Starting the Dialogue: A Teacher’s Advice to Parents

Success TriangleIt was with a considerably arched brow that I read recently about how The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) have issued guidelines to parents on managing problematic behaviours in their children.  As a teacher, I have long been an advocate of collaborating with parents, not only on the ins and outs of academic success, but also in terms of behaviour management and developing resilient and characterful children.

It is absolutely clear that success in education does not just come from parental understanding of the finer points of an English APP grid.  Quite often, schools approach parental collaboration with a half hearted nod towards sharing academic resources and fulfilling statutory requirements to keep them informed as to how access the Ofsted Data Dashboard.  I have heard conversations in the last ten years that start with a moan about how if only teachers could get parents to manage their own children and end with the inevitable: “but I don’t have time to set up a parental engagement session in which we discuss how to set boundaries and encourage co-operation!”

We can’t have it both ways.  If we are going to comment on parental engagement as teachers, we have to be willing to have an open dialogue about what children – students – need to become successful adults.  This means biting the proverbial bullet and dealing with the fact that this dialogue can be painfully awkward.  As a teacher, I am allowed to say “your child is not behaving in a respectful or productive way” or “I am setting a sanction for undesirable behaviours” but when it comes to providing advice to parents on what I think they should do, that is when the awkwardness begins.

Fundamentally, the fact that I am not a parent works against me and in conversations with parents, I have faced that knowing smile (slightly sad, perhaps even pitying) that says: how can you possibly know what it is like to raise a child and all the difficulties that brings?

My response, never spoken aloud, is always the same.  All I do is raise children.  They come to my classroom as eleven year olds and they leave as eighteen years olds and for that time, I am partly responsible for their upbringing.  Not only do I see them through their silly seasons, their traumas, their successes, I see each and every one of them standing next to other children with other parents.  The full range.

I think if teachers had just one opportunity to stand up to the nation and give advice to parents, they would probably all say very similar things.  There are many parents out there who are brilliant at doing all those things – this is not intended to generalise about parents’ ability to raise their offspring.  So, in the spirit of sharing and dispelling the awkwardness and to start a dialogue, this is what I want to say to parents.

Talk with your child

It is not easy maintaining dialogue with a teenager.  I, too, have seen sulking and unresponsive stares.  As an English teacher, I see that the most literate children – the ones who go on to achieve the highest grades, are the ones whose parent/s talk with them.  I say ‘with’ deliberately, because I have also seen a lot of talking ‘at’ and that doesn’t necessarily work if it used all the time.  Children switch off and become immune to lectures, they are much more responsive to carefully considered questions.  Suffice to say that the talking must begin early.  All the research shows that modelling speech and conversation at an early age leads to more literate and successful children.  Shouting parents almost always lead to shouting children.

Follow through with sanctions

If your child does do something you do not approve of, or is misbehaving at school and you set a sanction, it is imperative that you follow through with that sanction.  Sitting in a meeting with your child’s teacher and saying that you will take away the X-Box/ground them for a week/stop them watching TV and then caving at the first tantrum or sulk just means they will keep on with the negative behaviour.  There is nothing more frustrating than when a teacher has a meeting with parents and is told about the sanctions that will be put in place, only to find that student gloating about how they have not had any consequences at home.  Teachers are told constantly to be consistent and firm with behaviour and sanctions; it would be brilliant if this could happen at home too.

Don’t give up

There is an oppressive sense of despair when I hear the words: “I can’t do anything with them – they won’t listen to me anymore – I give up” from a parent.  The simple fact is that if you as a parent have given up, then there is very little hope that I am going to be able to turn things around, at school or indeed, at home.  I want to be able to work with you to ensure the best outcome for the child – and yes, I can help to make things better, but if a parent washes his/her hands of a child, we may as well go for that early bath.  The thing is, I also know that even though the words are said, it is very rare that a parent actually does wash their hands of their child.  But the damage often comes from a child hearing those words.  It offers carte blanche to a child to continue behaving in the way they are, whether that be not completing homework, or arguing with teachers.

It’s not about success, it’s about effort

Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University conducted a large-scale programme of research into the psychology of praise.  The findings were incredibly clear – children who were praised for effort outperformed those who were praised for success.  The day in, day out praise from a parent needs to be focused not on how clever the child is, but on how hard they work.  This is something my colleagues and I are starting to recognise and see the results of – children who are praised for effort become more resilient and are more likely to pick themselves back up from failure.  The biggest issue I see with my teenagers is the fear of failure; it often manifests itself in the child not even attempting to start something that is perceived as difficult, because that is easier than failing and trying again.  Parents can help their children to overcome this fear by praising their effort and showing them that hard work is more important than success.  Until it comes to the final examinations, of course.

Don’t blame me

The most divisive and destructive thing a child can see is a parent publicly blaming the school or an individual teacher for any problem that has occurred.  When I call parents in for a meeting, chances are I have to squeeze it into a busy day.  I am not there because I have some sort of antipathy for that particular child – I want to move forward.  If a child sees a parent criticise a teacher, that division is set.  By all means, disagree with me and my methods – tell me you think I am wrong, but not in front of the student.  You will remove any respect that student has for me and if that is the case, how can I be expected to maintain the performance of that child and to ensure that rules and regulations are kept?  In many ways, it is exactly the same thing as criticising your spouse’s interaction with your child in front of them.  One parent attacking the other’s ability to parent in front of the children is seen as destructive; it is just as much so when you make it clear to your child that you do not respect that teacher enough to speak to them privately.

Get involved with the school

My biggest hope is that more parents feel they can become involved with the school their child attends.  Lots of research has shown that parental engagement and involvement means different things to schools and parents.  Fathers often feel marginalised as parent activities in schools can be perceived as being geared towards women, some parents do not feel they can access services the school offers for parents for fear of stigmatisation.  One of the most difficult barriers in engaging parents is often their own experience of education.  I firmly believe that schools have to find ways to engage with parents productively, as studies show that children of parents who are involved with the school not only outperform other students, but also have better attendance and behaviour.

If your school has a parents’ association, try to join it.  Be proactive about contacting teachers – show that the dialogue is open.  Attend school events, where you can, with your children.  It is not easy; working hours often mean that parents find it incredibly difficult to attend evening events.  I have a lot of respect for working parents who manage to get into the school for concerts and parents’ evenings alike.

There, I’ve started the conversation.  I look forward to working with you.

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8 Comments

  1. Even as a parent I feel the conversation would be a difficult one, perhaps even more so than not having them. By offering advice I’d be saying I’m a perfect parent with a perfectly behaved child! How about putting the advice up in the school reception?! Great post, Bennie,

  2. Hello Bennie! Another brilliant and thought-provoking piece! Funnily enough, I’ve just been at a meeting today to discuss a training event that is designed to explore parental engagement – as above, would you mind if I share and signpost with colleagues?

    I love the idea of continuing the conversation that you’ve started!

  3. i’ with you completely on the “setting sanctions and sticking to them” – every single programme on TV about problem children its always the behaviour of the parents that they focus on first – one problem you hint at though is the parent who insists either a) who are you to tell me how to raise my kid, or b) as per the parent on local news whose kid had been sent home for slapping a teacher “it’s not my fault he’s evil” (that one still gives me nightmares)

  4. also – a few years ago on Halloween there was a knock on the door and i opened it to a drunk man in a tattered shirt. He made a joke about having been in an accident and then went into the trick or treat routine. I offered the kid that was with him two sweets and he said to the very polite kid “don’t be so f*&g greedy”

    I wonder how you open a dialogue with the sort of parents who leave their children in such company

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