A parents response to – SEND: How to work with challenging parents

This article so incensed me the other day I wondered if  I could change it.

SEND: How to work with challenging parents

So here is my version all fixed!

One of the best ways for a school to support young people with special educational needs and disabilities is to collaborate with parents/carers. After all, no one knows the young person as well as they do.
But what happens when you are faced with parents or carers who do not believe the school is giving the right support? Unsurprisingly, there is no magic solution to this problem without a willingness to step outside our comfort zones or to fight for access to extra funding. However, there are a number of steps you can take to improve outcomes for the young person.
Here are three common types of challenging SEN parent, and how to work with them.


The angry parent  The Frustrated Parent
It is worth bearing in mind that parents whose children have additional needs may be very disillusioned after years of meeting without any significant success getting the support their child desperately needs. Anger therefore, is understandable and it up to us to prove to them that things will be different this time by listening to their experiences and working out a plan going forward with them.

These parents may also be frustrated and anxious they will need reassurance and validation for the difficulties they have been through, If the parent continues to be angry try reacting as a human being instead of using standard responses.

It is important that you show the parent that you are listening and that you care. Try to leave the conversation with some positive next steps that can be implemented immediately so that they know their child is getting some help straight away and not left waiting indefinitely for longer term support/funding to arrive. These can be simple steps like a time out or asking for help card or change in seating plan, be creative and make the change even if it is only in staff member attitudes to the child, extra time given or more understanding of difficulties in class.

The pandering parent  The Concerned Parent
The majority of parents have the best of intentions, are understandably protective of their children who may of been repeatedly let down or deprived of support by the system.

It is important to develop a relationship with these parents, particularly if they are anxious about a strategy not working for their child and doing them harm as a result. They need to know that they can trust you and your colleagues to listen and understand your child, even though they may feel that they have been let down by others in the past.
Again, empathy is important, but the issue must be tackled. Lack of appropriate support can be a huge problem, particularly at the point of transition between primary and secondary school.

I believe the key to solving this one is to empower the young person to be part of making decisions about their own support. We assign students a mentor, who will meet with them on a regular basis to discuss the quality/appropriateness of the support they are receiving and any problems or worries they may have.

Respect the young person when they say they need extra support with any area and reassure them that there will always be someone ready to listen and help if they need it.
Communicate the effectiveness of any support to the parents and ask them to do the same, encourage the use of effective strategies across settings so you can have a unified approach.

The non-engaging parent  The overloaded, frightened or broken parent
Winning back parents who are reluctant to engage are our biggest challenge by far. Sometimes a lack of engagement can be a result of a fear of being blamed by school for their child’s behaviour, worries about their child being labelled or shut down after being let down multiple times. Making it clear that the parents are entitled to an advocate at meetings as well as outlining what a parent can expect, who will be attending, its aims and how long it has been scheduled for may help it be less daunting.

Give the information for local organisations who can provide an advocate if required, offer parents genuine support and also contact through a local group for children with additional needs, or through the local authority’s family support service. if they wish it.
Bare in mind parents may work, have illness or bereavement or a multitude of other issues going on, they may see their child’s time at school as respite from the high levels of care they have, they may even be sleeping after having been up all night with that child and may not realise the significance of your call or have not been able to get back to you yet.

Try contacting the parent at different times and using different methods, do not assume that the parent is disinterested just because they do not return your calls immediately. Use sensitive, non accusatory language. Make it clear you are their to support them and the needs of their child and not to judge.
It may reach a point where you have to think about how you can make meetings more accessible to parents or provide facilities such as out of hours meetings, meetings in the home or video conferencing
Whatever the challenges, remembering that by far the vast majority of parents only want the best for their children and that parents/carers should be assumed to be doing their very best unless their is irrefutable evidence to the contrary. All schools have a legal obligation to appropriately support the child and to make the adjustments necessary for a SEN child to have the same opportunities as their peers and that must be at the forefront of our minds when dealing with vulnerable children and their often hard pressed families.

