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

John Viner

Turning 'problem parents' into partners

Hard to reach or scared to come in? John Viner shares how we can reach out to so-called 'problem parents' to better support our pupils.

I am a slow learner. It took me over twenty years of headship before I really understood that even the most challenging parents are as much partners in their children’s education as the helpful, cooperative leading lights in the PTA.

The trick of it is not to think of them as challenging, but to work on the partnership bit.

The importance of being visible

For me, the crunch came just after I had taken over a perplexing coastal school in special measures, located in one of the south’s most socially deprived wards.

There had been a succession of headteachers and one morning a parent stopped me. ‘I expect you’re another here today, gone tomorrow’, she said.

I was protesting that I was in for the long haul when she interrupted, ‘but you’re never bloody here!’

What did she mean? Of course I was there!

And then it struck me.

I was never where she was, not outside the school, meeting parents and carers. I was available, of course, but that was on my territory, on my terms and, as a number of parents later told me, ‘I ain’t going in there!’

From anger to appreciation

It was a transformational moment and, from there on in, either I, or a member of my senior team, was at the school gate, meeting parents on their terms.

Jump forward some years, after a couple of successful inspections and some sympathetic press coverage, and I was moving on.

A parent spoke to me after school. He said:

‘Thanks for being here. You don’t appreciate the difference you have made in the homes.

Five years ago it was anger and aggression out here, now it’s not. You and your team have done that.’

We can't just view parents as 'problematic'

It’s too easy to talk about ways to deal with ‘problem parents’. Viewing them as such is superficial and can be damaging.

They are, first and foremost, parents,  and the overwhelming majority of them want what every parent wants – for their child to be happy at school. For many, that’s enough; making progress and achieving high standards is a bonus.

It’s no good expecting parents to fit into our middle-class expectations, to be always reasonable, always cooperative because we are telling them something about what we think is best for their children.

Parents' own experience of school may not have been very positive and this colours their views now

When a harried mum arrives in school because she’s been summoned, we often find it difficult to get past her angry shouting and aggressive body language. We point to the notice that says that aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated and warn her that, if she doesn't calm down, we will ask her to leave.

We might even quote Section 547 of the 1992 Education Act and threaten to bar her from the premises.

Behind closed doors 

So we may have missed the fact that she’s had to take time off a poorly paid job to come into school. Time that she won’t be paid for.

And that’s tough because she’s behind with the rent and being threatened with eviction. Which comes at a bad time because her older son is in trouble with the police and the man she’s been seeing has just been caught dealing drugs.

And, to cap it all, she had a blazing row with her daughter on the way to school, which was publicly embarrassing and probably is the reason for her bad behaviour at school in the first place. 

How can we build better relationships with parents?

Now, we can have strategies for managing these difficult situations – welcoming office space and a cup of tea is a good start – but this is about the way we build better relationships with parents.

Engaging with parents is often easier to achieve with very young children. The question is, how do we maintain engagement as they get older?

The Leading Parent Partnership Award gives schools a coherent framework to deliver effective parental engagement from early years to post-16.

To find out more, visit the AwardPlace website.  

Meeting parents on their terms means trying to arrange meetings – especially tricky ones – around their schedule; a bit of give and take on each side.

Remember, parents’ own experience of school may not have been very positive and this colours their views now. So it is good to consider how to make the school more welcoming and less, well, schooly.

Many schools have a dedicated officer to work with parents, represent them in school, give them advice. But this carries significant cost at a time when funds are low. Nevertheless, being there for the parent is a lot more effective than just expecting the parent to be there for the school.

Have 'structured conversations'

Aim for a ‘structured conversation’ with parents and carers. This model emerged from the 2009 'Achievement for all' initiative. The aim of this is to facilitate a relationship, based on the shared purpose of supporting the student.

Exchange information and views, even if those views clash. Ensure that there are effective teaching and learning strategies as well as pastoral and behavioural.

During the structured conversations staff, parent/carer and pupil discuss:

  • what the pupil feels they can do well
  • what the pupil feels they need to do better
  • what the pupil enjoys doing out of school
  • progress towards individual learning targets
  • aspirations for the future
  • some future learning and wider outcome targets
  • how parents/carers and school can work together even more effectively to achieve these outcomes for the pupil.

The four stages to the 'Achievement for all' model

  1. Explore: give the right non-verbal messages and maintain eye-contact. Ask the right kinds of questions with a tentative tone.
  2. Focus: identify priorities, clarify key issues. Ask the ‘miracle question’ – if a miracle occurred and you knew your problem was solved, how would you know?
  3. Plan: look together at what could be done by home and school to bring about the change they each want. Agree targets and develop an action plan.
  4. Review: summarise, clarify next steps and arrange further communication.

Communication is often key.

Just because one side has been in ‘transmit’ mode, does not necessarily mean that the other was in ‘receive’ mode. Work may need to be done, hence the need to clarify.

Working together for the good of the pupil

Overall, are parents hard to reach? Or scared to come in?

Reaching out and building relationships removes the fear and means we work together for the good of the pupil. 

'Problem parents' can become part of the solution. No longer problems, but partners.

With thanks to John Rees (@PSHESolutions) for his advice in preparing this blog.

Further reading

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