Much of what I am doing in my current role at the school division level is supporting families that are working through a difficult situation involving their child’s behavior at school. Sometimes it’s a specific incident that has led to a violence/threat risk assessment or it might be helping to place a student in a different program more suited to accommodate his/her current behavioral/learning needs. The ease that parents move through these events has a tremendous amount to do with the relationship that has been developed with the teachers and administrators at the child’s school before it gets to the division level. The more collaborative and honest the relationship is, the better the outcome is for all involved, particularly the student. It’s great to see parents, teachers, and administrators working alongside each other with open hearts and minds to come up with ideas and strategies to meet student needs and create success.
Working with parents, just like students, is all about relationship. However, working with parents regarding their children has the potential to feel more ‘high stakes’ given that most parents are highly invested in their children and bring the adult perspective of advocate. In these circumstances, it more important than ever to create a welcoming environment that encourages meaningful participation for the parents in their child’s education. Parents are going to ask hard questions and expect high levels of service and it’s important to be as honest and forthright as possible while maintaining a positive perspective. It’s a tough place to be when you realize that your child is in the position of requiring a significant degree of intervention. It’s important to “walk a mile in the parent’s moccasins.” And when taking their perspective, it’s important to not make assumptions or judgments, particularly when there might be issues within a family.
Here are some considerations that have served me well working effectively with parents in these challenging situations.
What’s Your Story? – The one thing that you bring to each parent and student interaction is you. Human nature and our upbringing will cause us all to have personal bias. We need to be careful that we are not making decisions or projecting concerns from our own experience into the situation. Consider your own history. Do you have expectations, opinions, personal hurt, or personal joy that might influence how you respond in certain situations? Consider the students that you have worked with over time. Have the experiences of those students and their families added to your personal bias? What are your thoughts about families in regard to addiction, poverty/wealth, education levels, personality traits, wellness, culture, actual personal history with a parent, etc.? We spend much time learning about policy, instructional strategies, medical disorders, etc. to prepare for parent meetings and student programming, we need to be equally aware of ourselves and how our biases and interpretations could potentially affect our interactions and outcomes with a family.
Declaring Intention – It is important that as you begin working with a family that you clarify the relationship and set a strong foundation. You can never be too explicit and it is worth stating that we are all here to work for the best possible outcomes for their child. It is important to validate the role of each parent to advocate for their child and to teach and advise the school team about their son/daughter. Following this ‘big picture’ declaration, each subsequent meeting should start with the intent of the ‘smaller picture’ interaction. Start each meeting with a stated objective and the intended positive outcome.
Family Voice and Choice – I’m stealing this directly from Alberta Education’s Approach to Collaborative Practices… Based on Wraparound Principles. “Family voice and choice ensures child or youth and family perspectives are intentionally elicited, prioritized and actioned as part of a collaborative wraparound practice. Planning is grounded in family membersʼ perspectives. The individuals involved in the process strive to provide options and choices that reflect the family values and preferences.”
Accuracy Is the Best Policy – It is important that parents have a clear understanding of how their child is behaving at school so they can participate as full team members with the same understanding as the rest of the team. Avoid euphemisms. A mom won’t know the extent of the concern if she is advised that her child used a bad word. That could be the f-word or that could be stupidhead. Both are bad words. Do your data collection. Stating that a child is difficult to manage is much less understandable than specific descriptions of the frequency and intensity of behaviors over a specified period of time. The spirit of accuracy is to bring the parent onto the team as a fully informed member, not to paint their child in a negative light.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know – One of the difficulties in managing students who are demonstrating difficult behaviors is to pin down the specifics of what makes the child tick. What are the triggers? What are the most effective de-escalation strategies? How does the student develop strategies self-regulation? Is mental illness setting in and if so, what does this mean? In these situations there is a tremendous role for parents. If you don’t know the way forward with a child, be up front with the parents and say that. Then immediately follow up with, “We need your help to understand your daughter, so that we can get her on a path to success. Tell us about what works for you at home.” This sets the stage for authentic relationships and collaborative problem solving.
