SEN and parental engagement

Written by: Garry Freeman | Published:
Image: iStock

When supporting the education and development of children with SEN, effective working with parents is crucial. Garry Freeman offers some practical advice to schools and teachers

Remember the Lamb Report of 2009? Brian Lamb’s inquiry and the report itself focused on parents of children with SEN and in particular the degree to which those parents expressed confidence in the system which was supposed to be meeting the needs of their child.

When the report was published in late 2009, it became the baseline for how schools should be working effectively with parents.

The key point here is that the basic tenets of the Lamb Report apply equally well to all parents, whatever the needs of their child, and since its publication schools have been working hard to improve the effectiveness of their work with parents.

The 2014 SEN Code of Practice (revised in January 2015) once again brought into sharp relief the effectiveness of how we work with parents. The Code refers frequently to schools’ obligations in respect of involving parents as equals – the principle of co-production – but this has thrown up a number of questions:

  • How can we do this effectively to the benefit of the children we teach?
  • How can we reach out to those who are more challenging and more reluctant to communicate constructively with schools?
  • How can we reach out to and learn from colleagues in health and social care? This can be the key to effective partnerships with parents if we are pro-active in harnessing support and care around the child.
  • How can we improve our chances of engaging with more difficult-to-reach, challenging parents?
  • How is effective working with parents fundamental to inclusion and to high-quality provision?

Remember, as Brian Lamb said in his report: “In the most successful schools, the effective engagement of parents has had a profound impact on children’s progress.”

Challenging parents

  • Some parents are challenging because of their own experiences of school/teachers.
  • Sometimes there is a counter-culture which mitigates against what schools are trying to achieve.
  • Many parents have a strong commitment to the concept of family loyalty and this can manifest itself in a conflict of interest.
  • Every parent thinks, in some way, that their child is exceptional.
  • Parents are almost always supportive of school’s efforts but this varies in expression from default deference to line-by-line criticism.

More than anything else, it is about building, embedding and developing a relationship with parents based on mutual trust. On this basis, even when things go awry, as they surely will at some point, you have a framework for putting them right. Parents need to see that we as professionals acknowledge, treat and listen to them as equals.

Drop the labels

This might not seem such an obvious move, but we can go a long way if we can work with parents to focus on the specific needs of their child and the impact of these on their learning – rather than just labelling them.

Dyslexia and dyspraxia are both spectrum conditions: school and parental acknowledgement of this means that everyone can dig deeper to determine the exact nature of the child’s difficulties, deciding on a bespoke basis what can be done to support them. This can be really effective joined-up thinking between home and school.

The team around the child

  • Having established and always made clear that we focus on need, not label, the next step is to let parents see that we in schools can work with other professionals such as health care, social care, psychology services, speech and language services, occupational therapy, and hearing and visually impaired teams to provide support around their child – whatever that support needs to look like.

An excellent way to do this is to open up school resources to other professionals so that school becomes as far as possible a one-stop shop. The best schools already facilitate meetings on their premises between parents and a wide range of other support professionals in order to promote a true, meaningful culture of support.

Parents need to see this

Parents are the experts on their child. As the Lamb Report says, treating parents as “partners with expertise in their children’s needs is crucial to establishing and sustaining confidence”. It continues: “Where things go wrong, the root causes can often be traced to poor communication between school, local authority and parent.” The Code of Practice asserts in a number of ways that the knowledge and understanding that parents have about their children is key information that can help teachers and others to meet their child’s needs. Enabling parents to share their knowledge and engage in positive discussion instils confidence that their contribution is valued and acknowledged. Remember: Engagement = Trust = Effective Provision = Impact.

Key workers

How can we develop a climate for genuine collaboration which increases trust and improves outcomes for your pupils?
This is done largely through consistency of interactions, which in practice means parental interactions with teachers and school staff as a whole.

We should always remember that school-level factors, such as “parent perceived influence” on decisions, have greater impact on levels of perceived trust than contextual factors such as school size, levels of deprivation or prior student attainment.

In the same way that we have ICT champions and others, it is effective to have well-trained, well-informed SEN champions and key workers who can support, guide and mentor staff in their communications with parents. Much of this might fall to the SENCO but it isn’t just their responsibility.

Key workers can include the SENCO, inclusion leaders, higher level teaching assistants, learning mentors, class teachers and members of leadership teams. It is far more about the interpersonal skills of the member of staff than their role in the school.

The role of the SENCO in school

As a key worker for some children, a SENCO can act as an efficient communications bridge between their school colleagues and parents. In the context of the Teachers’ Standards and the Code of Practice, the Three-Wave Model is increasingly accepted and used as the basis for high-quality, universally differentiated provision in schools. This approach broadly entails:

  • Wave 1: Inclusive quality first teaching for all.
  • Wave 2: Additional interventions.
  • Wave 3: Additional highly personalised interventions.

For it to work, and for a SENCO to be the effective in-house special needs consultant to empower their colleagues, accurate and updated information from parents is an absolute pre-requisite. This happens best, most effectively and most purposefully in the context of a mutually trusting relationship between school and home.

The structured conversation

We can the structured conversation as a template for our meetings with parents. In fact we can also use it as the basis for discussions with any professionals. It is a way that we can focus on outcomes for the young person and contribute, again, to the development of a secure, resilient home-school relationship.

In a structured conversation (see the graphic, above) we give a parent our complete attention, actively listening, paraphrasing to show our understanding. Try to maintain regular eye contact and avoid, as far as possible, taking notes during the meeting. This is the one aspect which most staff find difficult and yet, with persistence and determination, it is surprising how quickly we can adapt and train our minds to retain and prioritise the main points of discussion.

This helps us to plan further action by identifying simple, SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound) outcomes and the steps to achieving them.

Finally, the review stage helps to firm up the co-production of our actions. We can:

  • Summarise the conversation, discussion or meeting.
  • Clarify and agree the next steps, such as fix a date for a review or monitoring meeting.
  • Agree how we can keep communicating on the agreed outcomes and next steps.

Five final steps

  • Always focus on how you can work together with parents, whatever the desired outcome.
  • Furnish parents with the means to communicate with you on a regular basis. This a significant element in the development of trust.
  • Keep open your channels of communication, whether that is face-to-face, phone or email.
  • When things don’t go as intended, apologise quickly and sincerely. In a relationship of trust, parents can accept this because we all make mistakes.
  • Above all, build the relationship before you need it!

Remember: establishing, developing and embedding effective working relationships with parents is as fundamental to inclusive practice as differentiation and intervention to include children.

There are many definitions and interpretations of inclusion, one of the most widely used being the feeling that we are being listened to and included in what is happening or is going to happen. The structured conversation is a simple way to enable parents to feel included, and so it is an exemplary way to practise inclusion.

There is a great deal of truth in the assertion (from Jim Ryan in Leading Diverse Schools, 2003) that inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is creating a new space, a better space for everyone. 

Further information

  • Lamb Inquiry: Special educational needs and parental confidence, December 2009:
  • Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0 to 25 years, Department for Education, January 2015:


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