Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

No, Ice is not back with his latest invention, it’s just me, yattering on about relationships between home and school again.

Since Little Bear started school we have had our fair share of concerns (see School WorriesSchool-Parent Partnership and Dear Teacher ). We have worked hard to overcome them as best we can and around this time last year I wrote Alleviating School Worries about some of the positive practical changes that had been made.

A pattern seems to be emerging now where the first part of a new school year is hard work, stressful and leads us to the brink of crisis before we somehow manage to get school to listen and things improve considerably. The improvement part is fabulous and more of a relief than I imagine when it finally happens. The fact we have to go through the hard bit first, not so much.

We worked extremely hard on Transition this time so I don’t honestly know what else we could have done differently to avoid the tricky bit. It feels as though no matter how clear we are and how much we labour the specifics of Little Bear’s needs, the new teacher doesn’t hear us until they have experienced what we are talking about for themselves. It’s as though they need to approach him in the way they think (taking our information with a pinch of salt), using the strategies they usually use, only to find out the hard way that his behaviour will escalate. They then cynically have a go at the things we suggest, leading to a miraculous transformation. At this point, they seem to start listening a bit harder.

As you can see, I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know (yet) how to prevent this pattern. However, along the way we have learned a lot about developing the relationships we need with teachers and making change happen. I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts and ideas:

Things for teachers to think about

  • Parents of children with additional needs of any nature, but particularly adopters, are often a vocal and knowledgeable bunch. You might find we e-mail more, ask for more meetings and try to talk to you more than the average parent. I understand this is time consuming and potentially a little full-on. Please try not to run a mile or hide under your desk when you spot us coming. The best way to tame the over-involved-parent beast is to talk to us. If we see that you are listening and that you want to work with us, we will be a lot lower-maintenance.
  • (The little chat I’ve made a point of having with Mr. Teacher at the end of each week has made a huge difference to our relationship and to his understanding of Little Bear.)
  • Please don’t interpret our involvement and commitment as ‘over anxious parenting’. We think working in partnership is best and that laying the groundwork before problems arise is preferable to waiting for crisis (We’ve been there before, it isn’t fun).
  • Unfortunately, if you don’t respond to our e-mails and won’t meet with us and won’t consider other ways of doing things, we are left with no other options than to escalate our concerns to the SENCO/Head/Board of Governors/Virtual School. This isn’t meant as a threat. We don’t really want to do these things – it’s a hassle/it takes time/ it takes emotional energy we don’t always have – but we will because parenting is about being a voice for our child when they don’t have one and if we don’t fight for them, who will? We won’t be quiet and we won’t go away. It’d be so much better for all of us if we could do this the easy way: together.
  • When a child challenges you in your classroom with their behaviour, please don’t automatically assume it is due to ‘parenting’. Familiarise yourself with the child’s history; read their file, talk to other staff who know them. Is there trauma in their background? Do they have speech and language needs? Do they have attachment needs? All of these things could be the root cause of difficult behaviour.
  • If you are unsure how to support a child or your usual methods aren’t working, that’s okay. Parents are often experts in managing their children’s behaviour and we have many, many tricks up our sleeves. Ask us. We won’t think you’re crap at your job, we’ll feel valued and respected as the people who know our children best. If you are having moments of feeling out of your depth, we probably are too. Let’s work together.
