Handling difficult parents

Written by: Amy Cook | Published:
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If you make a complaint to a head teacher regarding the way a member of staff has been rude towards ...

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Amy Cook explores three frequently asked questions by school leaders when it comes to handling challenging situations with parents

Involving parents in their children’s education is often a real focus for the school leaders we work with. They frequently ask us for advice on engaging parents in their children’s learning – all in an effort to enrich pupils’ experiences inside the classroom.

School leaders seek guidance on all manner of things, from holding effective parents’ evenings to how to reach those more difficult parents, who perhaps did not have a positive experience of education themselves and so do not engage with the school as readily.

But what happens when relationships with parents become strained? Recently, we have been fielding more questions about how to deal with complaints from parents, and what to do when parental complaints appear on social media. Here are answers to three frequently asked questions on how to improve communication with parents.

What can we do if a parent complains to other parents but not to the school directly?

While schools can set expectations on pupil behaviour beyond the school gates, they cannot, of course, do the same for parents. Parents are free to express opinions about the school, so long as they are not threatening or abusive towards the school’s staff.

If critical, these opinions can be difficult to address if they are not communicated directly to a member of staff. Perhaps they are being discussed among parents in their own time or via social media.

The first thing to try and do is to have parents engage with the school in a more constructive way. Can you ask them to express their feelings more formally, for instance by using the school’s complaints procedure?

This strategy won’t always be possible – approaching a parent based on hearsay or because you have followed their comments on social media might appear threatening and could further strain relations with the school.

It might be more sensitive to send out a survey to all parents, so that any concerns can be raised directly with the school but in a less formal and confrontational way.

To get to the bottom of the issue, you can also ask yourself some questions. If you know the reason for the criticism, consider whether there is a genuine grievance. If so, what have you done to put it right, and have you made parents aware of this? Was a mistake made by someone in the school, and if an apology is needed, will it be given?

If you don’t know the cause of the criticism, then consider how the problem has come to light. For instance, have other parents or community members fed back what they have heard? If so, what have they been encouraged to do as a result? Is the problem specific to the individual’s child or more general? Do you need to develop a whole-school approach to alleviate these concerns?

How can we deal with persistent complaints from parents?

Usually, if a parent is still unhappy over a particular issue despite the best efforts of the school, the next step would be to invoke the formal part of the complaints policy.

However, the school leaders we talk to often prefer to resolve issues informally. If this is the case, you could hold a meeting with parents to discuss their concerns, and also invite your chair of governors along to demonstrate that the school is taking the parents’ complaint seriously.

Perhaps the parents have a particularly good relationship with one member of staff – the child’s class teacher, for example. Ask this teacher to attend so that relations are less frosty. Better still, hold the meeting in a classroom after school, rather than the headteacher’s office, to create a more relaxed atmosphere.

You might also make this member of staff a point of contact for the parents. This way, he or she can be an advocate for the parents but also encourage them to really think about the reasons behind their complaints, and work with them to resolve the issues.

Should we respond to offensive comments relating to the school on social media?

If parents criticise the leadership and management of the school on social media, but are not abusive towards staff, you could invite them to use a more appropriate channel like the complaints procedure.

If the comments are abusive towards members of staff, it is important to avoid retaliating or becoming personally involved in the incident. Keep any records of abuse by taking screen shots and log the time, date and web address.

Is the content upsetting a staff member, or is it inappropriate? In these instances, you should ask the person responsible to take the material down and explain why it is unacceptable.

If you do not know who has posted the material, or the person responsible refuses to remove it, you should contact the social networking site to request for the content to be removed.

Some schools take a more pro-active approach by covering social media in their code of conduct for parents. For example, you might write that the school expects parents not to discuss school business in online forums or to act in the very best interests of the whole-school community.

  • Amy Cook is a senior researcher at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools in England. She is also editor of The Key’s blog, Key Insights. The Key is hosting a one-day conference on engaging parents and carers on February 11 in London. For details, visit www.thekeysupport.com/events

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What an hilarious article. In response I think someone should write an article on how to deal with difficult headteachers. A widespread problem these days. This just confirms my view that schools treat parents as children. Nowhere in this article can I find any suggestions for dealing with parents dissatisfaction with respect and honesty.
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If you make a complaint to a head teacher regarding the way a member of staff has been rude towards you what is the head teachers responsibility to do with regards to this? Are they supposed to get back to you? Or leave it.
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