Vulnerable pupils: Parent-school meetings

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In Headteacher Update this year, Daniel Sobel will be tackling common problems and questions when it comes to supporting vulnerable pupils in school. In his first article, he looks at the challenges and secrets to successful parent-school meetings

There is a type of question which gets asked of me a lot by heads and pastoral leads which can be summed up by the following extract from the soon to be published book, Leading on Pastoral Care (Bloomsbury, 2018).

“I’m asked to observe a pastoral meeting; it wasn’t pleasant. The mother walked into the room where a number of staff were sat around the table and she seemed enraged, using threatening language. She was thoroughly upset from the first moment. After a number of quite aggressive verbal outbursts, the head tried to calmly reassure her that we would talk it through, which eventually led to her conceding to give that a go.
“She soon burst out again after the meeting lead explained what we were there to discuss – an incident that was quite serious and needed addressing. The mother started making accusations and raised her voice angrily.
“The meeting went on through a few such cycles and ended with the mother walking out in anger, shouting, full of blame and accusation. Sadly, the student’s behaviour seemed to be quite obviously a cry for help and the school’s solution, which we were presenting to the mother, was to pay for some counselling and provide a nurturing space.
“The mother saw something different: this group of teachers were attacking her and it was her duty to defend her child at all costs. The school was saying X and the mother heard Y. The student suffered and just three weeks later another incident occurred that led to them being permanently excluded.”

Question: what is the most effective way of dealing with a parent who seems to be a significant part of the problem?

All senior leaders, especially pastoral ones, find themselves in one meeting after another, which can be both terribly boring, fascinating and a bit of a waste of time. Boring because, well, who actually likes sitting in 20-plus meetings per week? Fascinating because it is like a psychology course: you can sit back and observe people interacting, often missing each other’s points and all trying to get their own agendas prioritised in the eyes of the others. And a waste of time because very quickly you realise that the meetings take up quite a bit of the working week and while they were meant to be the agent of change where decisions could be made and consequently acted upon, this is often far from the truth.

What is strange is that despite the multiple meetings per day regime, hardly any leader in education has been trained in the “art of the meeting”. As far as I can tell, Leading on Pastoral Care – my new book – contains the first chapter on the topic ever written for school leaders. Go figure.

The art of the meeting

The Lamb Inquiry of 2009 was spot on in concluding that where parents/carers are engaged with the school life of their child, the student who carries a label of SEN or some pastoral level of concern will in general make good progress.

The flip side is slightly more poignant: where the parents/carers is not positively engaged with the school, the student will likely not do well.

So, dealing with the obstreperous, hyper-critical and the darn right rude parent/carer is one of the biggest hurdles for making a placement successful for a child on the edge.

The most common two responses to this challenge, which I see everywhere, are usually a reflection of a broader psychological approach that the head has to school leadership:

  • Permissive: you can say what you like to me in my office if that’s what you need (sometimes followed by: but never say anything bad about my staff or students including your own child).
  • Unpermissive: you can’t say anything rude or swear or get overly excited in this school or you will be escorted off the premises and if necessary, banned.

These two responses are still both “reactions” which may or may not work for some. The usually dogmatic approach (this is how I do things) is neither flexible or emotionally intelligent because it is about their own personal survival rather than what is best for the parent.

The key here is to be as proactive as possible. This changes the game from something you have to “deal” with to something you can “strategize”. Let’s start by considering some of the more obvious problems in cases like the one I described.

Seven challenges & seven solutions

Below is a breakdown of the archetype problems that a case such as this often presents. Then follows some quick advice on how these problems can be pre-empted.

There are seven common problems. The more challenging parents/carers may be:

  1. Unused to meeting rooms.
  2. Unable to see any other way of coming into school other than bracing themselves for bad news (which is what they have learnt expect).
  3. Unable to feel like an adult when threatened by the sight of so many professionals sitting in the room.
  4. Unable to take in all the information well on the spot.
  5. Unable to focus on their own child when their own personal experiences of failure eclipse the issue at hand.
  6. Unable to handle a long and difficult meeting and remain focused.
  7. Unable to see that school and home will inevitably bring out different sides of a child.

So, what you can do to pre-empt these commonly recurring problems?

Problem 1: I changed my office to look like a lounge: no desks or strip lighting but instead lamps, sofa chairs from freecycle, plants and pictures. Alternatively, have the meeting in a café or at their home.

Problem 2: Use a teaching assistant to call home every week with good news. This gets them to think of school as a source of positive news in their week. This means that when there are some tough conversations to have there is enough investment in the emotional trust bank.

Problem 3: Limit who you are bringing into the room. A dauntingly massive meeting is no good for anyone, it haemorrhages staff time and no parent is going to appreciate lots of people there. Can you limit it to two staff?

Problem 4: Make sure the teaching assistant has briefed the parent/carer about the meeting prior to coming in. Keep the meeting as short as possible when it comes to the detail. Focus more on the welcome and asking about how things are at home and being interested in them.

Problem 5: Be interested in them; personal and friendly; demonstrate kindness and that you listen; demonstrate that you are just a human being and that the most important thing to chat about is the child. The key is not to simply say these things but to convince someone by your attitude and the vibe you give off. This is one of the most skilful (and yet difficult to teach) things you can do as a pastoral lead.

Problem 6: Such conversations can spiral off in so many directions. Keep them focused and gently keep coming back to the point at hand. Acknowledge that they have said that the “computers in room 12 are out of date and don’t work” and that you are writing this down to chase up after this meeting and then return to the real issue at hand. Don’t get led off and don’t fob off.

Problem 7: Acknowledge that school and home are different and that you see their child as a student and a participant in the school’s mini-society and that is mainly what we are dealing with. Clarify that this is true of everyone and that that is okay. Also mention that we are here to try and work through some challenges and that is what school is all about sometimes – we help children grow up through the tough stuff and that’s okay.

Conclusions

There are many manifestations of the challenges above – accusations about teachers picking on their child, bullying from students, endless variations of online social media problems and so on. In my view, all of these are secondary to the most important point: you opening up yourself and your school to the most challenging parents/carers in order to maximise the opportunities for our most vulnerable students.

  • Daniel Sobel is author of Narrowing the Attainment Gap – A Handbook for Schools (already published) and Leading on Pastoral Care (soon to be published) by Bloomsbury Press. Daniel is also the founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via http://bit.ly/20YDhq5


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