Updated: Apr 16, 2019
This article first appeared in print in SecEd magazine and online here.
Many schools run wellbeing or mental health workshops for parents to help support children and families. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers her tips for organising effective and engaging events
How can you run parent workshops on topics related to wellbeing and mental health that are well attended worthwhile?
I get asked this a lot and I am afraid that there is no magic bullet; to some extent consistency is key – and not getting disheartened by low attendance at first.
If you consistently put on events that parents and carers value then they are likely to become better attended over time. It is important though, that even if you are working with a very tiny audience, that the workshop feels to those attended like it has been a great use of their time – they will be your ambassadors encouraging others to attend next time.
So here are my tips for running great events, whether you have got an audience of three or 300.
Make the learning accessible
You want as many parents and carers as possible to benefit from the learning. In order to do this you need to think carefully about things like timings – when can most people attend? Should you run the event more than once to cater to different people’s needs? Some schools livestream their events so those who can’t physically attend are able to join remotely, others capture a recording and make it available online or provide summary notes.
Providing childcare or running events that parents and children can attend together can knock down some hurdles to attendance and children can also act as interpreters to parents if English is not their first language. Otherwise think about how you will cater to those parents and make them feel welcome in their child’s absence.
Consider your topics carefully
Work with your parent and carer community to find out what they would like to know more about – or talk to pupils about what they think their parents would benefit from. Think too about how you market your event – choosing the right topic is the first battle, making it sound inviting to parents is the next.
I have often found that events related to promoting positive mental health which promise practical ideas go down better than events tackling tricky topics like self-harm. A parent workshop geared towards helping prepare students for exams and building their academic resilience may encourage a higher attendance than an anxiety workshop even though the motivations and content might be similar.
Keep it practical
Try to keep it brief and give parents ideas that they can use right away. They don’t need hours of theory – they want clear, simple ideas about how they can support their child, and who to talk to if they are worried.
Create a welcoming atmosphere
These events can be a great opportunity for parents to get to know one another and to break-down any home-school barriers. Think about how you can encourage discussion and how you can make your attendees feel well looked after. A small budget for drinks and nibbles can do wonders and relevant staff mingling with parents sends a powerful message.
Strike the right tone
Parenting is really hard and your attendees will be keen to learn from you – but never forget that they are all experts in their own right and they each know a lot about their own children. Don’t lose sight of this and consider yourself to be working with them rather than teaching at them. Give them a chance to discuss and share ideas and be respectful of a range of opinions.
Stay behind for specific concerns
Finally, make sure that a member of staff is available at the end of the session to speak to any parents or carers who have specific concerns. These types of events often help to break-down barriers for parents who have concerns so don’t miss the opportunity for parents to open up by rushing off too soon. Be sure too to let parents know where they can find further information if they would like to learn more – share recommended books or websites and briefly outline any relevant school policies, procedures or pathways.
As I said at the start, consistency is key but there are a few a things you can do maximise attendance – these are all ideas that have been suggested by schools I have worked with:
Take a register: take a note of who attends and who doesn’t – thank those who have attended and provide a summary to those who did not. You can also invite non-attendees to let you know of any barriers that prevented them participating so you can work on tackling these.
Have pupils write the invites: a handwritten invite from a child trumps a dozen emails and texts from the school.
Celebrate pupil work at the same time: invite parents in both for a workshop and also to celebrate pupil work or achievements. Pupil celebration events tend to be well attended so seize the opportunity of having parents on site.
The ideas in this post are also summarised in this video:
The self-promotion bit... I love running parent workshops! Just last night I ran a session for over 200 parents at Trinity School in Croydon and the feedback was fantastic. The session was entitled "6 Ideas to help your child thrive - a mental health workshop for parents & carers." I taught for an hour and most parents stayed around for a 30 minute Q&A afterwards. If you'd like to explore the possibility of having me in to deliver a session like this at your school, please email me email@example.com