Time to communicate with parents


THE majority of parent/ teacher relationships are very good. Parents, teachers and pupils work well together and communicate with and respect one another.

However, I would suggest that there is one group of parents in every school who are perceived as "problem parents".

Yet, paradoxically these parents are rarely, if ever, seen in school. They never turn up for parent teacher meetings or appointments. I call them the "hidden parents" and often they are the parents whom teachers most need to meet. I think that we in schools need to consider how we treat them.

Is it possible that we attach labels to such parents or that their reputations precede them and we find it difficult to look at them objectively?

I would suggest that schools need to examine why such parents stay away and how we would treat them if they came. Have they had a bad experience with the school in the past?

And perhaps we need to ask ourselves what action has been taken to try and attract these parents and improve the relationship with them. What has happened on the odd occasion when such a parent has been persuaded to come along - how has the school treated them and did it learn from the experience?

We need to consider, too, if the school is flexible enough to accommodate such parents, whether we can make it easier for them.

Parents who are reluctant, or even refuse, to come to the school are often very sensitive and may have difficulty in communicating or presenting themselves in a public situation. Such parents often feel badly about themselves because of their lack of education, their employment situation, or their personal/social problems.

They often feel guilty about their children and do not believe that they can offer anything to the school that could contribute to their child's education. They need gentle, respectful handling and teachers need to utilise all of their patience and skills. They need to be persuaded that they can play a role in their children's education.

It is important for teachers to remember that, whatever the message is, these parents are entitled to their confidentiality and respect. They have the right to recognition as parents who love and value their children, irrespective of their personal history or our perceptions of their organisational and other skills. They have a right to a much of our time as we can give them. They need the empathy of teachers, their professional skills and their willingness to work with them, and, particularly their willingness to learn from them.

They also need feedback and reassurance from the very start. Teachers have got to make every effort to build a relationship with these parents.

It may be useful to explore the possibility of using parents who are regular visitors to school as a means of contacting the reluctant parents; it is also worth exploring whether the "hidden parents" take their children to school or drop off lunches for them. Contact could possibly be made with them at these times.

Home visits by the teacher are another option - though time consuming if there is not a home school liaison scheme in operation. A home visit has the advantage of perhaps clarifying for the school the difficulties which the parents and students are experiencing. Discussion may be easier for the parent on familiar ground and she or he may well then feel an obligation to reciprocate the visit.

Home visits are also fraught with danger and much depends upon the tact and discretion of the teacher. The visits should be seen as opportunities to get to know each other. One caveat is that home visits should never be used to make a complaint about a child. Some other excuse has to be found to call to the home.

Teachers must endeavour to convince parents of their need to communicate with them as parents and that they will have their confidentiality and their respect. This has also to be communicated to the children if we are to make any attempt to bridge the gap between home and school. We have to arrive at a common agenda whereby both parent and teacher start looking at the child in similar ways. It is time consuming. It is stressful. It is often heart breaking as efforts appear to be ignored or even dismissed. But, if we can open the lines of communication and start building a relationship between parent and school, the child will ultimately benefit.