Now doesn’t that sound a whole lot more constructive?






14 thoughts on “A parents response to – SEND: How to work with challenging parents

  1. Much more nuanced insight into what actually drives parents’ behaviour and far more likely to lead to an improved relationship between home and school. Thank you for writing this. I would love to see TES give you the right to reply on behalf of us challenging parents everywhere. #Let’sChallengeComplacency!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Andrea, I seem to feel more and more compelled to act on things these days. The system is broken and people within it on all sides are suffering teachers, parents and most of all parents, we need to build bridges and change things for the better together. I think the my most over used word is collaboration but I actually think it is the key to everything, well that and funding!


  2. This is brilliant thank you! BTW it’s ‘bear’ in mind (not bare).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the compliment and spell check! My dyslexic mind strikes again. I wrote bear originally and then thought no that’s the furry way of spelling it and corrected it (wrongly).


  3. Bravo my friend. So many nails hit on the head. I must say my child’s SENCO is amazing, but soooo many are not and THIS version should be shown to them 👍


    1. Thank you. Really glad to hear you are having a positive experience with your SENCO. it makes such a difference.


  4. Absobloodylutely spot on. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. DigestiveDunker Jun 2, 2018 — 8:38 pm

    This is great. Also to bear in mind that some SEN issues are very heritable, therefore the parent in front of you may struggle with similar challenges as their child. Don’t overload them with unnecessary admin; send through a concise email to summarise any conversations that you’ve had with clear, manageable action points. Help the parent to work out what the absolute priorities are, and what might be able to wait – they are often faced with a disconcerting level of recommendations from various assessments, and unless they are experts themselves, they won’t know where to start. Finally, although actually I think that this should be the starting point, help them to see what their child’s strengths are. Every SEN report should start with this. Put scaffolding in place for the challenges, but recognise and build on the strengths. If a parent knows that you see the good in their child as well as the difficulties, they are significantly more likely to engage with you and trust you.


  6. Very accurate, very spot on, very constructive. Everyone who works with special needs children should read (and understand) this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. It really would be so helpful if more professionals understood what has gone before with parents and that they really do have the best interests of their child at heart and are not trying to be difficult.


  7. Having been a teacher for many years and now fighting daily for my own SEN child, the first article upset and frustrated me. This response is perfect. Thank you.


  8. This reminds me of an email I sent to Carers UK who wrote a condescending document called “Being Heard: A self-advocacy guide for carers” (available here: https://www.carersuk.org/about-us) which was actually really discriminatory against #actuallyautistic parent carers such as myself. It included many things which were unfair expectations on autistics as well as nuggets such as:

    “If you can, be sensitive to the needs of the person you are speaking to. Eg if the receptionist at the Doctor’s surgery looks stressed “I can see you are very busy, please can I just have a minute of your time?””

    So despite being a carer’s charity, they wrote this whole thing clearly letting professionals entirely off the hook and advising carers to manage their behaviour instead. I wondered whether many carers had given feedback that they had to deal with poor attitudes from professionals and in response Carers UK decided it was the carers’ faults and they needed to write a document advising them on how to behave.

    I emailed full comments on their document asking that it be forwarded to a policy maker, which they said they would do and I never heard another word!

    Cerebra has a problem solving toolkit, which understands the reality (http://www.lukeclements.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Toolkit-draft-2016-04.pdf):

    “…the decision maker has autocratic tendencies and/or the public body has labelled the disabled child/carer as ‘difficult’ (see page 19).”

    “…there is also a need for carers to develop assertiveness skills and to be able to challenge professionals who act inappropriately. A number of excellent guides exist to help on this question – and on occasions it can be useful to remind public officials of the comments made by Lord Justice Munby: that ‘the local authority, is the servant of those in need of its support and assistance, not their master’”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Easy to follow, readable…heck I had developed to leave a commment!


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