Six steps for successful communication

talking headsTwo common worries we hear about from parents contacting our helpline are communicating with their child’s school and attending meetings.

Using guidance produced by the US agency CADRE (Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education) we’ve put together six steps for successful communication with a child’s school which might also help parents feel more confident when attending meeting to discuss their child’s needs.

Whether you’re new to additional support for learning or used to talking to the school about your child’s needs, positive communication is important in avoiding disputes.  If relationships become strained or break down completely, this can lead to frustrations on both sides and may move the focus away from the needs of your child.

The most important thing to remember is that you have a lot to offer. You know your child best and while you may not have all the answers, you want your child to be happy and successful in school.

Step 1:  Prioritise and plan before meetings

Work out what is the most important thing to discuss or resolve at the meeting. Make a list of questions and issues and jot down any ideas you have for dealing with them.

Think about where you are willing to compromise. Remember that the school and education authority have a duty to provide ‘adequate and efficient’ support – not necessarily ‘the best’.

Step 2: Try to stay calm and think clearly.

Try to avoid becoming over emotional. You’ll communicate better when you are not upset.  Focus on what is important to you and your child. Try to avoid re-visiting old arguments. Avoid focusing on your worst fears. Try to focus on positive aspects of the meeting.

Try to use language that focuses on your child’s needs rather than your own e.g. I think that Mark would benefit from … rather than I want him to have…..

Step 3:  Actively listen to the other person’s perspective

If you don’t understand what the other person is saying ask them to reword it in a clearer way. Try not to make assumptions about what you think they are going to say or why they are saying it.

Step 4: Clarify what you have said if you think people have not understood and ask for clarification yourself.

If you see puzzled faces when you are speaking, rephrase or clarify what you have said. If it is easier, use practical examples e.g. an example of how your child behaves in certain situations, etc.

Ask for clarification if you haven’t understood something e.g. It sounds like you are saying… or If I understand you correctly…… This can clear up any misunderstanding and avoid disputes further down the line.

Step 5: Have solutions in mind and offer them for discussion

As a parent you may have ideas or alternative suggestions that professionals have not thought of.  Sharing information on what has worked in other settings can provide an opportunity for professionals to ‘think outside the box’. Suggest trying new strategies for a short period if professionals do not seem keen.

If your ideas are not picked up on, ask polite, direct questions as to why these are not being considered e.g. I’m puzzled, can you explain why this is not an option….

Step 6: Remember you’re only human

If somebody has been particularly helpful or gone beyond their actual duty, acknowledge their efforts. When frustrations are high, sometimes a focus on positive things that have worked can break the tension.

Similarly if you’ve made a mistake or know you have overreacted or caused offence during a difficult meeting, apologise and acknowledge you’re only human, explaining you find the situation very emotional. This shows that you are willing to work in partnership but also reminds people you are a parent, not a professional.

Overall Tip – Be willing to negotiate

In the dealings you have with the school you may find there are many areas you actually agree on. You may agree on what the issues are for your child but have different views on how to resolve them.  It can be useful to restate this and agree that you too want to look at this in an open, solution-focused way.

If options are presented to you, consider their merit and ask questions if you have concerns.  Ask for and offer other suggestions for reaching the same goal rather than refuse outright to consider one particular route.

Using language that recognises the school’s efforts to meet your child’s needs and acknowledges the difficulties they face in this, may lead to an increased effort on their part e.g. I appreciate the huge responsibility and demands the school are facing. I understand that resources, both money and staff time, can be tight but I really want to work with you to find a solution that is acceptable to us all.

So, in a nutshell, when talking to your child’s school or other professionals:

• keep your cool

• focus on positives

• be clear about your goals

• listen, ask questions, clarify

• keep the focus on meeting your child’s needs

• present options in a collaborative way

• negotiate

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