Conversations with Families about Student Behaviour. By Sue Roffey

whispering smWhen student behaviour is hard to manage in the classroom schools often want to ‘talk to the parents’.  There is however, very little guidance around on how to do this.  Consequently teachers can inadvertently make things worse rather than better.  The following simple guidelines might help.  This includes how you position parents, how they might feel about being in school, ways to engage families more effectively from the outset and what needs to be taken into consideration in a formal meeting.

Thinking and Talking about Families 

What conversations happen in the staffroom?  Are some parents seen as really nice and helpful whilst others positioned as dysfunctional, uncaring, pushy or aggressive?  We know that conversations influence perceptions, which in turn determine how people act and react.  The way we talk about people matters.

Almost all parents want the best for their child and do the best they can with the knowledge, skills, resources and support available to them.

When you see parents from this perspective, you begin to think (and talk) about them differently. Some parents lack knowledge about what their child really needs to thrive (as do some teachers who ignore the social and emotional dimensions of their students), others are very low in their own emotional resources and have little support.  There might be some things you can do to gently raise the level of one of these factors just a little.   Parents have told me that just having someone to listen made a big difference.

It is useful to position every parent as an expert on their child.  If you need to ask a parent into school to discuss your concerns, say you need their advice to help you do your job more effectively.

Teachers sometimes make assumptions that are just not helpful. One six year old boy was struggling with the disappearance of his dad because his parents had separated.  His behaviour was a reflection of both loss and anger.  The school assumed, despite his older sister doing well, that his mother was ‘unable to cope’ and therefore to blame for her son’s actions.  Everyone, including other children, told her how bad her son was being and she was shunned by other parents at the school gate.  Her resources were regularly undermined rather than boosted by the school and there was little understanding of the impact of these family changes on her young son. She stopped going anywhere near the school as she felt ashamed.  Everything changed the following year when a different teacher took a more positive and pro-active approach, both for her son and with her.

How Families Might Feel in School

Families are as diverse as students.   Some may not have had good experiences in school themselves and be intimidated by authority.  Others are determined that their child will have a better deal than they did, so potentially see teachers as ‘the enemy’ and go in with all guns blazing.   Some are very protective and many teachers get exasperated with those who do not encourage independence, ‘bubble-wrap’ their children and do not expect them to take responsibility for themselves or others.

All parents need to feel actively welcomed, respected and safe in the school environment, not tolerated or disparaged.  Schools often talk about the benefits of home-school partnership but can been seen by parents as the partner with all the power.  Families therefore need to receive messages about their crucial role as their child’s first and most important teacher.  This takes thought and action and although not always easy for busy teachers is worth the effort – especially when difficulties arise.

Engaging Families

When parents regularly receive positive communications about their children it promotes a positive expectation and reduces reluctance to engage with the school.  Research shows that the majority of communications home about individual students (not newsletters or general information) are negative and linked to problems the child is experiencing.   When schools routinely do things such as send ‘positive postcards’ home about a couple of students a day, families begin to look forward to, rather than fear, what is coming.  Some schools use text or email but the messages need to say something specific about the student such as:  I noticed that Keisha worked really hard on her maths today and has been learning to master long division or Ryan was asked to take an important message today and the way he did this shows he is developing the strengths of responsibility and leadership.

This sort of occasional message has several positive outcomes. It helps families feel more positive towards the school and provides information about what is happening, it gives them a sense of competence as a parent and it facilitates a strengths-based conversation with their child.  Young people – even teenagers – want their parents to be proud of them. When children only hear how difficult they are they have nothing to live up to; when children just hear how wonderful they are they also have nothing to live up to.

Parents are much more likely to engage with school if they have a specific invitation for a particular role.    Finding out what a parent might be able to offer by way of experience / skills / knowledge may be helpful.  In one class, groups of parents from ethnic minorities were asked to teach children games they played as children, in another grandparents were asked to participate in a Circle session where students and adults exchanged information about their own experiences of school, in another parents were asked to help create a school garden over several weekends, others were asked to participate in cooking sessions.   In another example,  a school made a video to show parents how children were settling into school.   Everyone wanted to come and see their child in a starring role!

When such relationships are established it is easier to have informal conversations about any concerns – and this is what parents prefer at the outset.  It is a shock to receive an official communication out of the blue to say there is a problem.  Informal conversations with a teacher with whom a parent can feel safe and comfortable can also help identify what might be at the root of the difficulties or help ascertain whether the parent has concerns themselves.  Often the first step is to just monitor what is happening and then meet to talk about what both teacher and parent have discovered.

More formal meetings

 There often comes a time when several people need to be in the same place at the same time to collate information and plan strategy.  These meetings may include teachers, senior school staff, counsellor or psychologist and family members.  How these meetings are run will impact on the outcome – both content and process matter.

Invitation:  Invite parents respectfully as the expert on their child and check with them what date and time works well for them.   They may have childcare, work or family issues to consider.

Support:  Suggest they bring someone as a supporter.  If two parents come together this may be unnecessary but often a mother will be the parent who shows up.  If she has a friend or relative with her this will give her emotional support, someone to talk to after the meeting, someone else to hear what is being said and may also add useful information.  When a mother needs to bring a younger child a friend or grandparent can help keep an eye on them giving the parent space to attend to the discussion. Have some toys available to limit disruption.

