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Rules of (parental) engagement in secondary schools

The relationships you’ll have with parents aren’t so different from those you establish with pupils, says Peter Nelmes – just focus on needs, be positive and listen...

  • Rules of (parental) engagement in secondary schools

Being able to create shared meanings with the pupils in your classroom is fundamental to successful teaching and learning. Creating positive connections with parents will significantly increase your ability to do so. The same principles apply to both sets of relationships.

Firstly, the relationship you have with a pupil’s parents has to work. If it’s not working, the teacher is responsible for managing it so that it does. The last thing you want is for parents to feel a sense of dread when your number comes up on their phone.

The more common ground you can create, the better. The pupil in your class is a child both in the home and in the community, so try and create a sense of all being part of that community. Find other things you have in common, and ensure your conversations aren’t solely confined to matters of the classroom.

Don’t let cultural factors become a hindrance to shared meanings. Different groups of people will not only use language differently, but also have different views about what constitutes appropriate personal space, amount of eye contact and so on. Don’t just accommodate such diversity – celebrate it.

Cut through

It’s also important to not make your needs the primary focus of your dialogue.

If a child behaves in such a way that it impacts on your ability to teach, there are people who can help you with that; the child’s parents are there for the child’s needs, not yours.

Any such behaviour should be discussed in a way that’s objective, and with hope and ideas for positive change that will benefit the pupil’s ability to learn.

Clear the way for positive shared meanings to be made. Are there situations that need defusing? Do parents feel blamed or shamed, either for themselves or for their child? You have to cut through all this and show that you have the child’s best interests at heart.

If you succeed, it may be that parents who might have spent years feeling guilty about their child’s behaviour will feel a huge weight lifted from their backs.

Similarly, however, don’t be stymied by diagnoses (‘Well, of course, he’s got that ADHD, so what can you do?’) or myths (‘Girls always fight nastier than boys’). Keep your focus on the child’s needs.

Take the opportunity to see the whole child, and use your discussions with parents to help you understand how the child relates to the world.

Who do they affiliate with? What is their sense of purpose? What are their ambitions? What ‘soft’ skills will they need to learn in order to realise their dreams, and how can these be taught within your lesson?

Avoid deficits

Ensure that there’s a positive and common sense of purpose. If there have been problems, it may be that some goals need to be reset.

If a child has attention-seeking behaviours in half of their lessons, for example, come up with strategies for increasing the amount of time they’re engaging appropriately from 50% to to 60%.

Then find an objective way of measuring this, report on it and celebrate that small step of progress. Don’t allow a sense of deficit to predominate.

If you feel that the parent is the reason for the child’s problems, you should still apply the above strategies and identify a starting point that doesn’t put anyone in deficit.

I find that the most effective strategy for the most difficult parents is often to simply to listen without judgement, whilst keeping the child’s best interests at the centre of the agenda.

Relationships with parents are ultimately just like relationships with pupils, in that the number of positive communications should vastly outnumber the discussions focusing on more difficult subjects.

The more positivity there is, the easier it will be to have tricky conversations when they need to happen. Just as it is when dealing with pupils, keeping things positive is hard work sometimes, but nowhere near as hard as dealing with things when they’re going wrong.


Peter Nelmes is a senior manager in a special school and the author of Troubled Hearts, Troubled Minds: Making Sense of the Emotional Dimension of Learning.

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