Should Parents Write Long Emails? –  The Difference a Skilled Head Teacher Can Make

Should Parents Write Long Emails? – The Difference a Skilled Head Teacher Can Make

I’m driving home from my second visit to Peter’s potential new school and right out of the blue this thought jumped, uninvited, into my mind:

“You know, I don’t think I will ever need to write a long email again.”

I was totally thrown by this uninvited thought!  On this visit I had taken Peter, we had met with the Head Teacher and the whole experience was quite different from anything I had experienced before.  Everything that happened during this visit made me think the Head Teacher just accepted what we said.  I didn’t need to explain or to justify anything.  She was clearly very knowledgeable, which, please note, is different to experienced.  Anyone can spend a long time in a job, not all become knowledgeable.

I didn’t feel judged either.  For example, Peter said he didn’t want to see a classroom when she offered and she just moved on to something else.  Most would have tried to push, persuade, cajole….  It’s difficult to describe what it is like when true experts act with a sense of salience; of just knowing.  Perhaps this is because it is unconscious behaviour on behalf of the expert themselves.  Effortless, seamless and unknowingly responsive is the best I can describe it.

Either way, this was a first for me, when liaising with ‘education’.

Soon after that intrusive thought another one hopped in:

“So what was the point of all those long emails I had so carefully constructed over the last few years?  What had they achieved?  Had there been any point at all?”

So, “Should parents write long emails?”

It all started for me about 6 months after the “He is normal, normal, normal” meeting in Year 1.  An assessment from the autism teacher (requested by CAMHS as part of the ASD assessment) had been obstructed at least twice by ‘school’.  Below is a copy of my first ‘SEN email’.  With hindsight I can see that it may be seen as a little patronising in places, but overall I was hopeful that it would change the bizarre situation that I found myself in.

Thank you for meeting with me over the summer term to discuss Peter.  As I have mentioned a number of times I have been very impressed by many aspects of the school and have been happy to edify the school and support it both verbally, and practically via the parent and friend’s activities.
More recently I have found myself in unusual situation, on the one hand school staff are advising me that Peter is ‘normal’, and on the other, assessments at CAMHs are raising questions and concerns.  I am sure you will understand that this position is not sustainable and I am duty bound to follow-up on the health-care professional’s advice.
In my role as a parent I will continue to work to ensure that Peter receives the support he needs to become less anxious, and more able to learn and socialise while at school.  As Peter’s parent I too have concerns: in particular, his need for a very predictable day, for minimal interruptions by other children when trying to concentrate, and support during play time, both in playing co-operatively and having 10 mins time out as required.  I will put more detail regarding these issues in a letter to [class teacher], and would be grateful if staff could consider them, as I feel this will enable him to have the same opportunities to learn at school at his peers.
I am keen for this to go forward as a partnership between health, education and myself & Peter. To help with this, over the summer, I have been in contact with the parent partnership service who am sure will help us to find a way forward.

I had had no contact with any other SEN parents and was pretty clueless really.  It was years before I became aware of online support groups available that have since become a lifeline.

The email made no difference.  Of course it didn’t.  I had no idea at the time, but school staff didn’t want to understand.  I could offer all the explanations possible, CAMHS and OT could (and did) spend hours patiently explaining.  CAMHS and OT input into school had little impact (though in other ways was essential).  I understand now that this was because school staff were only seeking information that confirmed their views as being correct; they seemed to vehemently reject information that did not support their views.  A friend helpfully described this as confirmation bias.

I believe there are a number of contributing factors, but two key ones are ‘perverse incentives’ (if you see a difficulty you have to offer support, and will be heavily judged if you can’t, so the incentive is very much to not ‘see’ a difficulty) and the expectation that teachers will somehow miraculously be able to identify difficulties that they are not trained to notice or understand.

What does it cost us to write long emails?  I went to a ridiculous amount of effort when writing emails.  I would draft them and leave them for a while.  I’d make sure they did include words that might inflame our difficult relationship (such as ‘you’) and were as balanced as possible.  I would often read drafts through to long suffering friends to check that the worry, anger and frustration I was feeling hadn’t leaked into the email.

