For parent carers, the relationship with their child’s school can be very stressful. I know many parent carers who ‘sink’ at the 3pm pick-up, anticipating a long list of ‘complaints’ about their child.
But when the relationship works well, it can literally be life changing. Imagine that 3pm time slot being one of uplift. How would that set us up for the rest of the day? So what can we do?
Why can relationships between parent carers and school be tricky?
Oooh there are lots of reasons, but some key ones may include:
Our child may not yet have a diagnosis, and behaviours may be classed as ‘naughty’, when they’re in fact not. They’re a child responding to an environment that doesn’t work for them.
Often taxis are involved, reducing our opportunity to build a relationship with the people that are spending six hours a day with our child. It’s easy to misinterpret intentions and meaning in a written home/school book. Particularly if we don’t know the person.
Without the opportunity to have face to face meetings with our children’s Learning Support Assistants (LSAs), we have very few opportunities to air minor issues, and more opportunity for them to fester and grow.
We may not have come to terms with our child’s diagnosis and may not be in our best state for managing relationships, meaning even small things may feel huge.
We may be used to ‘fighting’ the system and be poised and subconsciously looking for more problems. Living in anticipation of the next problem. On our guard.
Everyone's an expert on our child. Sometimes we just have had enough of other people’s opinions and suggestions - no matter how well intended they are.
Sometimes the school or the specific Learning Support Assistant just isn’t great at communicating or managing conflict.
No wonder things can get tricky.
Especially when you consider that this is not the only professional relationship we’re managing for our child(ren). Once we throw in physios, OTs, ENT, SALTs, Social Workers, paediatricians and all the other specialists, it’s easy to see why we can get worn down.
13 Tips to reduce parent carer and school conflict
We spoke with Parent Carers in our community and with Dan Woodman, headteacher at the Edith Borthwick school in Essex, catering for children and young people with severe and complex learning difficulties. They shared their tips for managing effective communication between parent carers and school:
1. Raise concerns as soon as we have them. Don’t let them fester and grow. Keep a note of the day and concern raised. This is easier if we use email. But picking up the phone for small niggles can be great for rapport building. Becoming known for politely but quickly mentioning these niggles, will encourage the people caring for our child to look out for and avoid future niggles.
2. Assume the best - it makes us feel better.
If we’ve had negative experiences before (in school or elsewhere), we may have an unconscious bias to assume the worst of our school or their intentions. And this means we’ll be unconsciously scanning for problems. If we can give our new school, class or staff member a clean slate, and assume the best. Then we can create an opportunity for a new and better experience, not clouded by beliefs formed from previous experiences. If we assume the best - that everyone wants a good outcome for our child - we’re better able to raise a concern in a more productive way. Using positive and collaborative language. Achieving a better outcome.
3. Pause before we hit send. These are our children, so we can get very emotional when things are not as we had hoped for them. And rightly so. A good school will recognise that parent carer emotions can run high. But it can be helpful to pause, walk away and then re-read our email, before we hit send. It’s good to get things off our chest, but our words have the power to pull us together for the benefit of our child, or to drive a bigger wedge between us. And ultimately, what do we want?
4. Think about what we want. What would make things easier for us or better for our child? Tell the school. Don’t assume they’ll reach the same solution to the problem we have raised. If we have a specific solution in mind, make sure we’ve shared it.
5. Be open to other ideas. And while it’s good to have our own solutions, let’s keep an open mind to other solutions the school may offer too. We might not be aware of everything that’s possible.
6. Ask questions. If we don’t understand why something is or isn’t happening, ask questions. And keep asking questions until any ambiguity is dealt with. We’ll be helping the school to challenge their decisions or improve their communication. And at the very least, we’ll achieve peace of mind.
7. Don’t rely on our assumptions to fill gaps in knowledge. If what fills the gap is not what we had ‘assumed’, then problems can squeeze in. See ‘Ask Questions’ above!
8. Use ‘we’’. E.g. “I know we all want Jack to feel positive about school…” Using ‘we’ builds rapport and positive engagement in finding a solution. It allows people to feel less defensive and therefore more open to successful communication.
Additional things school can do:
1. Ask parent carers how they would like to receive communication
Some parents may be at work and unable to answer their phone. So receiving lots of missed calls and voicemails from schools will be frustrating.
But email may work really well for them. Choosing the right method of communicating can reduce niggles.
2. Framing situations positively
For example, instead of saying “She’s been stubborn and exhausting”, how about “she’s been her own woman today”? When an LSA describes my daughter as her ‘own woman’, I know they mean she’s been stubborn! However, I feel positive about the statement and most importantly this empowers me to get through the evening with my stubborn daughter!
3. Be respectful and aware of the impact of words
“I remember a teacher telling me that perhaps the reason my daughter [who had a learning disability] had regressed was because I had done too much speech therapy with her and she needed a break. She had no idea how much that hurt. She said it kindly, but it stung deep. And it was complete nonsense. My daughter was subsequently diagnosed with autism”.
4. Be aware of giving unsolicited advice. Parent carers have their fill of ‘advice’ from experts. Ultimately they are the expert on their child, so think carefully before wading in with an opinion.
5. Encourage open and frequent communication. Through the preferred channel (for example, email, phone, home-school book).
How to raise concerns with school
And if we do have a concern to raise with school, here’s some tips from Dan and parent carers in our community, on how we might best manage those difficult situations:
1. Prepare the key things we want to say.
2. Work through the problem in a methodical way. For example:
Name the problem. E.g. “On a Tuesday, Ellen is getting out of the taxi wet through”
Explain how the situation has made you and/or our child feel. E.g. “This makes me feel terrible, and upsets Ellen”
Clarify why it’s a problem. For example, “making her embarrassed and meaning we have to get the car seat out of the taxi to clean it.”
Identify the possible cause - build empathy and understanding of the cause. In this example it’s no-one’s fault, but a situation no one had anticipated. “We realise she goes swimming on a Tuesday afternoon and guess she drinks the pool water. I know swimming is at the end of the day and Ellen has a clean pad. But it doesn't appear to hold enough liquid to see her all the way home.”
Identify the outcomes or changes you want to see made. E.g. “Could you try changing her pad again, just before she gets on the taxi please.”
3. Invite the school to respond. Inviting conversation and building rapport. E.g. “Could you confirm this is possible or do you have another suggestion?”
Additional tips for schools
Say sorry! “I’m sorry you feel like this” “I’m sorry this was your experience” or just simply “I’m sorry”.
Listen, understand and be flexible and open to the idea of making a change.
It’s not a “difficult parent”, it’s “a parent having a difficult time”.
See the issue as a learning opportunity.
Accept your part.
Be empathetic to the concern.
Making a complaint
Many school niggles are just that - niggles. And hopefully these tips will help us to navigate the school relationship well. Of course, there may be times when a school does not fulfil their legal obligations. Such as delivering fully against our child’s EHCP.
If we find ourself in this situation, there are some organisations who can offer us support and guidance, including:
IPSEA (Independent Provider of Special Education Advice)
And if you have some concerns right now, our carer support team is here for you. They are all carers themselves and they can help us to unpick our problem and work out our next steps.