Many teachers and school leaders are finding that what they thought was a basic meeting with parents about their child’s progress or behaviour shifts significantly when a parent reveals the difficulties they are encountering at home or in their personal life.
Often the level of assistance required is outside the skillset of educators, but parents will benefit from a sensitive and supportive response from their child’s school.
Recognise vulnerable families and difficult situations
Parents are particularly vulnerable when one or more of the following factors occurs in their family:
- experience of family breakdown;
- substance abuse of a family member;
- experience of trauma or mental illness;
- experience of a death in the family;
- during children’s transitional stages;
- having special needs child;
- having a child with significant behavioural problems;
- sudden or significant change;
- experience of family chaos.
When working with such parents or with parents experiencing distress you need to borrow some basic skills and protocols from the counselling discipline.
1. Keep accurate records of all interactions
Record-keeping is essential for accountability purposes so makes sure you record date of meeting and keep details of who was present, as well as key discussion points, recommendations and referrals and follow-up activities.
2. Be prepared to listen
It’s not your job to solve their problems but you can listen to their story and their concerns. You may be the first person whom they have divulged important facts to so confidentiality and trust are two critical issues. Similarly you may be the only person they talk with so your sensitivity will be appreciated.
3. Avoid overloading them
Troubled parents still want to help their children so avoid overloading them with too much work to do, if they have revealed their vulnerabilities during a conference about their child’s learning or behaviour. Work on one or two manageable areas rather than trying to fix too much and overwhelming them.
4. Consider having someone else present at the meeting
Think carefully about whether you need to have other people present in a meeting if you know beforehand that the personal and family issues will be discussed. You might suggest that the parent be accompanied by a professional, family member or friend if they need someone to be their advocate. As a rule of thumb, only have as many people present as is absolutely necessary rather to keep the meeting intimate and personal.
5. Refer them to the support they need
It’s important to know the limits of your ability to help and be ready to refer parents on to either professional levels of assistance, or informal support such as family or other parents within the school community. Be mindful of the fact that many vulnerable parents lack social networks and may need special assistance to provide them with the support they need.
Most teachers and school leaders operate automatically from an educative mindset – which is basically about informing and upskilling. Working with vulnerable and at risk parents requires a shift in mindset to include listening, supporting and referring, which are all good counselling skills.
Remember if your school is a Parentingideas School you can get easy-to-read, supportive articles to help parents as well as great advice and tips to help teacher manage, support and engage with all parents in your school community. Not a Parentingideas School? Find out how to become a member.