There is no doubt that it is beneficial to work closely with parents, but it is not always easy to do so. How to engage some parents/carers is a daunting task, while working with others who may hold very different views from our own regarding education also presents a challenge: although both parents/carers and the school want the very best for the child, ideas as to what this might be and how to achieve it may at times vary greatly.

The provision of an educationally supportive home environment has been shown to be positively related to achievement and school staff play a vital role in inviting parents to support their children’s education. This suggests that the more often teachers reach out to parents, at all levels, the more often parents are more likely to make reciprocal efforts to engage with schools, across all socioeconomic levels.

In our training at the Centre for Parent and Child Support we promote the idea of partnership working with parents. Partnership working is based on a model of the helping process that demonstrates how specific helper qualities and skills, when used in partnership, enable parents and families to overcome their difficulties, build strength and resilience and fulfil their goals more effectively.

The model assumes that the process of helping is essentially an attempt to combine the expertise of parents with that of helpers and to avoid the pitfalls associated with the imposition of expert knowledge. We believe that the development of a genuine and respectful partnership provides the basis for a clearer understanding of strengths and problems of individual families, a better basis for effective problem management and building parental self-efficacy.

In our courses we promote fundamental interpersonal skills that enable school staff to build and maintain purposeful relationships with parents/carers.

While all school staff can find a partnership approach with parents useful, for SENCOs it is particularly beneficial. Few would disagree that there is a positive impact when parents/carers are actively involved in their children’s education.

Partnership is about listening

A very experienced and effective primary SENCO attended family partnership training. (For reasons of confidentiality the SENCO and school have not been identified.) She now finds that the helping process framework is ‘a touchstone’ that helps her assess where she is in working with an individual or a family.

As she says, ‘Thinking about what stage you’re at helps clarify where you’re going – and how far you’ve come. I have the stages up on my wall and look at them before meetings.’

Attending the training has also changed the nature of the meetings she holds with parents. When she came on the training she had recently moved to a new school where there were a number of very motivated parents concerned about their high-achieving children with SpLD. She felt she had ‘got in the position with some parents where I felt I needed to give them something to solve the problem – “Your son can have a half-hour session with a dyslexia specialist per week”. I was feeling I had to put sticking plasters on things to make them go away.

‘Now I have two sorts of meetings: firstly, the shorter, more perfunctory, clearly delineated, focused ones, for example, IEP setting; secondly, what I think of as “listening” meetings where I try to go in without a preconceived idea of what it may be about or feeling I will have to have done something at the end of the meeting to have solved the problem.’

‘The biggest piece of advice I now give others about meetings is, “just” listen and you don’t have to solve or be responsible for everything… In fact, partnership.’

Understanding a parent’s point of view: a case study

She relates a case in which she found partnership working very helpful:

‘The child, B, has fragile X syndrome and a statement of SEN. His parents tend to phrase everything as, “Children with fragile X can/can’t do something, so B can/can’t do this thing’

‘B had made no progress (ie, had not moved on to the next sub-level) before coming to us. We wanted to try a phonics-based reading intervention with him. His parents were very resistant to this and kept saying, “Boys with fragile X don’t respond to phonics.” We were increasingly frustrated since we could not see how else B was going to make progress. Rather than getting annoyed with them for their position, which might seem intransigent, I decided to put my frustration aside and to listen to them in order to see where they were coming from.

‘I met with B’s parents and really listened to them. They felt we were not hearing what they were saying and that we did not see B as a child with fragile X. They thought that our wanting him to do this phonics-based program was proof that we were not taking on board their child’s condition. I acknowledged what they had been saying and showed that I had listened to and understood their point of view.

‘We all agreed that B had made no progress in literacy for two years (and had not done phonics during this time). We finally came to the agreement that we would try phonics with B; all the parents’ information about fragile X was to be included in B’s pupil profile; we planned a review meeting after a period of time to see how B was progressing; we used a weekly communication book to tell the parents what B was doing in his one-to-one phonics sessions.

‘B made two sub-levels of progress – P8 to 1b – in less than a year, having made no progress in the previous two years. Discussions with his parents are ongoing.’ In this case it was the partnership working – the attentive listening and real attempt to understand the parents’ point of view, the open negotiation and ability to stay alongside the parents throughout – as well as the clarity of working from a model that eased the impasse with the parents so that B could start to make progress.

Michelle Morgan works for The Centre for Parent and Child Support, which is a part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust and is based at the Michael Rutter Centre, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF.