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working with parents

By Corinne Abisgold

Looking at ways teachers can get on with their job effectively and at the same time ensure that parents are working with them towards the same goals.

Parents need to have an understanding of the demands on teachers' time and energy that working in schools brings. Implicit within this challenge is the need for the whole school community - teachers, parents and children - to feel valued, heard and supported.

The media often focuses on instances where parents and schools are in conflict, especially on cases where communication has completely broken down. There are, however, many more examples of excellent practice that illustrate how effective positive relationships between parents and teachers can be.

The complexity of the parent-teacher relationship
Parents have many assumptions about school life that are naturally based on their own experiences of schooling, often radically different from those of their children.

A parent who, for example, attended a very formal school may find it difficult to understand the educational value of play in the early years. What's more, the language and jargon used by schools about levels, attainments and curriculum will confuse parents.

Special needs
For parents of children with special needs the issues can be further heightened by anxiety. Teachers need to be particularly sensitive to these parents' needs. Their SEN policy should include the method they use to communicate with the parents.

Valuing the child as an individual
Another increasingly relevant factor in shaping parents' view of teaching and learning is the evaluative information that parents now receive in relation to their child's "performance" within school.

Teachers need to think carefully how to ensure parents are given a breadth of information that reflects their valuing of the child as an individual, not only as an achiever.

In baseline assessment, for example, parents receive information after six weeks about different areas of their child's progress. If handled clumsily this may be very dismaying to parents, causing them to feel that their child is already being judged negatively having only just started school.

The message to parents in such a case is then potentially damaging rather than enabling. Teachers must think very carefully about the language they use what it conveys. They need to make sure parents understand the context and the meaning of the information they receive. The child's well-being and progress is always central to the evaluation process.

To ensure that parents are secure in their relationship with the school it may be helpful to open up dialogue with representative groups to explore the following:

  • What do parents want/need to know from teachers?
  • What do schools want/need parents to know?
  • How can teachers ensure that all parents fully understand what they are saying?
  • How can a two-way communication be maintained and evaluated over time?

Using a questionnaire
One way you can be sure parents receive the information they particularly need is to have a standard school questionnaire that asks parents for the information they would like. This could include the following:

  • Description and tour of the school
  • General organisation and meeting with staff
  • Curriculum objectives, educational aims of the school (including the emotional well being of all)
  • Classroom organisation and layout
  • Familiarisation with classroom materials
  • Assessment and profiling policies (in terms that can be readily understood)
  • School resources
  • School policy on behaviour, attendance, racism
  • An outline of specific ways parents can help in school
  • Advice on what to do if things go wrong
  • Methods of reporting on pupils progress
  • Other agencies that are attached to the school and may be able to help
  • Behavioural expectations of parents within the school building

Communicating with non-English speakers
The language used in communication and how it is understood is the foundation of any positive relationship. If the parents' language is not English attempts should be made to use interpreters/translators to assist in communication.

Community support groups often have facilities for interpreting and also may have very valuable insights into cultural expectations or norms that can facilitate appropriate communication with the parents concerned.

The use of a questionnaire may identify which parents are in greatest need of information, enabling a tailoring of the information for each individual.

Communicate regularly
Teachers need to think carefully about the process of communication and the effective use of time. A weekly surgery for parents may be more manageable than impromptu discussions at busy times in the school day.

A guaranteed way to alienate parents is to appear unavailable to the parents and be unresponsive. The sooner there is constructive dialogue the more likely that issues will be resolved quickly.

Confidentiality should be communicated and honoured with parents and should be shared by all staff. In school communities there is always potential for gossiping or unfounded information that can cause great anxiety and upset. Parents need to feel secure and trusting in their relationship with school staff.

Teachers also nreeed to feel secure in their relationships with parents. Even when many of the issues raised in this article have been successfully addressed there will always be some parents that are difficult and potentially aggressive.

Ways of dealing with such parents needs to be carefully thought through by senior management and the shared with all staff. It is vital that teachers feel secure within their classes and parents are not able to threaten that security by unacceptable behaviour.

Corinne Abisgold is an educational psychologist, writer, lecturer and curriculum developer.

Individual issues relating to working with parents can be raised directly by emailing her at:

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