By Ceri Reed and Catrina Lowri
‘Research from Ofsted finds poor relationships with parents can add significantly to low morale and poor wellbeing in teaching’ (Independent Education today, 2019).
On reading this article by Julian Owen on the importance of school and parent relationships, I was compelled to put pen to paper - not only to reiterate the benefit of positive relationships for parents but the ripple effect of these relationships on our children and young people. It is important that the adults in a learner’s life model positive relationships because, as Clinical Psychologist Dr Karen Treismann stated, ‘serve and return interactions provide guiding principles from which children learn and trust and safety’.
It thus felt right to coproduce a blog with a teacher. So I extended the invitation to Catrina Lowri, a neurodiversity specialist, who gladly took up the offer to not only share the teacher perspective but to join me in demonstrating the power of partnerships! A display of our own serve and return.
Catrina and I have forged a relationship through a shared interest in neurodiversity and vision to end school exclusion. The ADHD Foundation report that 70% of exclusions are related to ADHD behaviours but still there is inadequate support across services. Other exclusions are related to behaviours linked to trauma and those from lower socioeconomic groups. We believe that there needs to be a shift away from the blame culture and a move towards relational approaches in understanding that behaviour is a form of communication, an unmet need, a cry for help. Relational approaches are also important within schools, as Dr Karen Treismann also points out that organisations need to ensure their staff feel held, heard and safe as the ripple effect will impact on communities. How can we expect teachers to build bridges with families if their own needs are not being met?
This reflection on the importance of relationships between services and families has been framed by the T4CYP programme (NHS Wales Collaborative) which launched its NEST/NYTH framework focussing on collaboration, early help and enhanced support. The programme holds a clear vision of building a caring environment where families experiencing trauma and neurodiversity (amongst other needs) will no longer have to hunt down services but will receive holistic support through a needs led no wrong door approach. We look forward to watching the development of this framework within services over time.
In addition, the embedding of the whole school approach, new ALN Code and new curriculum for Wales, ensures we remain hopeful that our children will be able to achieve their full potential. These frameworks are respectful of learners’ needs, of the classroom training required by education staff, acknowledging of schools’ expertise to serve their local communities and, of course, a focus on whole school community wellbeing. Relationships will be fundamental to these frameworks and the benefits of positive connections do not just improve well-being. Research by the University of Sussex in 2017 found positive school to parent/family relationships correlated with higher academic achievement. What’s not to like here?
As a parent of children with neurodiversity and experience of school related anxiety, often termed school refusal, I know only too well how important positive school relationships are for families. I know how essential early help for neurodiversity/emotional well-being is to prevent an escalation in issues and that respectful relationships facilitate open communication benefiting all involved. Learners witnessing a positive serve and return between their parents and school trust the process, hear the positive language at home and this becomes an intervention in itself.
So, I asked Catrina, what are the main barriers that schools and teachers face in meeting the needs of learners that creates a fractured relationship with parents, how does this affect the teachers themselves and how we can we, together, overcome them?
Over to Catrina....
It’s a big question to answer however I think there are a number of things that schools could do in order to improve their relationship with parents when it becomes difficult. The first and most important thing for schools to remember is that sometimes parents have had very difficult experiences of schools themselves. This may especially be the case of the parent is neurodiverse. As neurodiversity affects around one and five members of the population and tends to be hereditary in most cases there is often a good chance that neurodiverse children have one or more neurodiverse parents. This is a factor is often overlooked by schools and could be one of many reasons why parents find the school environment intimidating.
So-called hard to reach families, (those from lower socio-economic backgrounds may have a number of neurodiverse or social emotional and mental health needs) often have a culture whereby school is believed to be an unfriendly, adversarial, and negative place. It is a well-known fact that exclusion, be it self-exclusion in the form of anxious not attending or exclusion due to behavioural factors tends to be common in these sorts of families. Indeed, when teachers are surveyed, they often say they can predict the children who may be subject to exclusion or have attendance issues even when the child is as young as four years old and in reception (Samaritans 2018). And yet we persist in feeling completely helpless because in many cases we, as educators are unable to give the early help which we would so desperately like to be able to do.
