Leadership - Partnership is key with SEN pupils

The parents of students with disabilities need warm welcomes and open exchanges

Nick Hodge & Katherine Runswick-Cole

Parents of disabled children don't always have positive experiences of mainstream schools. Introductory meetings are critical for establishing partnerships between home and school, but parents and carers often find that these initial encounters go badly: reading between the lines of what school leaders are saying, they imagine that their child is not truly welcome.

Sometimes, unfortunately, these perceptions are correct. But even when they are not, unintended miscommunications can fracture relationships.

We conducted a study exploring this issue and asked parents and carers of disabled children for their advice on how to give these partnerships the best possible chance of working. Here are their recommendations:

Start with `welcome'

Before arriving at your school, parents may have already experienced rejection from childcare operators, nurseries, other schools and at social gatherings. This can be direct or coded within phrases such as: "We think another school would meet your child's needs much more effectively than we can." As a result, parents may well be on their guard. The word "welcome" offers reassurance that your school is different.

Say `tell me about your child'

Schools too often focus on problems by asking parents about their child's difficulties. Instead, putting open, positive questions to parents will allow them to tell you what they really want you to know about their child - that he or she is funny, loves being active and feels more confident in small groups than in whole-class activities. Be aware that parents can become so used to being asked about "problems" that they may automatically start with these. Even so, carers tell us that they appreciate prompts such as: "Tell me what your child's strengths are and what makes him or her happy."

Don't make negative assumptions

For parents who are getting on with life, rushing around and getting children to where they need to be, it can be an unpleasant shock when they realise that someone else views their child as a tragedy. This can be communicated through sympathetic looks and phrases such as: "I think you are very brave, it must be so hard." Parents tell us this can be very upsetting - what they want is for the child they love and value to be recognised and appreciated.

Keep on checking

Parents are often told that their child is "doing fine at school". But in the safe environment of home, some children explode as a result of the stress they have been under all day. A partnership with parents means remaining reflective and open to their knowledge and insights.

Discuss how information is shared

Some parents report that their children come home each day with a list from the school detailing everything that went wrong. Teachers may feel they are being helpful but parents can be overwhelmed by daily accounts of the same issues. Some parents want to know everything, others do not. Partnership involves recognising what works best in each case.

Think before you speak

You may simply want to reassure a mother, for example, that her child has had a good day and only got upset as she arrived to collect him. But be careful. "He only started doing that when you arrived" can be devastating to a parent, who hears: "You make your child feel distressed."

Represent disability in school publicity

This is dependent on children and families wanting this to happen. Parents scrutinise prospectuses and websites to see if the school has children who remind them of their own. They value schools that celebrate the success of all students.

Nick Hodge is professor of inclusive practice at the Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam University and Katherine Runswick-Cole is senior research fellow at the Research Institute for Health and Social Change at Manchester Metropolitan University

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Nick Hodge & Katherine Runswick-Cole

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