Mum, dad and you too
And like all relationships, this needs effort on both sides, says Susanna Pinkus
I distinctly remember the last time I saw her. I was trying to discuss Benjamin's problems and she looked at her watch when I was speaking and I didn't go again. You know, for the first years of his life, I just thought I was a dreadful parent."
A young mother confides what happened when she finally summoned the courage to share her worries about her five-year-old son with a professional. Five years later, Benjamin, then aged 10, was diagnosed as having an autistic spectrum disorder.
Working with families may be high on the government agenda, but partnership working is often far from the reality experienced by parents. Seemingly small actions can have a long-lasting impact on how parents feel about and relate to professionals, and surprisingly, how they feel about and relate to their child too.
I have been doing research with parents over the past five years and the following points have been identified as partnership "makers and breakers"
Pay attention to "beginnings": they are vital to how relationships pan out.
First impressions count; this includes seemingly insignificant actions such as how parents are greeted by the school secretary or on the phone.
Try to see things through parents' eyes. They may, for example, have different needs and expectations which evolve from their own cultural or religious viewpoints. Also, families function as whole groups - the views of parents cannot be seen in isolation from the views of other family members.
Understand that parents do not relate to teachers in a vacuum. Sometimes anger may be a direct response to something that happened at school, but often it can have more to do with other situations far removed from the classroom. For example, family difficulties, the stresses and strains of caring for a child with special needs, money worries or lack of trust in professionals can impact on how a parent relates.
This is also, of course, true for teachers, who have their own stresses and personal agendas to deal with.
Book a room for meetings and set out the time available at the start. Check with parents whether they also have to be away by a certain time.
Consider whether the set-up of a room is conducive to good communication.
Speaking across a table is generally not helpful, so make the space your own by moving chairs into a more circular shape, with no barriers between you.
Talk a little; listen a lot.
Invite parents to bring a friend or family member to meetings. Even the most assertive parent can feel intimidated when facing a professional. If they need independent support or advice, openly provide information about parent partnership schemes and advice groups.
Give questionnaires to gauge parental satisfaction and listen to suggestions about how practice can be further improved. Parents' responses should be anonymous to maximise validity.
Be aware of your responses to aggression and how these can be mediated should they occur.
Use a quick email or a phone call to reaffirm the outcomes of a meeting.
This can mean a lot, and is also a record for you both of what was agreed.
Share information wherever possible, and encourage parents to do the same.
Rephrase home-school link book dialogue. Include a "Dear Mrs X" and an open question which invites a response, such as "How was Y's weekend?" or "What did you think of the work he did this morning in maths?" These are likely to elicit enthusiastic responses. Link books then no longer contain just the teacher's comments and the parent's signature, but are of joint value to both parties (and the children too). They can also become an excellent record of how the child has progressed over the year.
The openness generated by a partnership approach ultimately benefits everyone. Parents are able to share their knowledge of their children openly. Teachers are better able to understand the context(s) from which their pupils approach school life.
Most importantly, when parents and professionals work well together in partnership, children are cushioned between home and school, which enables them to move more successfully between the two.
Dr Susanna Pinkus is an advanced skills teacherspecial needs co-ordinator based in Harrow and an academic affiliated to the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge