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Telling parents that their child might have special needs is a sensitive business, and school might be the first place the condition comes to light.

Susanna Pinkus and Anne Pinkus provide guidelines for getting it right

It was like being told you have cancer - it's your fault and you're expected to just get on and deal with it." When I first met Mr and Mrs Davidson they appeared to be in shock - not only from being told that Sam, their son, had special needs, but also because of the way in which teachers at his school gave them the diagnosis.

Teachers do sometimes have to break bad news to parents, particularly when special needs have only become apparent once a child has started school. It is never an easy thing to do, but getting it right can make all the difference to creating the good working relationship you are all going to need.

Mr Davidson's experience of being informed was almost a classic "how-not-to-do-it". He recalls: "After being accosted at the school gate, we were presented with a collection of unrelated behaviours in a very insensitive and unhelpful way."

As teachers, we know that sharing difficult information is not easy. But breaking the news to parents or carers - for whom it may come as a real shock -that their child is experiencing "difficulties" at school, is particularly hard to get right.

How things are set up at the beginning between parents and teachers has a strong influence on how relationships subsequently pan out.

So, as a class teacher, what steps can you take to share concerns in the most helpful way possible and get things right from the start?

Planning that first meeting properly is vital. Here are a few tried and tested guidelines which will help you to avoid many of the pitfalls and get you on the right road to helping your pupils The authors are mother and daughter. Anne Pinkus is a special needs specialist teacher working in Barnet. Dr Susanna Pinkus is an advanced skills teacher in Harrow, and is working on her first book How to Create a Parent-Friendly School


* Think of meeting with parents as a one-way street. This needs to be a two-way sharing of information: for instance, does the child raise similar concerns at home? Listen to and value the parents' knowledge and understanding of their child. They may be able to shed new light on what is causing the problem, as well as how it can be solved.

* Communicate significant news on the telephone or at a parents' evening.

You will need more than five minutes to share your thoughts, listen to parents' views and respond to queries.

* Assume a parent will be comfortable coming to a meeting on their own.

Extend the invitation to bring a friend or family member.

* Tell a parent that a child has special educational needs without prior specialist input from your special needs co-ordinator, who should also attend the meeting.

* Bandy about diagnoses without specialist assessment and advice.

* Involve external agencies or educational psychologists without parental consent.

* Send letters without considering their impact. Ask a colleague to proofread them first, not only for content but also for tone. Sometimes just adding a small personal comment - sending good wishes to another family member, for example - can soften the tone of a letter which might otherwise be read as quite harsh and cold.


* Make a proper arrangement to meet, in an appropriate venue, with enough time allocated.

* Keep things low-key and in proportion.

* Be clear about what the concern is, but also about how it can be addressed.

* Make sure you refer to the child's strengths as well as difficulties.

* Save details about the issue for the meeting if you are telephoning to make an appointment to see parents, so that there is time for their concerns to be properly talked through.

* Listen carefully to the parents' take on the situation and their views on what should be done to solve the problems.

* Go through the key points discussed and the action agreed at the end of the meeting. This will provide a useful opportunity to sort out any misunderstandings that may have arisen, and to ensure that everyone leaves the meeting clear about what the child's needs are and how they are to be met.

* Follow up the meeting with a written summary of the key points discussed and the actions agreed.


Cunningham, C C Davis, H (1985) Working with Parents: Frameworks for Collaboration Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Cutler, B (1993) You, Your Child and Special Education: A Guide to Making the System Work Baltimore, MD: P H Brookes

Dale, N (1996) Working with Families of Children with Special Needs London: Routledge

Turnbull, A P, Summers, J A Brotherson, M J (1984) Working with Families with Disabled Members: A Family Systems Approach Lawrence: University of Kansas Affiliated Faculty

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