The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Julia Watson

Dealing with challenging parents

How can teachers deal with parental behaviour they find challenging? Julia Watson shares three common scenarios and how to overcome them. 

Working in partnership with parents is the ideal for every teacher. When it works well, the tag-team of parent and teacher can be transformative for the welfare of a child.

However, we've all met parents that are less than pleasant to be around. What can you do when faced with a parent whose behaviour is more challenging than the pupil?

1. Aggressive parents

'This parent has a threatening presence. They can be very volatile.'

Aggression towards staff is never acceptable, however, it can be difficult to manage when the threat is based on a feeling only. People who carry this kind of persona need clear boundaries to manage their bullying behaviour. 

What can you do? 

Listen to your instincts.

As humans, we are attuned to threat. It's important to honour that you are feeling unsafe and take action to remedy this. 

Make a plan with colleagues on how to deal with this parent.

This might include never seeing them alone or ensuring that senior leaders support meetings. Making a plan will allow you to feel more in control. 

Build a positive and cordial relationship with this parent, within school.

Although it's hard to remember when feeling threatened, this kind of bullying behaviour is a fear response. If they are aggressive, then they are feeling stressed and anxious themselves.

Where possible, find a member of staff that has a positive, cordial relationship with this parent, or at least a kind of begrudging respect and make them the key point of contact.

Build wider relationships from here.

Even the most difficult parents will find someone within a school that they are able to talk to. It's OK if it's not you. 

2. Needy parents

'I can't get rid of her. She's there at the beginning of the day and at the end. She wants all my time and always needs to talk about her problems instead of her child. It’s exhausting.'

This is incredibly common. Being a parent is challenging and all parents have times when this is harder than others.

Some parents are an attention vacuum: they can take everything you have and still want more. For some people, teachers carry the persona of having all the answers (whether they do or don't!)

However, the focus of a meeting between parent and teacher must ultimately be the welfare of the child. Anxious parents with difficult lives benefit from clear boundaries.

Begin any meeting with something good their child did that day, to set a positive tone to the meeting

It makes them feel safe and keeps the relationship professional. This doesn't mean that you can't listen or help them, but this is where good signposting is vital. 

What can you do?

Being a parent is a tough gig (just me?!). We’ve all met families who are having a horrendous time, but are still getting their kids dressed, fed and into school in the mornings.

Good relationships will benefit children and if something is going on in a family, schools needs to know about it.

Find someone who knows the individual or the wider family well and decide where best to signpost them.

This isn’t ‘fobbing them off', it’s finding them the right professional help for their need. Home-school link workers are a vital part of this equation and are better placed to offer the more informal kind of support the parent is craving.

Set boundaries and be clear.

Guide conversations politely to being around the child where possible. You might feel you are being rude, but it’s unlikely they will notice.

If the parent wants to talk at every opportunity, a scheduled catch up once every half-term can be helpful.

Take a clear look at your own behaviour.

If you’ve got a parent that has become very reliant on you, ask yourself if the relationship is benefiting that family.

Often one or two people in a school will ‘hold’ the emotional load of hundreds of families. This can lead to overwhelm or burnout.

Share the load. Talk to colleagues. Signpost. Use expertise.

Consider this question: ‘What would happen to those families if you could not come to work tomorrow?’

3. Parents who blame teachers

'Their child is a bully, but they say it’s my fault for not being strict enough. They say he was fine last year.'

The ‘not my child’ syndrome. No-one likes to think that their child is the one in the wrong; however, when parents blame the teacher, it can be incredibly frustrating.

What can you do?

Gather evidence.

This requires cold, hard facts. Dates, times, actions, outcomes.  

You don’t need to present it to the parents, but it’s useful to be clear about the things that have happened and the strategies used in response.

Be supported by colleagues.

If parents infer that it is your ‘fault’ that their child is behaving a certain way, you may want some support from someone who already has a relationship with the family. The aim is not for you to persuade them, but to build a working relationship.

When a human feels their offspring is ‘under attack’, they will naturally move into defensive mode. Remember that the more anxious or stressed they are, the more defensive they will be.

Begin any meeting with something good their child did that day, to set a positive tone to the meeting.

Aim to support the child.

Keep the parent informed and share the actions the school will take: some may never accept the challenging behaviour of their children because they see it as reflecting badly on themselves. Some are relieved they aren’t seeing it at home too!

Further reading:


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