Yet again I hear of a parent being informed (this time by a paediatrician) that they need to ‘work with school’ and so I feel the need to vent…
This is what almost all parents want more than anything else: to be able to work with WITH school (staff). There are a few things that need to be in place for this to happen though and where they are missing, it’s simply not appropriate to expect the parent to be able to fix it.
Firstly, and critically, to work WITH someone both parties need to want this to happen. There has to be a mutual respect: parents can approach staff with respect and a hopeful, open, attitude ready to work together but have no control over the personal qualities and views of the staff they are approaching, nor the culture within which they work.
Lessons 1 and 2.
To be able to ‘work with school’ parents need to be viewed respectfully and as equal partners by school staff.
School staff need to be supported within a culture that is conducive to this.
Next, anyone wishing to consider themselves as a professional working with families needs to be competent in the area of communication skills. They will need to be able to build a rapport with a variety of people easily and quickly. They must be able to develop trusting relationships with adults who have disabilities (diagnosed or not), those who have low confidence and those parents whose own level of competence may be higher, in fact, that theirs. School staff need to understand that each parent they meet with will have their own unique history that will inevitably impact on their ability to engage with them. They need to be able to work with that skilfully if they are to develop a trusting relationship and rapport. This is a level of competence that can be expected of someone wishing to be considered a ‘professional’.
Lessons 3 and 4
School staff need to be competent communicators with a wide variety of parents.
School staff need to be aware of the wider issues that may impact on the parents’ ability to engage with them and have the skills to adjust their approach as necessary.
Underlying these environmental conditions and individual competencies, a ‘professional’ needs to possess qualities such and confidence, humility and a genuine attitude of unconditional positive regard. Only with a secure and realistic level of confidence can staff demonstrate the necessary humility. Only with a genuine quality of unconditional positive regard will staff be able to genuinely engage the variety of parents they will meet.
Lessons 5 and 6
School staff need to be supported to develop a confidence that is appropriate to their skill level.
A deep and genuine sense of unconditional positive regard is essential to gain the confidence, trust and respect from parents from all backgrounds and abilities.
Very occasionally, we will come across a person whose extreme difficulties make it impossible for them to build effective working relationships with others, but I believe this is rare. It seems to me that generally when relationships with school staff break down, there will be a history of the parents trying desperately to be heard by staff whose own skills, attitude or support (from their senior leadership team) to enable them to engage with the variety of parents they meet is lacking. That is not to say it is easy, but that it either requires a level of skill that not all professionals can demonstrate or is not something that all want to achieve.
Parents can’t fix that.
Sometimes the parents’ own difficulties mean they require additional support, understanding and kindness before they can effectively contribute to discussions about their child. For these, the level of intervention from a person wishing to describe themselves as ‘professional’ should be adequate to develop an effective rapport.
I understand that the NHS staff involved in the care of our children are limited as to what they can do to alter the relationship a family has with a school team, however, expecting parents to be able to fix it is unfair in my opinion. It is not OK to simply advise them to ‘work with school’ when, for example, they have a traumatised 9 year old unable to leave the house and ‘school’ simply repeat the mantra “He is fine when he is here”. That’s not a starting point to work with, it’s an impenetrable wall that Donald Trump would be proud of.
A more helpful approach from the NHS staff would be for them to recognise fully and formally the efforts that the parents are making and then to: (1) record this fact clearly and then (2) to assertively document the child’s needs. This does not mean ‘telling school staff what to do’ it means advising and documenting clearly the needs our children have in all areas of their life in order to stay well. Just like I imagine they would for a child with a chronic physical health condition. Some examples are below:
- If our children struggle with transitions then they will always need a very high degree of consistent, predictable and reliable support around transitions.
“I have advised Joe’s parents that as he struggles with all transitions he will need a very high degree of support, consistent and predictable support for these”
- If our children struggle with social communication they will need adults available to them in all settings that understand their individual needs and have a trusted relationship with them. This is so they are not so reliant on using language to explain that they are struggling when they are anxious and unable to use language. This will be true of children with autism regardless of their sometimes impressive vocabulary.
“I have advised Joe’s parents that he will require, in all settings, a trusted adult who understands their needs and whom they can rely on for support. Without this, they may be unable to access them easily and experience unacceptable levels of distress”
- If our children are emotionally delayed they will need all interventions used to support them to reflect their actual emotional stage, not their chronological age.
“I have advised Joe’s parents that he will need to be supported in all settings in line with his stage of emotional development which I estimate is about 3 years delayed.
This is not telling school staff what to do. This is making recommendations about the support and care a child needs in all settings.
Please stop making us responsible for things we cannot control!
More on unconditional positive regard here: https://itmustbemum.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/how-we-can-help-each-other/
More on emotional delay here: https://itmustbemum.wordpress.com/2017/01/24/when-equal-treatment-is-not-fair-treatment/