Sally Kenney and Kelly-Ann Allen, article first published in Monash Lens
Last year, the principal of a Sydney school communicated to the parent body, perhaps in unusually clear terms, that they needed to “chill out”.
It illustrates the widening gulf between parents, teachers and the school system, which is at breaking point, and the urgent need for policies to be put in place to prevent irreparable damage to the sector – not least children’s learning outcomes.
Parents are emotional creatures – especially when it comes to the performance of their children at school. As a group, they're just as diverse as students within a typical classroom. So why are we surprised when parent-teacher conflicts arise?
Recent stories of parents’ aggression towards teachers and principals highlight a common concern for many school staff that is often cited as a reason for teachers leaving the profession. It's been established, for quite some time, that the cumulative effects of negative social interactions can cause distress, trauma, and have long-term implications for psychological functioning and wellbeing.
Labelling parents is neither constructive nor a solution to the problem. Already we read about ‘helicopter’ and ‘lawnmower’ parents, who are over-involved in their children’s lives, undermining schools in their pursuit of the best possible outcomes for the students. We see similar criticisms of parents reported in the university context, even once their children have crossed the threshold into adulthood.
Labelling parents in this way undermines parent interest and involvement. It devalues their expertise in knowing their own child, and it further generalises parents into the one group.
Labelling parents can also become an obstructive force – “parents” become something to manage; to be wary of; to avoid. School staff may feel hopeless in their ability to help children “with those parents”.
Schools can become hesitant to invite parents into their grounds to participate in school life in meaningful ways, yet this is to the detriment of the child, who ultimately benefits from parental involvement, and teachers and parents working as collaborative partners.
Not all parents are difficult. Many just want the best outcomes for their children, but don't always have the skills needed to communicate this in a nuanced manner; however, we all agree that any form of aggressive and violent behaviour is unacceptable.
What can schools do?
School staff need to have sufficient training and professional development to ensure they're able to manage challenging parents and raise the alarm when parent behaviours may cross boundaries. When a relationship between a parent and a teacher is significantly broken, mediation services may be considered. However, at this point, there's much that can be done to prevent such scenarios from occurring.
Schools can show leadership by being preventative, ensuring their school staff communicate contact procedures with parents at the start of each year so that boundaries and expectations are established early. It's important that boundaries are communicated to allow parents to know acceptable ways to contact staff, and what are reasonable expectations of teachers.
When teachers communicate to parents, have them consider: Do messages that are going home ever communicate positives, or do the parents only hear from me when there is a problem? Achieving a balance in communication can help teachers reinforce to parents that they want to work with, not against them.
Empathy and understanding
School staff should also have awareness that parents, like children, can come from myriad backgrounds. If a parent’s experience with their own schooling was negative, this can impact on how they may interact with a school. Parents who are anxious, for example, may have been anxious well before they became parents, and being responsible for the welfare of others is a new source of worry.
When parents hear about how hard it's going to be for their children to own their own home and cope with ever-increasing cost-of-living pressures, as well as the impacts of AI and the automation of industry, it may increase concern about whether their children will do well enough in school. We need to remember that anxiety can look like many things, anger included, and many parents agonise about their kids' future.
Building parent partnerships
Ultimately, schools must not lose sight of the fact parents are ideal collaborative partners for teachers, working in unison towards positive and shared goals in the best interests of the children they have in common.
The 2006 Family-Schools Partnership Project, led by Dennis Muller, identified several elements of best practice in developing these partnerships. Among these were the need to be “sensitive to parents’ sensibilities”, as well as “realistic, patient, and a bit brave”. Being on the front foot in creating a school culture of best practice in parent engagement could well pave the way to more harmonious relationships between home and school.
School leaders, together with teachers, could also consider meaningful ways for parents to participate in the classroom or school. This may involve harnessing the unique skills, abilities and qualifications a parent may bring to enhance school life for all students. Opportunities for teachers to get to know parents, and vice-versa, may work towards breaking down barriers in communication and prevent an "us and them" dynamic forming.
Understanding that parents bring their own experiences, expectations and worries into this collaboration means that we need to consider what might be behind a parent’s behaviour. School staff need to be astute in both managing difficult behaviours and identifying when more support is required.
Not all parents are difficult; they may just be eager, and with time become a valuable educational resource within the wider school community.
This article was co-authored with Sally Kenney, educational and developmental psychologist, Kilvington Grammar School, and honorary fellow, Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne