On Thursday I read this article by Tracy Townrow on ‘Building bridges with disengaged parents’. It was a good article but it made me uncomfortable nonetheless and highlighted me the very real power differences between the two key agencies that are supposed to be working in partnership for the best interests of the child. It reminded me very much of the Channel Tunnel memes that were circulated during its development where the French and the English sides had worked hard on the tunnel from their perspective ends, but completely missed each other. In response, I wrote the following:
I work as an unpaid carer for a child with Autism, who attends an ASD resource in an Outer London Primary school. At age 9, this is his 8th Educational Placement. I am often asked, how I engaged with teachers through such challenging circumstances.
It’s a common question, and one that needs greater focus, because so much of a child’s education is affected by their school situation.
Ensuring an appropriate environment is a concern for a lot of parents, as is attitude and experience of the type of inclusion that sees children with SEN as equal amongst their peers. Incidences of bullying and projected rational for behaviours by staff as well as unofficial exclusions have a massive impact on a child’s ability to concentrate in class.To make things harder, many teachers were not taught to be teachers of SEN and have a lack of confidence in their ability, and some feel it should not be within their remit.
Parents often find that when they do try to help, they are met with; ‘Leave it to us, we’re the experts’. I find that respect, understanding, patience, caring and listening are often inadequate methods to win teachers’ trust. But even so, here are some of the strategies I have used:
Meet and greet in the mornings
Most mornings smile at the people you are handing over your child to, in an attempt to build a relationship in a non-threatening way. Try to get to know the names of the teachers and chat informally to establish a common ground. Once familiar with seeing you, some teachers will build up the courage to approach you to ask about strategies for your child or get some advice. Most won’t.
Always attend IEP meetings (if offered. If not, request one but expect to be refused). This shows that you consider yourself a partner in your child’s education. If a teacher raises an issue, ask them what solutions they have tried or are attempting. Allow them to talk freely. If they have no strategies, thank them for their honesty, offer to think about it and get back to them or suggest that it might be sensible to get input from an outside agency.
It is important that actions are agreed on both sides. Your role as guardian with legal responsibility for your child’s wellbeing and education, is to ensure schools follow through with these.
During the visit try to get as much information as the teacher is willing to share: this means using open-ended questions about the topics you have agreed to discuss. For example, when discussing attendance, your opening could be: “We’ve agreed that Bob’s attendance has slipped recently. Let’s see if we can work out together what might be causing this. Talk me through the class morning routine?” This requires more than just a yes or no answer, and allows the teacher to share likely stress or behaviour triggers.
Experience has taught me though, that teachers will rarely open up about much more serious issues once you have shown you are willing to help with something more minor. But it is a good start and worth trying all the same.
Prove you are not a threat
What do you do when they don’t communicate with you, or tell you they can’t make a meeting, or don’t need your help? Well you can try patience and persistence but if teachers try to put you off either by avoiding you or telling you they don’t need help, then it is no good seeking them out in the playground and sharing positive information about your child’s progress over several days. You will be accused of harassment. The truth is you are a threat to their time and their budget in a way other families are not.
Agree on a plan and stick to it
Once it is clear what needs to change, it is important that actions are agreed on both sides. Your role is to ensure schools follow through with these and to challenge them if they don’t. Gentle encouragement can work – but most of the time you will need to take a firm stand, with written reminders. Do not give these daily or you will be accused of being vexatious and communications will be cut off. If there are attendance issues, you can remind the teacher that you are looking forward to their implementation of the agreed strategies and speak to them at the end of the day. If this doesn’t have the desired effect you cannot contact the teacher in any way half an hour before as you will not have any direct contact details for them. If you involve other services to make sure school gets the right support, don’t expect the school to automatically follow the expert advice or allow you to accompany the expert on the first visit.
Top Trumps and Heads Up
Generally, you will have absolutely no idea whether your child is being worked with one-on-one for provision their statement or EHCP binds the school to. They will have policies, written and unwritten that make difficult for the teacher to go against such as ‘We believe one-to-one stifles independence’. If your child has social communication difficulties they will be unable to tell you about this and as such they are at a huge and unequal disadvantage compared to their peers when it comes to parental advocacy. Use of resources can help a little with this. The card game Top Trumps is a favourite and while playing you can talk to the child about any issues affecting them and how they’re getting on. Because the focus is on the game and not their language difficulties, children feel much more relaxed and are less anxious about their language performance.
Keep logs and records
Information recording is key so that every communication or promise that is made about your child to you is recorded, with date, time and with the name of the person who communicated. Ideally, a follow-up thank you email (if you are allowed the address. Most primaries do not give this to parents.) or letter to clarify what has been promised or agreed, helps schools to stay focussed. If you have any concerns or queries, these are also better done in writing, and all meetings should have minutes that you have signed as an accurate record.
Offer children a safe place
Offer your child regular protected opportunities to feedback to you about their experiences at school. This is a safe time where vulnerable children or children who may have experienced traumatic situations at school can get a bit of nurturing. You can start by sitting at the table, colouring in different pictures while chatting about our likes or dislikes, maybe what we did at the weekend. While chatting sometimes a child will make a disclosure. There is absolutely no point in raising this with the child protection officer if your child has SEN or communication difficulties. It is also true that what might be termed as abusive for a child without SEN, just isn’t considered in the same way for children with SEN. You have no choice but to consider removing your child from the school and finding an alternative placement or to Home Educate.
I am lucky to have met some truly excellent professionals during our journey to what is currently, in my opinion, outstanding ASD provision. Those who accept inreach from parents as well as offering outreach, who do give out their personal phone numbers and email addresses and who have a genuine open-door policy and an expectation that families take ultimate responsibility for the education of their children and provide the information and communication for them to do so.
Anyone who reads this might protest ‘but we mean disengaged parents, not parents like you who clearly aren’t’. Well we have been disengaged, and to the extent that we left the school system entirely. What won us back wasn’t professionals telling us what was good for us, but professionals who listened genuinely to what we told them was good for us and who compromised to try to deliver that. We compromised too, of course!