‘If a community values its children, it must cherish its parents.’
Take a look at the below statements. Do you find them helpful or harmful when speaking about children to parents?
- ‘It’s such a shame; she is so beautiful!’
- ‘You must be so worried!’
- ‘Your child is still the same, even with the diagnosis.’
- ‘Boys are slower to talk, don’t worry.’
- ‘Oh my God, how do you cope? It must be so hard!’
- ‘It’s such a shame because it’s not just his life but all of you.’
- ‘It’s so sad that his sister won’t have a normal life!’
- ‘Don’t worry, in my opinion, everyone’s a bit autistic.’
- ‘It must be like grieving the loss of the child you thought you would have.’
How did these statements make you feel?
Have you ever been subject to a statement like this or said something similar?
The above statements are real examples from parents of neurodivergent and disabled children. They demonstrate some of the well-intentioned but harmful thinking that we may have about disabilities. When I ran my SEND leadership training, I became reluctant to do a ‘parent partnership’ session. I really struggled with the idea that all parents’ needs could be met through a list of bullet point strategies. Parent partnership, in reality, is complicated. This can be especially true when we think about SEN(D) support, and so we must consider how our attitudes and beliefs about parents shape the early intervention experience.
If we take one of the above examples, ‘It’s such a shame, she is so beautiful, we can likely understand that it is quite hurtful for a parent to hear this. You will hear these statements echoed in many discussions if you listen carefully. A strange series of projections can occur between parents and practitioners as they navigate their personal thoughts about the existence of a child’s developmental difference. For example, if you were caring for a child with complex needs and continually thinking, ‘What a shame, ‘He is going to have a tough life, ‘He won’t cope’ and so on, do you think that some of those beliefs would be mirrored in your practice? Rather than “It is so sad, he won’t have a normal life”, we should surely ask what we can do externally to expand our perceptions – for example, by challenging ableism and adapting our provision as best we can to become more diversity-affirming. How proactive can we be if we place the onus on the child and their disability rather than considering how the mainstream societal structures are disadvantaging children?
We have addressed this idea of the deficit mindset throughout this blog series, and the reason it is so important is that it impacts how we deliver our support. When I work with practitioners who hold onto these harmful thoughts, I also hear much discontent about how difficult it is to meet a child’s needs. When I discussed the statements with the parent advocate who shared them, something that stood out to me was that they also exacerbated deep anxiety and confusion for parents. For example, parents often get told “not to worry” when they share concerns and are encouraged to “wait and see”. To avoid being seen as fussy or neurotic, a parent will often push that worry to one side, but this unheard experience can be isolating. It can also be incredibly tricky when a professional insinuates that they know best, thus creating a power dynamic within the partnership. Yes, we may learn more about child development theory, but a parent knows the child intimately as a person. Often when a parent shares concerns, we should first recognise the courage it takes to do this because it is the first step in asking for partnership, and we should also believe what they have to say. Whatever perceptions we may have about how parents should parent, we should trust that their concerns are valid because they are often attuned to their child’s met and unmet needs.
“What parents do is more important than who parents are” (Sylva et al., 2004)
Intriguingly, when I completed my dissertation on parental self-efficacy, I interviewed six mothers about their early intervention experiences, and all six said that they knew within the first year that ‘something wasn’t right. The culture of ascribing hysterical or neurotic labels to mothers, in particular, is concerning, especially since most of the early intervention research suggests that the outcomes of the child are predominately shaped by a warm, responsive and proactive carer. However, if parents’ voices are unheard from those earliest moments, what are we communicating about the value of that partnership? You can read about this study in more detail here!
So how might we develop strong parent collaboration?
Souto-Manning and Swick (2006) developed a six-element empowerment paradigm for parent and family involvement, including practices that:
Identify Family and Child Strengths
The most effective way to work with families is to believe in them and look for the good. So often, parents are subject to harsh judgements, and sometimes, this can be done by the people meant to advocate for them and be by their sides. Take time to get to know parents and families, and assume they are doing their best.
Top Tip: Send out a family strengths & interests questionnaire as a way to celebrate and embrace the differences of families.
Validate and engage with parents
When we describe families as “hard to reach, “we place the onus and blame on the parent rather than using our empathy lens to connect with the family. There are many reasons why a family might not engage, so we should reserve making judgements and instead identify what is working. Parents are often told what they need to do or what is not going well. Educators should spend time recognising the efforts of parents and thinking outside the box for engagement. The researchers highlight that engagement may look different across the setting, which is not a bad thing.
Top tip: Where possible, have transition spaces for parents, such as a cosy family corner, or parents’ room. If your space doesn’t allow for this, create the Virtual Parent Snug where parents can drop-in online to ask questions or queries.
Engagement can exist outside of the setting
One way settings sustain the power struggle is that engagement is usually expected to happen within the setting. Be open to changing location or introducing novel ways to interact. For example, one setting had a monthly children and families walk around a local park. Similarly, home visits can be invasive, so you might suggest meeting somewhere that a parent might feel more comfortable. We must understand that no one model, venue, or format works for every teacher and/or family.
Top Tip: Many parents turn to online support groups when a child is identified as SEN. Have a signposting board in your hallway which includes online support, popular hashtags or Instagram accounts.
The educator learning alongside the family
The research found that families felt more compelled to form partnerships when the educator expressed that they too were learning within the role. Admitting that you do not know or understand something is not a sign of weakness or incompetence but an indicator of growth. This was particularly important when considering the cultural identity of the child and family. When educators valued the funds of knowledge of children and families, relationships could be built much stronger.
Use One Page Profiles of staff so that you can get to know each other and so that they are aware of your key skills, and areas in which you are developing.
Collaborative schemes and multiple family involvement build trust
Educators must respond to parent ideas, contributions, and feedback and see educators employing their ideas. Feedback gathering was genuine, well embedded and creative. According to Austin (2000), true collaboration needs to include a real sense of value. Educators should not involve parents because they feel they must but because they genuinely want to know and understand their contributions. The researchers found that the best collaborations happened when conversations were co-constructed and involved a good balance of tuning in and listening carefully. Educators and families who would problem-solve and work together to find solutions could connect more deeply.
Top Tip: Ensure that parents are involved in decision making for their child. Do not get them to fill in parts of forms of an afterthought, but dedicate time to complete referrals, and reviews together.
Linguistic and cultural appreciation, recognition, and reflective responsiveness:
Families needed to truly see themselves and their identities within the environment, including language and culture. A diverse range of resources and richness of culture provided a good indicator that the setting was expansive in their provision and not prescribing to one world view or cultural “ideal”.
Finally, we must acknowledge that parents and practitioners often have the same goals for children, but their way of reaching those goals may be underpinned by the different frames of reference. It is fine to be on different pages, so long as you are within the same book. We, as practitioners, offer a public knowledge of the child, and the family, a personal knowledge. Combined, this can be very powerful.