  • Some of the strategies we talk about (especially for children with developmental trauma) might feel counterintuitive and opposite to the things you usually do. Please be brave and try them. Give them a good go, because once or twice isn’t enough. If you want to know more about the theory behind the strategies, we can point you to sources of information. Even if you don’t ask, there is a high likelihood we’ll be printing things off and giving them to you anyway. We’re sorry about that but getting things right for our children is kind of important to us.
  • If a child comes to your class with a visual timetable/social story/ communication aid/ calm box/worry monster/ chewy tube/ sensory diet/ other useful item, please get it out and use it. These things do not work in cupboards or drawers. If you’ve given it a good go and it doesn’t seem to be meeting its aims, talk to us about it. Maybe we could come up with a solution together.
  • Children will not learn in your classroom if they don’t feel safe and secure. This isn’t my opinion; it’s a fact. If a parent, or a child themselves, lets you know they aren’t feeling happy and comfortable in the classroom, try not to take this personally. Our children struggle to form relationships with all new people – it is not a reflection of how nice a person you are/aren’t (though I understand how it can feel like that). I understand why learning a child is unhappy in your classroom might make you feel defensive. Please see that it is not a personal attack. Also, if anyone understands how uncomfortable this feeling is, it’s us. Imagine how rejected and impotent you would feel if your child didn’t feel safe and secure at home, with your parenting. We’ve been there and felt that. We totally empathise.
  • However, it is a problem and in order to fix it, you will need to accept that the child isn’t feeling safe. Telling parents that a child is behaving in a certain way ‘for their benefit’ or ‘to get attention’ or ‘to manipulate adults’ isn’t okay or helpful. Instead, ask, ‘what could be done differently to help them feel safe?’ and be open to the suggestions that are made.
  • A child will feel safe in your classroom when they feel safe with you and in the relationship that you have. Get to know them and their individual likes/dislikes. Is there something you could bring in especially to show them? Could you give them a special job or responsibility? Could you find 5 minutes each day to spend 1:1 with them? Part of feeling safe in a relationship comes about when a child is really clear about what your boundaries are and knows what will happen if their worst behaviour spills out. Ideally they will know that you will be in charge even when they lose control; that you will be calm and that you will still like them. Often the only way they can find this out is by testing your boundaries. Expect some challenges. Don’t panic. Be firm. Consider your strategies carefully: avoid punishing dysregulation. Consider calm-down time and giving the child a break (in a physical sense of letting them use a quiet corner). Talk with them afterwards. Wonder aloud as to why they may have acted as they have. Empathise. Remember to separate behaviour from the child themselves – it is imperative we don’t shame children who already feel worthless. If in doubt, imagine you are them: consider the incident through their eyes.
  • (Little Bear’s teacher coming out of his classroom door in the morning and having a bit of ‘banter’ with Little Bear has made a huge difference to him going into the classroom. It’s a small thing but it’s completely overturned school refusal.)
  • I understand that it is difficult to cope with a child with social, emotional or mental health difficulties in your already busy classroom. You are already working hard trying to balance everyone’s needs with the demands of the curriculum, meeting targets etc. Our children needn’t be another challenge: with the right support they are pure potential. With the implementation of a few strategies and tweaks to your approach, you could be the difference in our child’s education.
  • (Now that Little Bear is back on track, he is on target for making more than a year’s progress in year 2. That’s amazing.)