What, if anything do we gain?  Well, I have a pretty clear record of my concerns, evidence of a consistent balanced and reasonable communication with all schools and evidence that I communicated all of Peter’s difficulties with them.  It’s possible that this protected my from school alleging that I was vexatious but alternatively gave them evidence that I was well informed, fitting their idea that I might be fabricating Peter’s difficulties.

But this time it feels so different and it’s now clear to me that trying to help school staff to understand, when, infact they have no intention of ever understanding, is futile.  

I went on a third visit to the new school, this time to make a plan to transition Peter into the school.  Again I was pretty blown away by the effortless skill of the Head Teacher.  I reflected more on what it was that felt so different, and it’s like this:

  • I say something.
  • The Head Teacher accepts it.
    • That’s it.  No assumptions, judgements, no deciding what I must really mean is x, not y.  Really! I said something, the Head accepted it as fact and then…
  • In one apparently effortless moment she combined what I said with her expert knowledge and her knowledge of the school, an out pops some ideas to consider that combine what we can all contribute.

I can’t tell you how validating and powerful communication like this is.  The Head Teacher took what I said about my child and demonstrated her acceptance of this by taking it and building it directly into her communication about his needs to the other staff and also building it into the plans she was making.

Let me be clear.  This is absolutely NOT “Mum says so we will do”.  It is simply taking information about Peter’s needs from us and naturally, yet skilfully, incorporated them in with the observations ideas and experience of the rest of the team.

Looking back this is ahead of anything I could have hoped for.  18 months ago, in ‘The Book (It Must Be Mum)’ I wrote the following:

With regards to Peter I was reliant on the experts in education to work with experts in neurodevelopmental science so they could understand the nature of difficulties he was experiencing.
I wanted the educationalists to liaise with the health experts and then apply what they learnt about Peter’s attributes and difficulties to the school and classroom setting.  I imagined that this was what teachers did for children that sat outside of the ‘ordinary’.  This would have enabled Peter to feel safe at school and confident in his teachers so that he could build a trusting relationship with them. 

What can I learn from this?  It’s early days still, but having experienced how different communication can be, and with the reflection I have done to-date I would say that if a school his no intention of understanding, then all the careful, thoughtful, respectful and expert communication and information in the world will make no difference to the level of support that your child gets.

Whilst your child meets the teacher’s needs of a calm classroom and just enough progress (or enough so the rest can be fudged) their own needs will be overlooked.  Whilst their upset behaviour is either invisible, or can be blamed on ‘bad parenting’ then there will be no need to consider the child may have additional needs.

The new Head’s emails say things like ‘different to what we usually do – but it’s doable’ and ‘most children have a different routine around this’ – implying – yes you guessed it, individualised care.

Knowing what I know now I would write very brief emails and keep the rest of the information in a diary.  I would end each short email with ‘if you would like more information please let me know’… just in case, on the off-chance that this one may just want to know…

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6 thoughts on “Should Parents Write Long Emails? – The Difference a Skilled Head Teacher Can Make

  1. Very thought provoking post.

    It is not just the burden of having to write countless mentally draining letters, reports and emails that comes with the job description of being a SEND parent. In my experience, it is also the fact that there is no standardised practice regarding using that parental advice fully and effectively.

    There ARE schools who are great at this, but lack of standardised practice means that it is a lottery whether the parent happens to be in such a school when the difficulties start to arise.

    The issue is also compounded by the fact the parent will not only often be in a situation where they are forced into the role of having to write countless letters and emails, but to have to tell their story over and over and over again. We need to aim towards a “tell us once” approach.

    Thank you for writing this. I am working on a piece on these advocacy issues. xx

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  2. Just want to say that I think your letter was absolutely superb – very calm and professional, not at all patronising, just the kind of thing all the services write. That school clearly did not want to listen, did they! I’ve been lucky in having a school that mostly listened… they haven’t been perfect (I don’t think mainstream ever are, for kids like mine!) and they have been pretty awful on the communication front, but they have at least recognised his needs from the start and put in a great deal of effort to attempt to meet them. (Never mind that they have failed him in the end; he is now moving to a specialist school and I know just what you mean about the Head accepting everything you say!) I just go to pieces if I have to start writing to people and arguing my corner, so I’m very impressed with how strong and articulate you have stayed throughout your ordeal.

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