Sunday, 9 October 2011

Working with Parents

Meeting with Charlie's Mum

One of the most difficult aspects of working with disruptive adolescents is ensuring the support and cooperation of parents. Quite often, and rightly so, parents ask really difficult questions in meeting about their child and often I see teachers and counsellors come out of meetings frustrated and despondent.

"It is as if Charlie's mum doesn't believe that we really do want to find a solution for his problems," I remember a colleague saying. "She thinks we are in a conspiracy against him, despite praising us for the quality education his elder sister received at school."

This ambiguity in parents' perception of how we work with their children is most often the source of teacher frustration in working alongside parents to help the disruptive adolescent.

Developing Trust
Developing trust is the most important aspect in building a cooperative relationship with Charlie's parents. Remember, parents do not see what teachers see, both physically and in the eye of the mind. Be gentle with their dreams for Charlie; these dreams are sacrosanct.

As teachers, we often have the reputation of being target-driven and uncompromising. (Another thing we have to keep in mind is the residual perceptions that parents have, based on their own experiences of school.) Keep in mind that you have to establish a sense of professionalism amidst such views.

Be Prepared
Walking into a meeting with Charlie's parents unprepared is the biggest mistake you can make. Armed only with speculation and anecdotal evidence about Charlie's rude and abusive behaviour does not establish trust and a sense of professionalism.

Keep clear and sufficient records of Charlie's Special Education Needs, support provided, incident records and previous meetings. Also check Round Robin reports from teachers about Charlie; remember that under the Freedom of Information Act, parents and carers are allowed to see documentation regarding their child. Sarcasm and sardonic comments do not speak of professionalism.

Timely Communication
Do not wait until Charlie's disruptive behaviour becomes untenable before you initiate communication with parents. Prevention is better than cure and in many cases the child's behaviour in class is an indication that the situation at home or in the community has changed.

In cases where the news of disruptive behaviour was left too late, parents feel overwhelmed by the large number of incidents, paperwork and sheets of evidence. With modern communication, sending an e-mail or even a text message is quick and easy. A word of warning, though: it is always best to pre-agree with Charlie's parents that these modes of communication will be sufficient to stay in touch about their child's progress.

A Balanced Approach
Parents need to know that you know their child. Traditional advice is to always start with a positive before you present the problems. This approach can often sound a bit manufactured and it is important that you do actually know something about Charlie's personality, likes, dislikes and hobbies. A short discussion to find out a bit more about these hobbies is positive and friendly, and can take the place of the insincere "Charlie said good morning to a teacher today, that was really nice" and then laying into the list of rude comments made by Charlie.

Teachers often find it difficult to know where to start talking about the problem areas, as we can be very aware of the impact of such a discussion on the parent or carer. I always try to relate the disruptive behaviour to age-appropriate behaviour. This is often difficult when we look at typical adolescent mood swings and their drive for respect and independence. Often a juxtaposition between acceptance and independence is at the heart of the BESD behaviour. However, never be shy to place emphasis on high expectations of behaviour and achievement and acceptable social behaviour with in the school setting.

Share Responsibility
To help Charlie focus on academic progress and social skills, his tutor has placed him on a daily report with three or four SMART targets. At the beginning of each lesson Charlie gives the report to the subject teacher and at the end of the lesson the teacher rates the progress on these targets. A 1 represents minimal progress and a 5 represents "target reached", with gradual progress in between. Ideally the teacher and Charlie have a short discussion about the outcome before moving to the next lesson.

The best way to share responsibility between Charlie, his mum and his teachers is to each set a target for the daily report. At the end of every day, Charlie reports back to his tutor and his mum on the progress made on his report.

Charlie's parents believe that he should face consequences for his poor behaviour and the tutor suggested that Charlie and his mum choose the appropriate sanctions for disruptive behaviour.

Empathy v. Strategy
Teachers are constantly driven by strategies, targets and expectations of management. Parents see this target-driven approach as counterproductive in their expectations of how we work with their children.  As teachers we should never forget to consider the social and emotional factors that have an influence in the "real world" the disruptive adolescent lives in. Empathy and flexibility within the strategy is one of the key features of developing a sustainable working relationship with Charlie's mum.

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