Things for parents to think about

  • Be as quick to praise the good as to highlight problems. We are a vocal bunch and it’s only right that we expect a high standard of education for our children. However, let’s not be moaners or doom bringers. Let’s save our complaining for when it’s needed and be fair about it. Let’s balance our complaining with positivity: when school get something right, tell them. They need to hear the praise and affirmation as much as any of us.
  • As frustrating and upsetting as our interactions with certain teachers can be, always stay on the moral high ground. If we want to be respected as professional parents, we need to act professionally. I have sworn and cursed and badmouthed in the privacy of my own home but never anywhere else. I have been direct and I’ve shared my feelings but I have never been rude, raised my voice or been in any way offensive. If we hope to achieve good working relationships in the future (surely, always the aim?) we need to be careful not to do anything that would cause irreparable damage to those relationships. For that reason I think it’s wise to avoid venting our spleens in Whatsapp parent groups or Facebook groups or on the playground. Firstly, it’s not cool. Secondly, these things have a tendency of getting back to teachers and head teachers. Thirdly, why do anything to jeopardise the relationships we are working so hard to build?
  • (Note to self: be extremely careful when blogging!!)
  • I think the key to getting good relationships with school is communication. I’ve found that e-mail is not a great medium. Often you don’t get a reply which is pretty irking. When you write the email it is difficult to pick your words correctly so as not to leave anything open to misinterpretation. I certainly think I’ve caused defensiveness (totally unintended) with some of my attempts. I have now ditched email in favour of a face to face chat. I’m particularly partial to a playground ambush!
  • It is tempting to stop chatting when things are going ok. I think there is a danger in this that the teacher begins to associate a chat with you with a problem; further compounding their desire to avoid you. I think it’s good to keep up the chats and to be able to have really positive ones – they make everyone feel better.
  • Don’t be scared of spelling things out. I am an increasingly big fan of directness. Previously I have assumed it is obvious how I might be feeling but it seems it isn’t. I sent one email to Little Bear’s school team saying, “When you don’t ask our opinions or include us in big decisions, it makes me feel as though you don’t value our expertise as parents. This is upsetting because we believe that working together is in the best interests of LB.” This was swiftly followed by an apology from school and the penny seemed to drop about why I was ‘fussing’ again. People are busy; they probably don’t have time to stop, think or notice. It’s ok to explain how you feel.
  • Teachers are humans too. We need to remember that they don’t just have our little darling to think about but at least 20 others as well. They have ridiculous demands on them to meet this, that and the other standard and every professional who comes in asks them to do something else in addition to the myriad things they already do. I don’t think it hurts to acknowledge we are aware of this. It isn’t going to stop us asking them to put things in place for our children (they are our priority after all) or to give us their time but we can be thankful and empathetic when they do.
  • (I am genuinely grateful that Little Bear’s teacher found an hour and a half for me yesterday after being in school on Monday evening for a writing exhibition, having his class in the music afternoon yesterday and then needing to build a stage after I had gone for next week’s nativity, and I told him so. He has a home to go to too.)
  • As much as we want teachers to respect us and our knowledge of our children, we need to respect them. I’m not a teacher. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the curriculum or the different methods of teaching Maths. Ideally they bring their knowledge to the table and we bring ours – kind of like a bring and share work lunch. We aren’t aiming for us and them, we’re aiming for us.
  • I strongly believe that a consistent approach across home and school is the most effective way of supporting our children to feel safe and to reach their full potential. This is what drives me to keep politely approaching the teacher, keep repeating the same points, keep coming up with possible solutions even when I actually feel like crying or slapping somebody.
  • Remember to practise self-care. This whole managing school malarkey can be really bloody hard work. A bad drop-off can set a worrying tone to the whole day. You do need confidants who are safe to vent to (maybe people who aren’t involved with the school) and you do need to look after you. You can’t afford to run out of energy because who fights the fight then?
  • I also think it’s important to keep the Big Guns up your sleeve for when you need them. Don’t underestimate how exhausting this can be and how alone it can make you feel – like a tiny whisper standing up to the behemoth that is school. Sometimes it gets too big to do on your own. Don’t be frightened of bringing someone with you to meetings. I tend to wheel Grizzly out when I’ve had enough – he isn’t frightened of being extremely direct and sometimes that’s needed. I also know that we’ve got the post adoption support service there if we need it and we have called on them to be in meetings when things are going awry. Unfortunately, schools can be more likely to listen when the person telling them is a professional. That doesn’t make us feel good but as long as the message gets across, we need to not concern ourselves too much with how.
  • Equally, if you aren’t sure what is going on in the classroom and you have some concerns, getting another professional that you trust in there can be really effective. Many professionals (speech and language therapist/ OT/ educational psychologists) do school observations as part of their work. I know that when the speech and language therapist did an observation as part of her work with Little Bear, the feedback she was able to give me was really enlightening.
  • Ask for regular meetings and always book in the next one at the end
  • Make notes and keep your notes
  • Ideally have a home-school book for day to day information. We’ve had a few discussions about the type of information that is needed in there – “LB found it hard to sit still during the English lesson on expanded noun phrases” is a lot more useful than “good reading”.
  • Keep the faith. It is never too late to turn things around (though I totally see that in some situations the only solution is a different school or home-school. I don’t see that as giving up, but finding a workable solution)

 

I’m very sorry for another lengthy post. I promise to write something short and sweet next week 😉

Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

2 thoughts on “Stop. Collaborate & Listen.

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