SEND: Working with challenging parents

Our Sendco columnist explains how to handle difficult situations that can arise involving parents of SEND children

Gemma Corby

Challenging parents

One of the best ways for a school to support young people with special educational needs and disabilities is to collaborate with parents/carers. After all, no one knows the young person as well as they do.

But what happens when you are faced with parents or carers who do not want to work with the school? Unsurprisingly, there is no magic solution to this problem. However, there are a number of steps you can take to improve outcomes for the young person.

Here are three common types of challenging parent, and how to work with them.

The angry parent

It is worth bearing in mind that parents whose children have additional needs may be very used to combative situations, and to having to fight for access to the provision their child requires. Anger may, therefore, have become their default approach to interactions with school.

These parents may also be stressed and anxious. As difficult as it may be, try not to take their anger personally and to take a more empathetic approach instead.

Of course, if a parent starts to act in a way that is threatening or intimidating, do not think that you have to take any abuse. It is important that you politely state that their behaviour is unacceptable and that things will need to change if the conversation is to continue. If you are concerned about a particular parent, ask a colleague or your line manager to support you when meeting with them.

It is important that you show the parent that you are listening and that you care. Try to leave the conversation with some positive next steps, and always have something positive to report about the child to balance out the negatives.

The pandering parent

The majority of parents have the best of intentions, but some can be overly protective of their children and pander to their every whim, which can quickly become a source of conflict at school when the same approach is not taken.

It is important to develop a relationship with these parents, particularly if they are overly-anxious. They need to know that they can trust you and your colleagues as professionals, even though they may feel that they have been let down by others in the past.

Again, empathy is important, but the issue must be tackled. Learned helplessness can be a huge problem, particularly at the point of transition between primary and secondary school.

I believe the key to solving this one is to empower the young person so that they feel successful as an independent learner. We assign students a mentor, who will meet with them on a regular basis to discuss any problems or worries they may have.

Praise the young person when they are successful in doing something independently and reassure them that there will always be someone ready to listen and help if they need it.

Communicate any achievements to the parents, and gently encourage them to take the same approach. It may take a long time, but a lot can be achieved by gently chipping away.

The non-engaging parent

Parents who are reluctant to engage are the most challenging by far. Sometimes a lack of engagement can be a result of a fear of school from their own past experiences, so when you do get to interact with them, try and make it as positive as possible. Offer parents support through an advocacy group for children with additional needs, or through the local authority's family support service.

Document the conversations that you do have and set actions for both home and the school. If parents are not keen on speaking on the telephone, email them, so that you at least have a record of the number of times that you have attempted to reach out to them.

It may reach a point where you have to highlight their lack of engagement. Do this in a controlled and non-accusatory manner, and ensure you have another colleague present.

Whatever challenges that parents/carers may present, it is essential that the needs of the young person are always put first. All schools want what is best for the child and that must be at the forefront of our minds when tackling difficult situations.

Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk. Her column for Tes runs every second Tuesday during term time

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Gemma Corby

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

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