Why Parent Engagement?

Author: Karen Copeland

Municipal election campaigns are in full swing as we prepare for voting on November 15. This includes the election of school trustees. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been quite vocal, asking the questions: how are you engaging with the families of your most vulnerable learners? do you believe it is important? how aware are you of the experiences families are facing in our community?

Anyone who has been following my blog will understand how passionate I am about parent engagement, and why this is important. We cannot just rely on the people working within a system to tell us how the system is working (although this is important, to be sure). We need to connect with those who are receiving the service, we need to be curious, asking them their stories in order to understand what is working well, and what could be improved.

This morning I chanced upon a blog post from Sheila Stewart, titled “Parents At the Table“. Sheila asks some critical questions in her blog and I encourage you to read her post and those she links to. I commented:

“We are right in the midst of municipal elections in our Province, and I have been reaching out to the various school trustee candidates to get their thoughts on parent engagement. It is interesting to hear/read the answers. Our district has commissioned a “thoughtstream” where they put three basic questions out to families, but my question is “is that enough?” If they receive a negative comment, what kind of follow up happens as a result? Or is it viewed as one negative when there are many positive comments, thereby dismissing it as a one off? There is a danger when systems rely on the professionals within it to determine how they are doing. I am encouraging all our candidates to reach out to the families of the vulnerable learners in our district, to truly find out how the system is doing. They just might be surprised.”

In this post, I would like to share with you why I think it is critical for anyone within systems to be speaking with families about their experiences.

Last year, in my previous role with The F.O.R.C.E. Society for Kids’ Mental Health, I had the opportunity to work with Natalie Ackermann, a Masters of Social Work student from the University of the Fraser Valley on a research study. We wanted to ask families their perspective on mental health services for kids between the ages of six and twelve. We picked this age range because there is shockingly little in terms of support available to this age group. We believed we would be able to generate some data to support this. Together, Natalie and I created a survey for families to complete that looked at publicly funded ministry supports, community supports, financial support and education support. A total of 25 people responded to the survey. The survey was completed by families in Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Mission.

Today, with Natalie’s permission, I will be sharing some of this data with you. Most of the questions allowed for multiple responses, in order to provide a picture of the complex issues families are facing.

All data below is from Mental Health Services for Kids Six to Twelve – Family Perspectives; Natalie Ackermann, University of the Fraser Valley, 2014. Information on how to request a copy of this study is at the end of this post.

First, I would like to provide you with a picture of what kind of mental health challenges families are experiencing with their children (ages 6 – 12).

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 11.35.49 AM

The statistic that stands out for me on this table is that 20% of the respondents indicated their child experiences suicidal ideation. It is very important that people become more aware of what they can do and how they can respond when a child is making statements. A good resource is Tattered Teddies, a handbook by the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

When your child is experiencing mental health challenges, these do not just impact the child only. The entire family is impacted, in many different ways. When families were asked to identify some of the negative impacts of not receiving access to mental health services, this was their response.

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 11.28.24 AM

The data on this table correlates to my own experience, which I explored a bit deeper in my post “Reflections on Marriage“.

Alternatively, families were able to identify some of the positive impacts of receiving mental health services:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 11.56.50 AM

We had a series of questions regarding educational support. What was surprising to me was the number of children who were not in school full time – 28% of a relatively small sample size. I would also be curious to know what type of support these families may (or may not) be accessing while their child is not in school.

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 11.59.43 AM

We asked families to identify their experiences within the education system. Here are their responses:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 12.04.03 PM

Again, this is a small sample size, with very compelling statistics.

If 52% of the respondents are unaware of how the education system works, that seems like it might be a good starting point for change! A group in Ontario has created a Special Needs Road Map. My hope is to create a similar map for families in British Columbia. There are lots of great documents available online that provide information to families about their rights within the education system, my question would be how do we support families to not only gain access to these, but feel supported in understanding these? It is all well and good to say each school has a hard copy for parents to look at, however what if a parent does not feel confident enough to even ask to see it?

So what did families say they would like to see in schools?

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 12.21.21 PM

Finally, families were asked to share what types of services they felt would be helpful to receive, but are often unable to access:

Screen shot 2014-11-08 at 12.44.07 PM

The reality for many of these families is that they do not qualify for funding to be able to access any of these services. It is difficult to register a child in after school activities at the local community centre, when there are no trained staff available to understand and support their needs. A social skills group for a child who does not have a
“qualifying diagnosis” can cost a family upwards of $1200. Respite and mentorship services can also be purchased privately at a rate of anywhere between $15/hour or more. A psycho-educational assessment is incredibly difficult to access in the public system, and families pay out a minimum of $1500 in order to have their child assessed. Occupational Therapy costs a minimum of $120/hour, and yet most of our children would benefit from this type of service to address their sensory and coordination challenges. One year of behavioral support (behavior consultant/interventionist) can cost well over $4000.

I am encouraged by the increased level of conversation happening around mental health and how it is impacting our children, youth and families. There are some really interesting initiatives taking place to create broader awareness and understanding, such as the recent Mental Health Symposium by the BC Principals Vice Principals Association. I invite anyone who is thinking about mental health from a systems perspective to find a way to include families in this conversation. This may mean thinking outside the box a bit, meeting families where they are at versus when it is convenient for systems personnel. It also may mean setting aside agendas and thoughts on what systems think is best in order to truly hear the families when they tell you what it is they need.

I am so appreciative of the time Natalie Ackermann spent on this research study. She was able to pull out key data from the survey and link it to research that had already been completed. The information she collected from families should be a catalyst for change in our systems. If you are interested in receiving the full research paper, I invite you to email me championsforwellness@gmail.com, and I will forward you the file.


Read Part 2 here



  1. Thanks for meeting with us and sharing your knowledge and expertise. You are doing a good job of advocating not only for your child but for many others as well. There are some seeds that you have planted and if elected I will try to help as much as possible to get some productive dialogue happening around mental health and special needs issues.
    Take care, Freddy.


  2. As well as being a parent engagement advocate, I am a teacher who has worked with students who can’t be in school for mental and physical health reasons. And each time I found myself putting on my advocate hat because the parents had no idea how the system worked, where to find help, what their role and responsibilities were. Add to that the issues faced by newcomer families and the number of students falling through the cracks is heartbreaking. Thank you for this work. I hope it leads to change in your jurisdiction. We could use it here! – Nancy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Nancy, I hope it leads to change here too! The data is certainly compelling and highlights some of the critical gaps in the systems. I find that parents are often at a disadvantage within systems as well, including myself! I would be interested to learn more about the work you are doing as a parent engagement advocate. It seems like Ontario has a number of resources and strategies on this topic, but I wonder about implementation. We have a great resource here in BC called Supporting Meaningful Consultation, however, it would be interesting to hear family perspectives on whether or not they feel included and consulted when decisions are being made. I can guess you probably know the answer to this as well as I do. Lots of work to be done. Feel free to email me: championsforwellness@gmail.com ~Karen


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