parent groups. Do you do that?

Anne-Marie:     I do. This was something that came about because when I have involved parents in the sessions, it was amazing just how many times you see the light bulb moments for the parents as well as the child, and they say, "Oh my goodness, of course. Why didn't anyone ever tell me this before?"

So what I do run now is I do run parent training sessions. That was out of a need, because I no longer had enough openings to help as many children as I would like.

If I can help the parents go home and teach their children and know what is important, as I said, particularly in those early years, then many more children will benefit. I think the parents want to know. They want to help. We don't always know how.

Peter:               Great. So, you're leveraging your expertise, not the parents'?

Anne-Marie:     Yes.

Keeping parents informed

Peter:               Excellent. Now, just tell me what sort of information are you sharing? Do you have a process of keeping the ... I guess you do; just tell me what it is ... of keeping the parents informed of their children's progress?

Anne-Marie:     Absolutely.

Peter:               Can you talk to us about that?

Anne-Marie:     Initially I will make it very clear that the first session is, you know, it is an assessment session. It's a getting to know you session. I need to know where the children are at so that I can pitch the work appropriately and we can come up with an effective plan moving forwards.

So, it's about going, "Okay, this is where your child is now. This is where we need to get them, and this is what we're going to do." They'll receive a detailed report and information on what they can do, and we set the goals together.

I like to involve the child in this. Some of them really surprise me, how many are really happy to have a tutor. Some I know, and I joke with them and say, "Look, I know you're only here because mum and dad made you, and I know you'd rather be at home playing…

Peter:               Fortnite.

Anne-Marie:     Yes, thank you, Fortnite. Thinking all the old games that I used to play.

They're quite open. They're pretty honest and say, "Yeah, that's true." And I'll ask them, "Look, if you got to choose something that would make your life at school easier, what would that be?" And then they get some input, and if they're involved, they're more likely to be on board as well, which I think is really important.

So coming back to the sorts of information that I share, it will be the assessments. We're going to look at a lot of things, particularly around English: spelling, reading, reading fluency, their decoding, their handwriting.

There are so many ways that you can measure their progress and just sort of keep giving them that consistent information over time.

But I think the other thing that I think is really important is sharing important comments that they might make from time to time that the child doesn't think is a big deal, but as a parent they may not always hear.

A perfect example, I had a child recently say ... I asked the student how his book is coming along, which is a big deal, because a couple of years ago he was having trouble stringing a sentence together and now he's off writing a book.

And he said, "Oh, you know, if I didn't have to go to school, I would have so much more time writing. I can't wait to grow up, become an author, and I'll have a dog, and I'm just going to sit there and work from home with my dog and write books all day."

I told that parent, and they just laughed and went, "See." It's so good, because these are the comments that we think we may never hear. Or even little things when the parents do say, "I really do like mum's cooking," but I may not tell them that.

Peter:               How lovely. Yeah.

Anne-Marie:     It's really nice to share that with their parents, because too often as parents we hear what our kids can't do, and we hear, you know, that they're struggling with this area. We need to do this, this, and this.

After a while you can zone out, and you just don't want to hear it anymore. Then it's very easy to become disengaged with school, because if all you're hearing what your child can't do, after a while ...

Peter:               Yeah, I imagine that would be tough for parents. And if parents reflect that back to the child too strongly or too often, that they're not doing-

Anne-Marie:     Absolutely.

Peter:               That, I imagine, will have an impact on the child, too.

Anxious students

Anne-Marie:     Oh, of course. It creates huge levels of anxiety. A number of the children I work with will be highly anxious, and they want to do well. But consistently across them, they want to do well for their parents, and they want that recognition from their parents that they are doing well, because that's ... They really care.

Peter:               Yeah, of course. One of the things I've noticed lately is preschools using sharing apps, video and web apps and so forth to report on the children's progress. I'm specifically noticing this in a couple of places, one of which is my ... I have a preschool granddaughter, and regularly I get alerts and the parents get alerts that, you know, she's done this, they've learnt this today, and all of that stuff.

Do you use anything like that, or are you more written and just all straight to the parents?

Anne-Marie:     Not yet. I'm not doing it yet. I have been looking into software options, and I have narrowed it down. So, that is something that I am looking to do in the future, but at the moment, typically, yeah, it is a lot of conversations. Sometimes it might be halfway through a session, and I might just snap a picture of the child's work and sort of text it to the parent to say, "Look at this. They've done it."

Sometimes we'll even create little videos and celebrate their successes that way and send those on to the parents. I think it is really important to celebrate those small wins as they go along to boost the child's confidence. So, certainly there is a lot of sharing of information. It just hasn't been formalized through the web app at the moment, but soon.

Peter:               But it sounds like it's coming.

Anne-Marie:     So soon. Yes, it is.

Peter:               Fantastic. Well, Anne-Marie, look, thank you very much for your time today. I've learnt quite a bit about family engagement with tutors and how you do it and the value of it. I'm sure our audience will appreciate what you've told them.

Now, if any members of our audience would like to get in touch with you and learn more about what you're doing, or they may even be tutors interested in sharing some information with a colleague or getting some information from you, how would someone contact you? What's the best way?

Anne-Marie:     You can contact me via my website. That's TandemTutoring.com.au. The idea behind it was working together, so working in tandem with parents, with schools and the student, so that we are all working together on that same shared goal of helping the student's success. 

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