How to start a conversation with a parent/carer

How you start a conversation with a parent or carer will likely depend on the age of the children you teach.

In primary schools, school staff may find it easier to engage with parents and carers. Parents and carers of primary-age children tend to drop them off and pick them up from school, so teachers may have more everyday opportunities to have conversations with them.

In secondary schools and further education settings, many young people will travel to and from school alone, and may be more likely to have parents or carers who work full-time. There may be fewer opportunities for school staff to have conversations with parents and carers. Although parents may be less accessible to staff as children get older, this doesn’t mean that engaging with them is any less important.

School staff may need to open up a conversation with a parent or carer about a range of topics that might be affecting their child’s ability to flourish and achieve in school.

For example, concerns might arise about:

  • a child or young person’s mental health, wellbeing, progress in school or their safety
  • factors in a child’s family or community environment that may be affecting their wellbeing – e.g. risk factors such as family problems, being a young carer, or facing discrimination
  • factors in school that might be affecting them – e.g. problems with peer relationships, bullying or academic stress
  • a parent or carer’s mental health and wellbeing.

Whatever the concern, it is important that staff work in partnership with parents and carers to explore what might be challenging a child or young person’s wellbeing, to help find solutions and to signpost them to help and specialist services where necessary.

Barriers to opening up a conversation with a parent/carer

Typical barriers that prevent school staff from starting up conversations with parents/carers include:

  • embarrassment
  • stigma
  • lack of confidence and feeling inadequate
  • fears about making things worse
  • concern about the response they will receive, especially when talking about sensitive issues. 

Many parents may struggle to talk to their own children about mental health. Research from Time to Change showed that more than half of parents did not talk to their children about it. The reasons for this included not thinking it was necessary and not knowing how to address the issue.

What schools can do

Many primary schools will build up friendly, respectful and welcoming interactions with parents before any serious conversations need to take place.

In secondary schools and post-16 education, building these relationships is more difficult, but having a serious conversation with parents about their child will be easier if you’ve had positive, friendly conversations about them before.

However, in any phase of education, there will always be some parents who find it difficult to engage because of their own mental health needs or negative attitudes towards school. Remember too that children and young people will often reflect the attitudes and views of their parents.

Sometimes it will take patience and time and often the greatest effort is needed with parents who are the hardest to engage.

You do not have to be an expert to open up a difficult conversation or a discussion about mental health with a parent or carer:

  • Your school should establish an inclusive and welcoming cultureso that all parents/carers feel comfortable coming in to meet with school staff.
  • Before meeting with parents/carers, discuss any concerns with your school’s pastoral, SEN/ASN/ALN or safeguarding lead. Alternatively, liaise with your school counsellor or mental health professional (if you have one).
  • Focus with parents/carers on your shared commitment to promote the best interests of their child. Parents have often described discussions about their children’s progress as a prompt for also thinking about, disclosing and addressing their own difficulties.

Top tips for meeting with a parent/carer

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