In the second issue of SENCO Week looking at partnership working, we consider the parent-school relationship and how you can make this as positive and fruitful as possible. In the next issue (151) we will provide some practical ideas for running parent workshop sessions

Support for SENCOs
Building a good relationship lies at the heart of working with parents – without this, any amount of effort will be less effective than it could be. Your attitude, and that of your TAs, towards parents and carers is all-important. We have all been in the position of feeling that parents are somehow to blame for their children’s shortcomings or difficulties, but it’s essential to adopt a professional approach to this sort of situation and maintain a positive state of mind. Avoid at all costs the ‘lost cause’ syndrome… ‘he’ll never come to any good with parents like those’!

Providing some general guidelines for support staff and involving them in some (fictional) case-study discussion can result in valuable CPD. I recently worked with a group of trainee teachers who had undergone a session of role-play activities where some played the part of teachers, other the part of ‘difficult’ parents at review meetings – the outcomes were better understanding of different experiences and points of view, and constructive suggestions about how to handle tricky situations.

Example case study
Joe’s mum, Kate, is due to attend a meeting in school to discuss his IEP, progress made over the term and possible ways forward. She is worried about this; with four other children all younger than Joe she knows that she hasn’t been checking his homework as she agreed to do, or talking to him about his lessons at the end of each day. Her mother has been ill and Kate has been visiting her on a daily basis as well as holding down her job as an office cleaner in the evenings. Joe’s dad has been working away from home so the only help and support has come from Joe (aged 11) and his sister Marie (aged 9). The youngest child is only two and she has to arrange for a friend to look after him in order to attend the meeting in school. This involves getting on a bus to the friend’s house (with pushchair etc) then another to the school. She wonders if it could have been done over the phone.
Kate never liked school; she wasn’t academic and didn’t find teachers at all understanding. She thinks they are all ‘up themselves’. She is intimidated by the size of Joe’s new secondary school and has previously found the secretary to be ‘very snooty’.

What can you do to ensure that the meeting goes as well as possible?
1. Start from the premise that all parents want the best for their children and would like to help – if they can. The following points may be useful:

  • some parents have a lot of ‘baggage’ from their own (sometimes negative) school experience
  • they may have been under considerable stress for a long time (if the child is autistic for example, or has had a traumatic start to life)
  • they may lack confidence and social skills; this can lead to defensive language and behaviour
  • they may be dealing with a range of difficult circumstances – this meeting may seem less important to them than it does to you
  • they may need you to show them practical ways of helping their child.

2. Prepare the ground:

  • make a home visit or telephone call to introduce yourself and break the ice
  • be professional but friendly (‘human’)… ask about the other children, etc; a brief mention of your own family will help them to see you as a fellow parent or at least an aunty/uncle
  • explain what the meeting is about and what you hope to achieve – including some positive outcome for the parent/parents
  • be flexible about timing and considerate of travel and childcare arrangements – is there any way you can help?
  • encourage the parent to bring a friend or relative if they would like to.

3. On the day:

  • inform reception staff about the meeting and where the parents should be shown to
  • make the meeting room comfortable
  • offer a drink if possible
  • start and finish on time
  • start and finish with positives about the child/the situation
  • be ready to listen as well as to talk
  • encourage parents to contribute to the meeting (rather than merely listen) and be prepared to take their perspective into account
  • agree on some clear points of action – for everyone (if necessary, re-negotiate the parent’s role in supporting the child, planning something that is achievable).

4. Follow up:

  • send a note or letter summarising the main points and acting as an aide-memoire for the parents – and to thank them for coming
  • having heard some detail about the family’s plight, is there anything you could do to help with the situation? Eg, put them in touch with a voluntary organisation which will offer support.
  • can you provide resources/materials for skills practice at home and/or workshop sessions for the parents to learn some useful games and activities (more on this next week)?
  • stay in touch. Having accomplished a positive exchange, build on this so that a good, firm relationship can grow out of it; regular (positive) updates (by phone, email or written note)… ‘Joe did really well today’; invitations to relevant events;
  • requests for help (on school trips, with special events, regular sessions of photocopying or hearing readers) – many parents simply don’t have the time, but if they do, this sort of involvement can give them a very different outlook in terms of what schools (and teachers) are all about.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2010

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.