Young people spend about seven hours a day in school and the remaining 17 in their communities: it is not hard to work out which has the greater influence on their lives.
This makes relationships with families or carers incredibly important. Irrespective of whether parents appear cruel, loving, abusive, supportive, rich, poor, educated or illiterate, they are important role models. And in my experience, they usually love their kids in their own way and want the best for them.
My experience comes from pupil referral units (PRUs). Where parental relationships are important in schools, in a PRU they are essential. To be successful, we have to win parents over and support them as they play a role in their child's education. A number of the strategies we use can also work in mainstream settings.
Like their offspring, parents know instinctively if you don't want to be with them. They may have unpleasant memories of their own time in school or problems with authority figures, so may not trust you. Such issues can be compounded by difficulties with their child, resulting in numerous phone calls, endless meetings with social workers and assessments with educational psychologists suggesting that there might be problems with family dynamics. So you must want to work with parents and make sure that you show it.
First impressions count
Meeting a parent for the first time can be difficult. To ease the process, set up an interview before the child starts at school and ensure it is a positive experience: always include refreshments, toys for younger siblings and offers of transport. Parents may have heard negative gossip about the PRU or school - show them around and prove it is incorrect. But be honest. For example, say: "I would be lying to you if I said we didn't have incidents, but we deal with them quickly and move on." If the parents don't show up, arrange a home visit.
Sign a contract
A home-school agreement can be a considerable help if it is read carefully and signed by all concerned, including the headteacher, parent and student. Ensure that the focus is on communication and honesty.
Encourage parents or carers to ring or pop in if they are concerned about anything. Never keep them waiting and always supply refreshments; it is hard to be angry with a cup and saucer in your hand. That said, always be aware of your own safety - know your exit routes. Finally, be prepared to make and answer calls out of hours. It will pay off as parents learn to trust and respect you and understand that you really care.
Share your own experience
I was never afraid to reveal a little of my own insecurity about parenthood. Issues ranging from potty-training through to substance abuse will affect and challenge all parents. You don't need to disclose anything too personal but show that you understand and that even teachers can feel vulnerable at times.
Continue building a rapport through newsletters, websites, reports and positive phone calls. All parents like to see photographs of their children engaged in beneficial activities.
Parents' evenings should last a whole day - that way you can include everyone, whatever their working hours. Be honest but always discuss positive solutions. Make appointments so that parents are not kept waiting and hold sessions for small groups - for example, on how to keep children safe on the internet.
Parent support groups
Such groups work well and can be developed to the point where they are parent-run. Experienced PRU parents can often support others with the message that they are not alone.
Parents are equal partners so treat them as such. Ask their opinion and listen to their aspirations. Evaluation forms are often useful but be alert to those parents or carers who may not be literate. Help them to link with other agencies and get professional advice from the best in the field.
Becky Durston is a retired headteacher and the president of pupil referral unit organisation PRUsAp.
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