More recently in my own work, I have seen a significant rise in the number of children affected by exclusion (school or self -exclusion), over the last six years. This is partly because the curriculum in England where I currently work changed from one which offered a range of vocational subjects to one with a much more narrow, academic base. This this was not suited to the types of learners who I usually support i.e., those with autism, ADHD and other related neurodiverse conditions. What has been interesting and somewhat alarming, is that now the demographic has widened to include children who are from a large number of middle-class and better educated households. Indeed, changing curriculum has correlated with an 85% increase in the number of fixed term and permanent exclusions in school (Curriculum Wide 2021). Although correlation does not equal causation it is an interesting statistic and one which has yet to be examined by the Department of Education.
One would assume that middle-class families have a more positive attitude towards schooling and teachers as a whole profession. Yet, time over time I have seen breakdowns in communication between schools and these supposedly pro education families. So, what is going wrong?
I think that both schools and related professionals often underestimate the level of stress exclusion and anxious not attending can cause individuals and their families. Educators forget that children spend most of their life at home and neurodiverse children are particularly good at masking in schools. The phenomenon of neuro diverse burnout which is caused by excessive masking is not as widely understood amongst the teaching profession as one would like it to be. I often hear educators comment that he or she is “fine in school”. It can be tempting for schools to blame the parents indeed there is an entire system of fines available to punish parents for their children’s poor attendance. Even according to the Department for Justice own figures these fines are only effective in around 1% of cases. But merely the threat of fining a family who are finding it difficult to get there highly distressed, neurodiverse child or teenager to school is enough to cause the relationship between parents and schools to breakdown. In short, the system of fining is divisive.
And what affect can this have upon the teachers themselves? Well as Ceri mentioned earlier, the evidence suggests that poor relationship with parents can cause added stress to educators. I know myself that I have often lay awake at night worrying about my students and wishing that I had a better relationship with their families. My 21 years of experience have taught me to tread lightly with families who are going through the distress of having a child close to exclusion or with attendance issues. I received no formal training in what to do in these difficult situations, however I have been fortunate enough to have training in relation of practice, which although ostensibly designed to help with relationships between ourselves and our students, it can be applied to relationships with other members of staff and parents who are having a tricky time of it. I think perhaps this could offer an answer. Were all staff trained in active listening and relational practice I believe relationships between teachers, other educators and parents would be less likely to breakdown and that any rupture in communication could quickly be overcome.
Moreover, it would also be useful for parents to receive some information about relational practice. Schools are all too quick to recommend parenting classes usually is a way to gain a step towards that all-important diagnosis. Or as a way of ruling out concerns about whether the issue really is a home one rather than a school one. If schools were to consider inviting parents to any training, they may undertake in relation of practice it may be a really useful way to co-create better communication and therefore better support for the child or young person in question.
Another approach which can be useful, is to be pre-emptive and think about relationships with the parent body in a more holistic sense. In many parts of Cardiff and other cities schools have dedicated members of staff such as parent engagement teachers or family liaison officers who engage with parents. This usually starts with organising social activities so that schools can get to know how to reach parents in a less formal setting. Some excellent examples which I have seen have been working with a local café to make ice cream sundaes with your child or soapmaking and other craft activities which draw the parents in to the school community without any mention about the school’s concern for the child’s learning or well-being. Indeed, in some areas of the capital city there are schools who run cafés or shops on the school premises so that parents can meet for a chat and socialise after school drop-off or before picking up. Thereby implanting the idea that school is a friendly place at the heart of the community. This has the added advice that should the family or the child get into some kind of difficulty the parents will see the school as the first point of call rather than dreading any meeting which may be arranged. Successful heads and senior leaders recognise that community liaison is an intrinsic part of making sure that you have your parent body on board. As one Head said to me “Creating a school community starts with tea and samosas. But ends with creating a culture of mutual acceptance and understanding.” And isn’t that exactly what we want from our schools?
