How do you respond if a parent starts complaining about your setting or your staff? Steve Mynard advises that you start with prevention

‘Parents and carers are perfectly entitled to complain if they are unhappy with the provision their child is receiving.’ This bold statement may raise our hackles, but it is certainly true. How can we as practitioners deal with complaints when they arise and, more importantly, how can we prevent them from arising in the first place?

Prevention is most definitely better than cure. A well-organised setting with sound and effective procedures in place covering a wide range of learning and safety expectations will receive fewer complaints. Good communication with parents ensures they have the information they need to support their child as they enter the setting and during their time with you. Policies regarding health and safety, behaviour management, administration of medicines and so on will all help the smooth running of your setting and ensure parents feel confident placing their child with you. They will also reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings or dissatisfaction leading to complaints.

Most of the time parents coming into a setting with a concern simply want more information. It is understandable that parents can become frustrated if information is not communicated effectively: for example, if you are taking the children out of the setting, maybe to look at local buildings, complaints may arise if parents feel they haven’t been given sufficient information to ensure their child is fully prepared for the experience.

Also, simply because you do an activity at a certain time of year every year, say an Easter bonnet parade, this doesn’t mean that everyone will remember the judging criteria and it is best to remind all parents, not just the newest arrivals.

All this talk of day-to-day occurrences may only serve to remind you just how trivial a lot of the things we deal with can appear. A key fact to remember when handling any complaint is that it is not trivial to the person who is complaining and we owe it to them to take it seriously, whatever it is.

It is important that your setting has a complaints policy in place and that everyone working in the setting is familiar with the procedures to follow. The following is an outline of an incremental approach to dealing with complaints.

Prevention is better than cure
Acknowledge this at the beginning of your policy with a statement briefly covering the measures you take to ensure that your setting is a safe place for children to grow and learn. 

Dealing with a complaint
It is good practice to have a step-by-step list of procedures for those who work in your setting to follow.

If a parent arrives in the setting with a complaint the practitioner should establish if this is something they can deal with personally. If it is, they can deal with it there and then or make an appointment to see the parent if they are currently otherwise occupied. If it is a matter that needs to be dealt with by a more senior member of staff then the parent can be referred in that direction.

A higher level of involvement
While the majority of minor concerns or complaints can be dealt with effectively by the practitioners themselves there will be occasions when a matter needs to be referred to the setting manager; examples would include a parent’s dissatisfaction with a particular policy, a significant health and safety issue or a complaint against a member of staff.

The setting manager may be able to resolve the matter using their greater experience or decision-making capacity. The matter may need to be referred to the setting committee or governing body for discussion and clarification of policy.

Sometimes things can go seriously wrong and if these incidents are not dealt with properly it may not simply be complaints you are dealing with but legal action. We have a duty of care to children and if a child falls off a table and breaks an arm because no one was there to see that the child was on the table in the first place then we would all agree that investigation and legal action may be appropriate. Thankfully cases of negligence are very rare and this is testimony to just how seriously early years practitioners take their duty of care.

If you work within a local authority setting your education authority will advise you as to recommended procedures. Privately run settings can draw on the experience of the Pre-School Learning Alliance at www.pre-school.org.uk or the NDNA at www.ndna.org.uk.

We live in an increasingly litigious society and it is important that you have procedures in place to cover all eventualities. Your staff may need training in this matter, you may need to seek further advice – whatever you do, do something now to ensure you can deal effectively with complaints.

Dealing with a complaint: a step-by-step procedure
This process can be followed by a practitioner dealing with a minor complaint or a manager responding to a serious complaint.

It is always a good idea to invite the parent to sit down in a quiet place away from onlookers. The parent can then be invited to outline the issue that concerns them. Listen carefully and make notes. The parent may simply need some additional information or an explanation of your setting’s procedures. Many issues that appear to be complaints can be dealt with quickly in this manner.

If a practitioner feels at any time that they are out of their depth then they need to know that they can refer the matter on to their line manager.

It is a good idea to arrange a follow-up meeting if you need to take some action before the matter can be resolved. Agree together any actions that need to be carried out. When you set the date for the follow-up meeting make sure that you leave enough time to carry these out. When the parent returns, explain what action has been taken and what the outcome was.

Make sure that the parent is satisfied with the steps you have taken.

Steve Mynard teaches a mixed Reception/Year 1 class.

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