Join forces with problem parents

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
Teachers can give them the training they need to turn their children's behaviour around, says Paul Dix

As teachers we deal with some extremely damaged and dangerous young people. One minute they appear to be diligent pupils, the next drooling, werewolf-like creatures with evil intent. But their lack of empathy is not through choice - many are victims of parents who are neglectful, not through malice but from a simple lack of knowledge or training.

Teachers are often experts at managing behaviour yet we rarely share expertise with parents. But what if we gave them the same training as we receive? Not a casual summary of policy in an introductory newsletter but a constant drip-feed of excellent guidance, support and advice.

Schools spend a great deal of time pussyfooting around parents. We try not to interfere with idiosyncratic (read: chaotic) parenting styles. We even call them "styles" to make bad parenting seem less blindingly obvious. We initiate a thousand "interventions" at school and constantly ignore the elephant in the room. Being honest with parents might cause difficulties in the short term but it is an essential part of the tough love we have promised our pupils.

If it is possible to modify pupil behaviour, why not tackle change with their parents? Not to do so is wasteful of school resources and unsustainable. We do not dismiss children or adults within the school community as "unteachable" yet we make this assumption all too easily about some parents. They are not deliberately teaching their children to throw tables or swear at teachers. The parents of the trickiest pupils want their offspring to be happy and successful. We should not be scared to broach the subject of behaviour with them. This should be a two-way learning street, not a castigating boot camp.

Parents who have badly behaved children are as desperate for training on how to manage them as a trainee teacher taking a Year 9 cover lesson on a Friday afternoon. Neither is likely to ask for help. But sharing expertise with parents can open up the conversation and make it feel normal to talk about practical ways to modify behaviour. Homeschool agreements become tangible as the net closes in on the child's poor conduct. As school and home speak with one voice the game is up and limits are properly imposed.

In the constant pursuit of parental engagement we employ every strategy. From bingo evenings and quiz nights to curriculum forums and "You will come in for a bollocking before we allow your child back into school" letters. The constant demands are difficult even for the most enthusiastic parents. For those with bad experiences of school, walking across the threshold can be a big ask.

Spanning the parenting gap with a rickety bridge of ignored invitations leaves badly behaved pupils wobbling. Virtual learning environments and behaviour tracking software can give parents an insight into how their child is behaving but they do not patch the hole in their parenting skills. Presenting information to parents in this way is passive. Sharing an opportunity to learn new skills is a more attractive offer.

If you truly want to solve the parenting gap, parents must also be able to choose the way they learn, gaining skills independently at home if they wish. Online training for parents and teachers creates consistency between the home and the classroom. Same language, same purpose, same approach. New dialogues open up as knowledge and skills are shared, without parents having to turn up for a few hours simply to feel awkward.

If live training plays a part then it is not enough to set up a one-off event. Live training must be consistent - a regular part of school life. The offer should be for all parents with targeted, personal invitations. For those with children who have been excluded, the offer of training should be part of the intervention strategy and a compulsory part of readmittance agreements.

But be wary. Your campaign to share skills and open up a dialogue with parents may appear confrontational and could even provoke attack. Start by offering regular tips and news on behaviour in emails or text messages. Create a blog where great practice and progress is shared; set up a Twitter account to spell out the philosophy and a Facebook account where parents can ask questions. Parents already talk to each other about behaviour at the school, so try to have a positive influence on this conversation.

You may think it is someone else's job to train parents in how to manage their children's behaviour. You may be right. But who is better placed and better skilled, both in managing behaviour and in teaching others? If you wait for someone else to pick up the baton you could be waiting forever. If we allow the cycle of poor parenting to continue then the next generation of badly behaved pupils will make this one look timid.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at Pivotal Education and author of The Essential Guide to Taking Care of Behaviour.

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