The next layer of parental engagement is getting families to become involved in their children’s learning. If they become involved, then they soon become invested and once they become invested, they start to see the value of education. The same innovative schools that run parental cafés also run fun, engaging learning-based activities that parents can do with their child on the school premises. This may include non-academic practical activities such as gardening or cookery. Parents may be encouraged to come along and join in with the school sports or dance lesson. And many schools also run read fairy tales with your child or teach your child money skills lessons for parents, grandparents and carers. Such projects have been particularly effective with families where the parents have never had negative experiences of school. Some parental engagement teachers report that in running a mathematics or literacy session for children the parents may improve their own numeracy and English skills. But perhaps the most important side-effect of these activities is that parents realise that teachers and educators are on their side so that when something does go wrong the relational aspect of the work that has been put in in the foundation of these relationships pays off.
Ideally schools would also have volunteers amongst the parent body who would help out with such activities as organising the school fete or carrying out paired reading with younger students. I am reminded of one school I worked at with a very mixed socio-economic demographic, where a child’s great grandfather came in and did paired reading with the children in his class. That same relative had been volunteering at the school every Friday for over 20 years and had seen over a generation of children come through the classroom where he worked. The school also used his knowledge when they wanted to do some work around changing the culture and values of their school. His unique perspective helps the headteacher and senior leadership to spot how the culture of the school had changed over the decades, retain what was going well and improve upon areas which needed work. When his great-grandchild ran into attendance difficulty in class, due to undiagnosed neurodiversity, he was able to reassure parents that the school had things in hand because he had been in the classroom where his great-grandchild was taught and therefore could provide what was seen as a neutral viewpoint.
Such relationships are precious and should be treasured and upheld by schools. But the nuance here is that schools need to look for volunteers who do not come from just one demographic such as middle-class stay at home parents but look at the community more widely and think about whether they can engage fathers, foster carers, older siblings and grandparents from a wide variety of socio-economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. In short, the volunteer body should reflect the community in which the school finds itself. The same could also be said of the staff and teachers at the school. Headteachers need to consider ways to attract educators who is ethnic and socio-economic background reflects the community they serve.
I’ve left the most important point to last because I have a lot to say on this matter. Culture and ethos need to be the most important thing to uphold at any school. The local community should have a very clear understanding of exactly what is the values of the school are. Parents will know the reputation that a school has well before the children start to attend there, especially if they have grown up or lived in the local area for some time. If the school is perceived as being inclusive with an open-door policy to parents, Friends and community activists, then engagement good relationships are far easier to build. There is a well-known saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast. In short if the school does not have an open and inclusive and friendly culture, then leadership and management can put all of the interventions in place and yet they still will not enjoy a good relationship with parents and carers. Rachel Tomlinson a highly successful Head from the north of England describes her school as having an ethos of love. Many heads but not be bold enough to say this as there is a belief, particularly amongst those who subscribed to behaviouralist principles that it isn’t a school’s place to love its students. It could be more palatable to some to consider the idea of unconditional positive regard which is a philosophy first coined by the psychologist Carl Rogers. His humanist belief was that all people have equal value and should be held in unconditional positive regard regardless of their behaviour and needs. Indeed, this assertion is central to many relational practitioners such as those who founded the wellspring Academy trusts in the north of England. The culture amongst this chain of schools is that all children are held in positive regard as are all members of staff. As a result, they have been highly successful in working in communities which previously had poor parental engagement due to the high level of behaviours of concern.
The golden thread which runs through this blog is that in order to have good relationships with parents’ schools need to be friendly, accommodating and relational. Rather than being a simple phrase above the door, the school ethos needs to be deeply embedded and parents need to see the school as lying at the heart of the community. Professionals need to be trustworthy and work with parents and children and young people to co create a situation in which even the most vulnerable young person can feel safe and respected. This is simple but not necessarily easy. It can take between three and five years the change of school culture however the repercussions of this hard work will last for more than a generation and indeed if we really want the schools of the future, we need to use Cathedral thinking. There are no quick fixes in education.