Take feelings into account:  For many parents talking about their child is a highly emotional experience.  They may have a range of feelings that range from bewilderment and anxiety to frustration and fury.   Be prepared for this.  Some parents will break down so have tissues handy.  Some families may be faced with the possibility that their child is different (such as on the autistic spectrum). This amounts to a bereavement;  parents may be in denial, then angry (often with you) and frequently heart-broken. It takes time to accept that the child you had such hopes for is no longer the subject of that dream. Guilt is almost always part of that package – even if not immediately obvious.  No-one wants to be thought of as a bad parent and if your child isn’t doing so well,  the finger will naturally point to you.   Blaming parents is the last thing a teacher should be doing – not only may this not be appropriate but parents may be at a complete loss to know what to do themselves or lack the resources needed.

Non-verbal messages: Begin meetings on time and do not have a ‘pre-meeting’ in the same room so that parents feels that they are excluded from part of the proceedings. This does not convey respect. Be clear about when the meeting will end.  The seating arrangement needs to promote equality.  I once worked in a school where the Principal sat behind her desk on a raised platform – it gave very loud messages about her comparative importance!    If teachers are on first name terms then so should everyone be, if the parents are to be called Mr and Mrs then that also applies to staff.  Do not take phone messages or allow interruptions unless these are genuine emergencies – it says that there are other more important things to pay attention to.

Start with the positive and stay focused on the child concerned:  After a welcome and thanks to people for coming, begin all meetings with a positive statement about the student.  This shows that you are concerned for the ‘whole child’ and willing to see their qualities and strengths, not just focus on their poor behaviour.  Parents are much more likely to tune into what you are saying, it will reduce their need to defend their child and protect themselves from being positioned as a ‘bad parent’.

I groaned inwardly when one Head of Year told me she had spent valuable time going through files to list all ‘incidents’ to bring to a meeting. I suspected that it would all end in tears with no clear forward plan – and that is exactly what happened.  What ensued was a battle between different views of the child.  The parent was left with little choice but to go on the defensive.  The teacher’s response was to talk about the needs of other students – and eventually their own needs.  Negative emotions permeated the room and the meeting ended abruptly when the parent walked out.

Parents want to talk about their child, not other students and working to construct a shared understanding is more likely to result in a positive outcome.

Stay solution focused:  Ask parents about their own concerns but also try and stay solution rather than problem focused.  Deconstructing problems into their constituent parts often leaves you with nothing but a problem in pieces and no plan of action.

Ask questions about what helps their child calm down, when are they most cooperative, what upsets them, who do they get on with best at home and what do they love doing.  Ask a little about their history and early years.  This is an area that the parent – especially a mother – will know well – and teachers know next to nothing.  This does several things – it models respectful interactions and parents see you are interested in their child’s wellbeing, not just focusing on behaviour.  They may begin to value what they do know, be more open to what they might do and this makes a collaborative partnership more possible.  Parents are more likely to acknowledge your own expertise as an educator if they feel their own knowledge is being sought and respected.

Communicate respectfully:  Any documentation needs to be provided beforehand or given afterwards for information.   When I am given something to read in a meeting I am not sure whether to give that my attention or the conversation.   It is confusing and uncomfortable. Some parents may also struggle with literacy or language skills. Where possible engage translators made when needed.

When a parent says something with which you strongly disagree ask politely why they think that is a good idea and then perhaps say you have learnt to think differently over time.  Do not get into a confrontation or give parents the impression they don’t know what they are talking about (even if you can’t help thinking it sometimes!)

Making plans:  When it comes to devising plans for the way forward ensure than decisions are made jointly.  Some parents agree to what is suggested but do not have the resources to follow through. One parent of a child with special educational needs told me that teachers said ‘just do this for five minutes a day’, the physio said ‘ this will only take five minutes a day’. so did the speech therapist and so did the educational psychologist.  This parent had three other children and a part time job and although wanted to do the best for her child said she felt guilty all the time because she wasn’t able to do everything.

Finally:  Five minutes before the end of the meeting summarise actions and book a review in about six weeks time.  Follow up agreements briefly in writing  – so you can refer to this in the review.  Often parents will learn about good strategies to use with their child by having regular communication with teachers.  To do this they need to feel that meetings are a positive experience both for their child and for them.

Stay Safe

Sometimes parents arrive in school in a rage or not in a fit state for a conversation.   Ensure that you either stay in a public space or move to one – if not, try to get another member of staff to join you.  Ask an angry parent to sit down – they are more likely to calm down sooner from a seated position.  Let them rave without interruption until they run out of steam.  Going on the defensive never works so don’t waste your energy.  When they pause for breath,  acknowledge their strong emotion and ask what is one thing that might help at this point.  If necessary admit that you may have not understood a situation fully – offering a partial apology can take the heat out a situation – it does not hurt you to do this and can maintain a high level of professional integrity.

If a parent is incapable through drink or drugs tell them you have a commitment but need to hear what they have to say so ask them to make another appointment.  If they are abusive (ie use threatening language or gestures – the occasional swear word isn’t nice but doesn’t count) say that the school has standards of behaviour that both children and adults are expected to follow and that they are currently breaking the school’s code.  Ask them politely to leave and return to discuss things more calmly.  If necessary wish them good day, move away yourself and tell someone what has just happened.  You will probably need some collegial support.  This sort of confrontation can wear you down.

Hold onto the fact that most students behave well and most parents want the best for their kids.  It will maintain your wellbeing to stay with the positive, the possible and the polite!

This article is based on research published in :

Roffey. S. (ed) (2002) School Behaviour and Families: Frameworks for Working Together David Fulton Publishers

Roffey,S. (2004)  The home-school interface for behaviour:  A conceptual framework for co-constructing reality.  Educational and Child Psychology 21 (4)  95-108

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