Five tips for talking to parents of children with SEND

Watch your terminology and always start with a positive when speaking to the parents of pupils with SEND, suggests this SENDCO

Gemma Corby

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Talking to parents or carers is not always straightforward – and difficult conversations with parents of children with additional needs can sometimes become fraught for both sides.

However, strong home-school collaboration is almost certainly one of the most effective ways of supporting our most vulnerable young people. To make these conversations as successful as possible, I have outlined some of my top tips.

1. Know the needs

As a SENCO, I have regular conversations with parents and carers. Several have revealed to me how difficult they can find parents' evening, because some teachers do not seem to know or fully understand their child's needs.

Understandably, it can get parents' backs up when teachers say things like, “he needs to work on his spellings” when the child has a diagnosis or dyslexia. Equally, give, “she needs to learn to concentrate more”, a miss when speaking to the parent of a child with ADHD.

Parents are well aware of their child's diagnoses, difficulties and differences. What they want to hear is what actual progress has been made and what strategies could help their child to progress further. Ensure that you have read the Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Pupil Passport of every child you teach who has identified special educational needs.

2. Watch your wording

Be mindful of your language. Avoid using words such as “slow” or “behind”, as these can have negative connotations. Replace them with “needs additional thinking time” or “is catching his peers up”.  I inadvertently upset a parent when I wrote on an annual review report that their child needed to improve their attendance as they were missing out on vital learning. The parent felt I was implying that her daughter was missing school for no valid reason and was complicit in that act. Of course, this was not what I meant, but I should have thought more carefully about my wording, as well as being more explicit.  

3. Be positive

Parents of children with additional needs can, unfortunately, be used hearing a lot of negative feedback. So, always start with something positive – and be genuine as there is nothing worse than a disingenuous compliment. My good friend and former colleague's mantra is “always start with what the child can do, not what they can't”. I have found this very useful over the years, not only when talking to parents and carers but also when planning and supporting pupils’ learning.

4. Keep the ‘teacher voice’ in check

As teachers, we are used to having to make quick judgements about situations and exerting our authority. This is mostly fine in the classroom. However, it helps to not apply the same bullish approach when talking to parents. Some parents may have had very bad experiences of school and could be apprehensive about meeting you. It is essential that you get these parents on side – and quickly. Without collaboration from home, your job will become about a thousand times more difficult than it needs to be. Plus, a vulnerable young person will be caught in the middle.

5. Be sensitive

Remember that parents of children with SEND may be facing all kinds of challenges. Some will have had a battle in securing provision for their child and therefore may be more sensitive to any changes in that provision. A few may have taken time to accept the fact that their child has additional needs or even still be grieving for the child they thought they were going to have. I had an experience where I met parents who seemed initially hostile, only to find out later that they had a lost a profoundly disabled child only 15 months earlier. The bottom line is that you do not know what it is like to be in their shoes, so the best thing you can do is be prepared to listen and to offer supportive ways of working together.

Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk. Her Sendco column for Tes runs every second Tuesday in term-time. To read Gemma's back catalogue, click here

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Gemma Corby

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

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