How to start a conversation with a parent/carer
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’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 breakdown, 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’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:
- lack of confidence and feeling inadequate
- fears about making things worse
- concern about the response they will receive, especially when talking about sensitive issues.
We also know that many parents struggle to talk to their own children about mental health. In a national parental survey (Time to Change 2015), for example, more than half of parents did not talk to their children about it. Reasons included not knowing how to address the issue and sometimes not recognising mental health problems as something that might be affecting their child. This survey concluded that talking about mental health is still seen as too awkward and that this needs to change.
What schools can do
Most schools try to build up friendly, respectful and welcoming interactions with parents before any serious conversations need to take place. Being at the school gate, getting to know parents and carers and having positive things to say about their child is vital.
However, 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 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 culture so 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, SEND or designated safeguarding lead (DSL). 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.
- Before the meeting consider carefully its purpose and how it will ultimately benefit the child. Discussing it beforehand with colleagues can be helpful. Contentious meetings might benefit from two members of staff being present.
- Make the purpose of the meeting clear and get to the point quickly.
- Invite the parent/carer to bring a friend or supporter with them. Many parents feel intimidated by school meetings.
- Start – and finish – the conversation with something positive.
- Do not make any attempt at a medical diagnosis.
- Be compassionate, warm and respectful.
- Acknowledge the parent/carer’s feelings and any problems rather than offer immediate solutions.
- Listen without interrupting; make eye contact if appropriate; show with your body language that you are focusing on them and what they have to say. Note what their body language is saying and what may be being left unsaid. Let them talk until they are finished. All of this will help you understand more fully what is going on.
- Respect cultural differences. Remember that different cultures have different norms regarding personal space, eye contact, etc.
- Encourage parents/carers to talk about any concerns they may have. Talk about your concerns and ask them for their thoughts, advice and possible solutions.
- Don’t personalise parents’/carers’ responses or react to criticism; accept that when raising difficult subjects, many parents may initially feel defensive, blamed, hurt or guilty. Listen and keep your attention on the joint aim of wanting to help their child move forward.
- Manage your own emotions before, during and after the meeting.
- Don’t use ‘teacher speak’, long words or educational jargon.
- Resolve and summarise: be willing to find a different solution to the one you had in mind. Agree a collaborative plan for next steps. Sum up what’s been agreed, be prepared to guide parents through the process and get help for their child or themselves.
- Thank the parent/carer for coming in.
- If you have a counsellor or mental health professional in your school, suggest that you can arrange for a parent or carer to meet them if there is a need to refer their child for mental health support.
- If a child in your class is referred to an external agency (such as specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services – CAMHS), make sure that someone from school (school counsellor, class teacher, SEND lead etc.) is in regular contact with that agency so that the school can support any treatment plan and staff know how to implement it. Make sure there is regular contact with parents/carers about the referral.
- If parents/carers disclose personal difficulties and are open to getting help to promote their own mental health, consult your pastoral or SEND lead, school nurse (or school counsellor or mental health professional – if you have one). You could also signpost them to national advice helplines (see resources below) and local services; encourage them to refer themselves to local NHS talking therapies, or encourage them to go to their local GP.
- Keep talking to the parent/carer regularly to build the relationship outside of any formal meetings.