SEND: Engaging with your parents

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In the last of three articles on parental engagement, Dorothy Lepkowska looks at SEND – an issue where effective and open collaboration and communication between parents and schools is vital

Collaboration and partnership between the school and the home is perhaps most essential when it comes to supporting a child with SEND.

Jointly agreed strategies and approaches to learning, behaviour and emotional support are vital if a child is to succeed and thrive. But the complexities and sensitive nature of SEND can lead to these relationships often being strained, with conflicting ideas of what is best for the child and how this can be achieved.

Lorraine Petersen, an educational consultant specialising in SEND and the former chief executive of special needs association Nasen, agrees that relationships between teachers and parents can become fraught with difficulties.

One reason for this is because teachers are sometimes not adequately trained on how to work with parents, while parents themselves are often more aware or savvy about what works with their child.

Schools also often do not ask parents for their input nor seek to find out about the child’s history: was this child premature, was there any early trauma in their life?

Ms Petersen explained: “All of these issues can have a huge impact on a child’s early development and would be useful for a school to know about. For example, a child who was due in November but born in August is not only premature but summer-born and may have a disability such as a hearing impairment as a result of being born early. Children who are premature may be pre-disposed to having a special need or disability.”

Four types of parent?

From a school’s perspective, the parents of children with special needs usually fall into the following categories.

The pressure parents
The parent who is constantly in school, wanting to help and pressuring the teacher to do more. These parents often press for further assessments and are keen to get an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) for their child, even if the child does not meet the local authority criteria for an assessment. Sometimes they do not fully understand the SEND system and how it works so the school needs to be clear about roles, responsibilities and duties.

The diagnosis-seeking parents
The parent seeking to get a diagnosis or label for their child, even when the school believes that this is not needed. Sometimes the parent may want a “label” for their child. It could be to get additional benefits or other support, or to excuse aspects of home life. However, it is often parents who are better off who get their own education psychology reports done, often at great expense, which are then presented to the school.

The parents in denial
Parents who are in denial do not accept that their child might be having difficulties and refuse for them to be put on an EHCP or for them to receive specialist support. Parents who are in denial will not react well to hearing the words “special needs” in the first instance, so schools should consider non-labelling language. Showing sensitivity in this situation will make it easier to get the parents on-side and to cooperate with any diagnostic assessment that needs to be carried out.

The dishonest parents
Parents can be dishonest about problems or behaviour taking place at home, probably because they believe it might reflect badly on their parenting skills. The problem is, of course, that it would help the school to know about such issues so they can better support the child.

Ms Petersen explained: “There may be problems at home that can affect a child, such as bereavement, marriage break-up or a sick relative or sibling with substance abuse, for example. There might also be mental health issues in the family.

“Some of the above challenges can be mitigated by training up a teaching assistant or assigning a teacher, aside from the SENCO, who has experience of mentoring or counselling, who could extract information about a child sensitively, and without making the parent feel they are to blame.

“This would build help trust and confidence in the school and start the conversation about what difficulties the child is facing and how the school and parents can work together.”

Tips for engaging with parents

  • Give parents lots of information about the child’s day at school. This is particularly important in primary schools when SEND children are not always able to share their experience of the day.
  • Be humble in the way you engage with people and do not assume that you know all the answers. No-one has a monopoly on how to handle every situation.
  • Listen to what parents are telling you. They have known the child from birth and will have their own strategies for dealing with difficulties.
  • Be flexible. If you cannot agree with the parents on a strategy for their child, offer to give it a go for a couple of weeks to see if it will work. Undertake to reconsider this course of action if it does not go as planned.
  • Give people options and do not back them into a corner.
  • Plan ahead, but always review what you are doing to ensure it is working.
  • Establish trust and maintain trust by delivering what you have promised to do. If you have told parents that something can be done, then do it.
  • Never give false hope – be realistic about what can be achieved.
  • Start transition from one school, or one sector, to another early so that staff can meet the pupil’s needs on arrival. This might include planning logistics around the school to accommodate a wheelchair or giving staff training.
  • Keep in regular contact with parents using all available means, including face-to-face meetings, email and text messaging.


  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist and co-author of Meet the Parents: How schools can work effectively with families to support children’s learning.

Further information & resources

  • Meet the Parents: How schools can work effectively with families to support children’s learning, Lepkowska & Nightingale, Routledge, 2019: http://bit.ly/2Zcw2vu
  • The two previous articles in this series focused on parents and safeguarding (November 2019: http://bit.ly/2EuL9IM) and effective parents’ evenings (September 2019: http://bit.ly/2PUNNwF)


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