Using coaching skills with parents

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Emma Ferrey shows how employing well-established coaching techniques in meetings with parents can be effective in changing behaviour and finding meaningful solutions to attendance problems.

Summary

  • The coaching conversation can empower parents to find their own solutions to the challenges being faced.
  • Simple alterations in language can significantly improve the conversation with parents.
  • People are far more likely to stick to a plan and meet a target if they have come up with the goals and the action points themselves.

Introduction

It is well recognised that parental attitude can seriously affect a child’s attendance and performance at school. It is also clear that, although in some cases useful, punitive measures rarely impact on a child’s attendance and punctuality at school. Motivating parents to see the benefits of good punctuality and attendance must, then, be worth a try. Using coaching conversations with parents can promote good relationships between home and school and improve motivation – leading to better attendance and punctuality.

What is coaching?

Coaching is simply a conversation, or series of conversations, between the coach (i.e. the member of staff) and the coachee (i.e. the parent). The coaching conversation will empower parents to find their own solutions to the challenges they are facing. It is important to remember that coaching is non-judgemental. This means that staff can ensure that they build good rapport with the parents, develop a sense of trust and are able to support parents through the necessary changes.

The advantage of taking a coaching approach is that the ‘coach’ does not need to be the expert. The coach will simply be guiding and facili-tating the coachee through the conversation. The conversation will follow a simple structure: identify the desired outcome, recognise current challenges and obstacles, explore options and solutions, and finally identify the next steps. (See the Toolkit – Checklist: Using coaching skills with parents – for ideas of questions you can use at each stage.)

First steps

Start the conversation with an explanation of the situation – for example, ‘We’re here to look at ideas for how we can improve Jane’s attendance’. Note how this statement is framed in positive language, not something like ‘Jane’s attendance is a cause for concern and we would like to talk about this with you’. The first statement also makes a positive assumption – that solutions can be found and that Jane’s attendance can be improved.

Simple language alterations like this can significantly improve the conversation with the parent.

Identify the desired outcome

This first stage of the conversation is a chance to support the parent in identifying for themselves the benefits of improved attendance. At this point, try to encourage them to picture what that would feel like or look like for them and their child. What difference will their child’s attendance at school make to the parent, the child and the wider family, as well as their relationships with each other? Reflect back to them the good practices they already have in place – i.e. ‘Your daughter is already at 60% attendance, and getting her to school one more day a week would mean she’s at 80%; this is the difference between an ‘E’ grade and a ‘C’ grade’, or whatever is relevant to the age of the child.

Find out what they do (and their child does) differently on the days when the child does attend school. Ask them to describe what happens the night before and on the morning of attendance at school, and what may be different on evenings or mornings of non-attendance.

A final word of warning for this stage: make sure that the parent’s desired outcome is both achievable and realistic. A child with 40% attendance is unlikely to improve to 100% overnight. Keeping the outcome less daunting and more achievable will help the parent to feel more confident and allow them to build on the small wins.

Recognise current challenges and obstacles

The exploration in the previous stage as to what is different should lead the conversation naturally towards identifying the current challenges or obstacles that are preventing attendance success. At this stage, it is important to keep the parent on track and mindful of their outcome; there can be a tendency at this point for the conversation to become a big moan. Support the parent in focusing on the things over which they have control. Ask them what they can do to mitigate or overcome these obstacles. Maybe they have experienced a situation in the past where they have used their skills and abilities to overcome obstacles? Support the parent to feel good about the challenges they have dealt with in the past.

Explore options and solutions

Talking about where a parent does and does not have control should then lead on to identifying possible solutions. It is important to try to elicit as many different options as possible. Reassure the parent that they will not need to do all of these but, the more ideas there are, the more choice they have when it comes to identifying next steps. Be persistent in your questioning! Ask ‘What else could you do?’ and don’t be afraid to repeat that question! Try to write the answers down or, better still, ask the parent to write them down as they think of them.

Identify the next steps

Once you have a good list of potential solutions, you need to support the parent in choosing those that feel most appropriate or more ‘do-able’. The parent needs to feel confident that:

  • they will be able to carry out the chosen action or actions
  • those actions will make an impact on their child’s attendance.

As a coach, you will not be offering advice or trying to ‘solve’ the parent’s problems at any point in the conversation – this is a person-centred approach. People are far more likely to stick to a plan and meet a target if they have come up with the goal and any actions themselves. In order to do this, you simply need to remember these key points:

  • coaching is a non-judgemental process
  • the coachee/parent is the expert in his or her own life
  • the coachee/parent is already achieving the solution. He or she will not always be ‘doing’ the solution and may not even recognise that they are sometimes ‘doing’ something towards an outcome but, importantly, they are working towards that goal
  • small changes can make a big difference.

Hints and tips

  • Ask open-ended questions – i.e. questions that cannot be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  • Ask questions that start with: what; how; who; where; and when.
  • Avoid questions starting with ‘why’: it makes people defensive.
  • Show interest in their answers – this will help create a positive rapport and makes a coaching conversation feel much more natural. Practice turning negative statements into positive ones – e.g. take “Why is my daughter’s attendance so bad?” and change it to “What does good attendance mean to you?” or “In which ways are you currently supporting your daughter to have good attendance?”.
  • Aim to talk for about 30% of the time; the parent should be talking for the rest of the session.

Conclusion

Coaching is solution-focused. There is no need to worry about addressing the causes of absenteeism; focusing on small changes can bring the outcome you want. Coaching recognises that the individual has the answer to the problem being faced and that each individual is the ‘expert’ in their own lives – that is to say, they know how to get their child to school on time or ensure their child’s attendance, they just don’t always follow this through. A coaching conversation requires that a simple four-step process is followed and that a positive approach is maintained throughout.

Following this simple format, while maintaining a positive and encouraging outlook, can transform both your relationship with parents and attendance levels within your school.

Toolkit

Premium and Premium Plus subscribers can download these template documents from the Toolkit section:

About the author

Emma Ferrey is a consultant supporting schools, academies, FE colleges and local authorities with young people’s motivation, behaviour management and well-being. Emma also works as an independent youth coach and sits on the London and South East Committee for BBC’s Children in Need. Contact her on 0845 5432139 or 07932 660092, via email (emma@tillian.co.uk) or through her website (www.tillian.co.uk).

First published on this website in September 2014.

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