The Mistake Multiplier – It’s the nature of working with people. Sometimes mistakes are made, the wrong decision is implemented or you just don’t know what you don’t know (and then you find out). Courtesy, ethics, and integrity tell us that these situations need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Take people’s dignity into account as you move forward, take ownership, be up front, and do your best to make amends. Avoiding these situations often will make the situation worse as people are left thinking they’ve been wronged and sharing their thoughts with others.
The Needs of the Many and The Needs of the Few – Another thing that we bring to our work with parents and their children is context. As the people who work within the school we are very well aware of things like class composition, limited resources, teacher experience levels, etc. While these are certainly considerations for the educators involved in managing the larger classroom or school environment, these types of limitations are not necessarily of prime concern to parents. In fact, it’s not appropriate to get into those details anyway. Parents will just expect schools to work around them and provide a quality experience for their child.
Keep On Keepin’ On – You might find yourself walking a fine line in terms of being open in the relationship and protecting privacy. In these situations, it pays to be as honest as possible, “I can’t get into specifics due to FOIP requirements, but these are the things I can tell you.” Some parents might see that as stonewalling and you need to continue walking the fine line to earn their trust. Share as much information as you can that is relevant to their child. Things may seem off to parents if in a previous grade a teacher’s capacity or the classroom environment was more conducive to addressing their child’s needs. In these situations, it will likely be necessary to provide additional supports like mentoring, creative scheduling, PD, specialist expertise or more. Parents will usually keep working with you if you show that you are making appropriate decisions and taking concrete actions to benefit their child while keeping the lines of communication open.
Education About School – Sometimes parents cannot understand why their child who is happy and manageable at home struggles at school. It is important to paint a realistic picture for parents about the different expectations at school. Help parents see through their child’s eyes. School is a much more complex place than home that can be very difficult to navigate from a child’s perspective. There are different skills required to be part of a school community working with peers, routines, and different adults and their child is likely having difficulty acquiring these skills. All of this can become even harder for a child who struggles with learning and isn’t feeling good about their place in school. Following this conversation, be prepared to outline what the school is doing to help and how the school-parent team need to work together to support the child.
Talking About the Elephants – There are times when what is happening in the family is negatively impacting a child’s learning. Divorce, death, moves, addiction, poverty and much more are struggles for children that come through the school door with them. Talking about issues like this is delicate territory. However, strengthening a child’s family is in the best interest of the child and is likely to improve learning. This is certainly an example of a courageous conversation. Conversations like this should be planned. Who is the best person to broach the subject? When and how? What words are most impactful and least threatening? What’s the plan for parents who want to address family concerns? What’s the plan if parents become adversarial? Remember though, relationship is key for both the student and for parents. This is not a reason to duck the conversation, this is your guiding principle as you plan how to approach these personal issues.
Support With Real Support – When you encounter a family who is struggling with significant issues and is willing to seek help, you need to break down as many barriers as possible. You can’t do it for them, but do make it as easy as possible. Strong inter-agency connections are important. If you can provide the name of a contact person who is expecting their phone call rather than just a number, that paves the way and makes it easier. Free up a staff member to support them as they make the phone call. That can be a tough emotional experience and doing it alone can be a very demoralizing and lonely experience. I have seen great benefit for families when a school support person actually attends agency appointments with the family to advocate and bridge communication gaps. Sometimes the school staff member needs to encourage a parent to commit to specific assistance at specific times and follow through with specific tasks. Monitoring and follow up is essential for some families.
Documentation Is Multi-Purpose – Documentation is not just for accountability – to prove something happened or to meet system requirements. Keeping and copying meeting notes to all participants serves as reminders for who has agreed to do what. Documentation is an organizer. Anecdotal notes are useful for parents and other professionals to more fully understand the child at school. Documentation is a window into the school life of a child. Expect that anecdotal notes will be copied and shared as you write them.
Working with parents is important as they are key in maintaining students’ relationships with their teachers and the school. If parents are only paying lip service to the teacher or school, kids will know it. This will make it much more difficult to be able to reach and teach our students. Kids know when their parents truly back the school and are working together and it will more often than not cause children to feel more comfortable in the school and try harder to do well.
Parent relationships can be hard work. If there are situations of conflict, this can also cause educators to be emotional as they usually care a great deal about the child and the school. Be sure to engage with your school team through these situations. No educator is expected go it alone any longer. Seek support, work together, and support each other.