Building relationships with parents

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Establishing outstanding attendance can only be done with the support of your parents. In this article, Alex Colclough provides ideas for building relationships and practical steps you can take to form a successful partnership with them.

Summary

  • It’s important to spend time building trust and relationships.
  • You should work closely with others in the school and with external support to build on the knowledge they have.
  • Being accessible and visible can help to break down the barriers that can exist.

A quick online search reveals the types of issues a school’s attendance officer may encounter on a daily basis when attempting to meet the needs of vulnerable pupils. Issues range from pre-existing medical conditions and hospital appointments to children within families under police protection. In some cases, parents may suffer from physical or mental health conditions which may make it a challenge to get everyone into school.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach here; there’s no handbook or checklist or entirely comprehensive guidance to ensure that, as the attendance officer, you are doing all you can. The official guidance has been updated as of July 2019 to outline for schools and local authorities the instances and register codes for a variety of reasons why a child may not be in school. That’s a starting point but where do we go next?

Relationships

The answer, as with many issues in school, lies within the relationships you have with your children and families. Only you can describe, in your setting, what your particular barriers to good attendance for vulnerable pupils are. Only you can describe, in your setting, who those vulnerable pupils are and why they are vulnerable.

The next step is to ensure that you and your leadership team understand what your data is telling you: which children are persistently absent (PA) 90%, which are falling below the worrying 85% mark and most importantly, why.

A note of caution here. The reasons sometimes given by parents or carers (if one is given at all) can be misleading, full-truths, half-truths, downright lies and everything in between – which brings me back to that all important word: relationships. You cannot begin to meet the attendance needs of your most vulnerable pupils if you haven’t spent time building trusting and reciprocal relationships with their families. Whether you are fortunate enough to be part of a large pastoral team or not, here are some suggestions. 

1 Find your team in school

This might include the headteacher, the senior leadership team, the SENCO, the pastoral manager and the emotional literacy support assistant (ELSA). All of these people will have useful ‘intelligence’ on who the vulnerable children are and why they are vulnerable. In the best schools, staff will have honed their approach to handling conversations with the most prickly of parents and may have much to offer you in terms of dos and don’ts. In these schools, an ‘us and them’ culture won’t exist; there will be one where everyone is in this together.

2 Find your external support network

This might include education welfare, the Inclusion Service, Virtual School, the SEN caseworker, the school nurse, the health visitor, the community paediatrician, the community police officer, the youth worker or social services, depending on the child or their vulnerability. These professionals may also be in valuable possession of top tips to build a successful relationship with a family, having spent many years building one themselves.

 3 Be visible

Take the time to get alongside parents and carers. This might not be easy all the time. The next time a parent is shouting at you down the phone, or through the hatch at the entrance hall, try to see that they might be terrified themselves and don’t know how to look after themselves, let alone their little ones.

Be on the gate in the morning and at home time and create a page on the website which, in a non-judgemental way, provides attendance information and signposts to help. Host coffee mornings or hot chocolate evenings with free childcare to get your point across. Most importantly, do not think you know better or are better. Seek first to empathise and understand, and then to build their trust.

Steps you can take

The following steps can be taken to help reduce a child’s absence without resorting to legal or financial enforcement measures. Evidence has shown that tackling absence can be most effective when a number of different approaches are adopted.

Draw up a parenting contract

You can do this with the parents over a cup of tea, in a supportive manner. Avoid using the word ‘contract’. It’s simply a piece of paper outlining what all concerned are going to try to do to break that cycle of poor attendance.  Make it time-bound, be supportive and review it regularly. Finally, if it’s not working, ditch it.

Review your attendance policy

This should be done in consultation with teachers, pupils, families, the local authority, governors and senior leaders. Yes, this takes time but if done properly, this can be a valuable exercise in ensuring all stakeholders are on board. Consider how the policy ties into the school’s approach to promoting emotional well-being for all.

Adopt a ‘person-centred’ approach

Determine what the individual barriers are for each individual child and adapt your intervention accordingly. For example, if a child loves PE, could they lead a ‘Wake Up, Shake Up’ session for children and staff at 08:45 each day?

Make them welcome

Ensure parents are welcomed into the school and can gain easy access to staff. Make sure all office staff are on board – one frosty exchange on the phone can have devastating effects.

‘Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.’ (Stephen Covey)

Continuously raise the profile 

Keep attendance high profile with parents and the wider community through a variety of streams and formats. Involve your key families in developing this material and communicate frequently with parents about positive achievements and improvements and in ways which emphasise the responsibility and role of parents in partnership with the school.

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Alex Colclough

Alex Colclough has more than 10 years’ experience in primary education as both acting headteacher, deputy headteacher, virtual school deputy headteacher, designated safeguarding lead and SENDCO. She is passionate about inclusion and ensuring all children have equal access to education and good life chances.

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