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Advice for professionals in Scotland

Families + schools = partners

We know from many years of listening to parents and carers that when there is a good relationship between professionals and families there is mutual respect and trust.

Explaining to a family that you and they share a common goal to get the best outcome for their child can help build trust. Reiterating that you are keen to work together as a way of understanding their child better and supporting their strengths can ensure they feel respected. But what else can you do to build strong positive relationships with families?

Using information from the Supporting Children’s Learning Code of Practice and testimonies from parents, we’ve pulled together tips for staff to help parents feel listened to, valued and able to take part in decisions about their child’s education and support.

- Try to understand the family’s situation. Parents may still be coming to terms with their child’s support needs or be struggling at home.
- Think about the extra things they may dealing with as parents of a child with additional support for learning – anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, worries about the future, lack of family support or limited respite care.
- Remember parents are not professionals. They are dealing with issues they may never have expected to deal with - such as learning disabilities, health conditions, medical procedures – without any specialist training.

- If a parent is new to additional support for learning, take a moment to ask how much they understand about the ASL framework and explain any language they are unfamiliar with. Avoid jargon. Even if you’ve had various meetings with parents it’s good to check that they understand what’s happening and why.
- Give families plenty of time to read learning plans or assessment information. Think about whether they may need help to understand or read what has been shared.
- If families are not involved in the whole of a meeting, take the time to explain why and give them time to ask questions about what was discussed.
- Tell parents which professionals will be at meetings and explain their role if they don’t know.
- Give parents time to ask questions at the end of a meeting and to make sure they have understood what has been discussed.

- Speak to parents and carers about the dates and times that work for them to attend meetings. Families may have to organise childcare or work commitments to attend school meetings.
- Try to arrange meeting rooms so that they are as informal and welcoming as possible. A row of professionals can be really scary.
- Provide information about what will be discussed at meetings in advance. This will help parents feel prepared. Avoid last minute additions.
- Remind parents they can invite a supporter along to meetings. This can help make parents feel more confident and able to focus on the discussion.
- Listen and take account of parents’ views. They may be able to offer solutions based on how a child behaves or responds at home.
- If you are putting together a plan explain how parent’s views will included and what they might consider including in their section.
- Explain how parents can provide their views during and in-between meetings.

- Ask what parent’s preferences are. For example, at meetings ask if they are happy talking first or would they prefer to speak after they have heard professionals’ views.
- Be non-judgmental. Try to think positively about parents, even if you disagree with them
- Be aware of the language you are using. It’s easy to slip into language about a child being “difficult”, “tricky” “challenging” or “frustrating” but hearing their child described in these terms can be upsetting for parents. Try talking about activities or lessons the child finds challenging or frustrating.
- Be honest about where things may not have gone according to plan and explain why.

- Misunderstandings or disagreements can occur at times of change. Acknowledging that you understand that change can be difficult and that a parent may feel anxious may help diffuse potential problems.
- Providing clear reasons or evidence about why a change is happening can help parents overcome any worries they have.
- Explaining how the impact of the change will be monitored can also help parents feel less anxious.

- Recognising and acknowledging how a parent is feeling can provide reassurance but also deflect a difficult situation.
- Acknowledging a feeling does not mean you agree with everything they are saying, but it does mean you are open to discussion and are aware of how a parent may be feeling.

- At the end of meetings, outline what has been agreed and what they can expect to happen next. Give timescales, if appropriate, for when things will be put in place.
- If an action depends on other individuals or agencies not attending the meeting, explain who will be responsible for taking forward this work.
- Remind parents of what they can do and appeal procedures if you are sharing decisions they may be unhappy with.
- If unplanned or unexpected changes to a child’s support need to be made (e.g. because a staff member is off or leaves) speak to the family and explain what has happened. Parents will cope better if they understand the reasons changes have been made.
- Provide details of the named person parents and carers can talk to, and the best way to get in touch with them, if they want to share information that might help the child in school or raise a concern.

- Think about the issues you want to talk to parents and carers about and the key messages you want to get across.
- If you have any concerns about their child, how can you pose these or other questions without straining the relationship?
- Think about what might be impacting on your communication skills. Are you tired, stressed or feeling overwhelmed? Did you have a difficult day? How confident do you feel talking about the child’s particular needs? Are you nervous about meeting the parents? Are you worried they may get upset or angry? Reflecting on these questions can help you think about how you can offset them or deal with issues that arise to avoid damaging relationships.

You can:

- Bring along a box of hankies and be sympathetic. Parents can get emotional when talking about their child.
- Share information about services that may be able help families (such as Enquire, Carers Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland).
- Support families to reflect on their communication styles. Share Enquire information on Getting the most from meetings with school and How can I have positive conversations with my child’s school.
- Listen to understand rather than to reply.
- Reflect back what you think a parent has said to avoid any confusion.

Possible conversation starters:

- I’m glad you raised your worries with me. Let's look at ways we can work together to ensure your son has the support he needs.
- Can I explain why we want your daughter to have a little extra support and what the learning support teacher will be working with her on? Please ask questions at any time.
- Can I just check that you’re worried because you haven’t seen a copy of your child’s learning plan?
- I can see you’re upset. Why don’t you tell me what has changed since our last meeting and we can start from there?
- I can see that you are getting very frustrated that your son’s support has taken longer than expected to put in place. Can I explain why this has happened and what we are doing to move things on?

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