MindMatters Panel: Module 3.3 Sharing concerns with parents

Julia Zemiro:
Hello, I’m Julia. Welcome to the MindMatters panel. Writer Margaret Miller once said, “Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness.” I think we’ve all been there, possibly myself. When we’re concerned about a young person and want to share our concerns with their parents we want to do better than having a monologue. So here to help us learn to share our concerns with parents are: clinical psychologist and family therapist, Andrew Fuller; Centre for Multicultural Youth Education support officer, Placid Jayasuriya; school psychologist, Sarah Inness; teacher Nerissa Rodriguez and parent extraordinaire, Monique Parlevliet. But first let’s see how Phil at Eagleton approaches one of these conversations.

Eagleton High clip:

PHILLIP
When you have concerns about a student, it’s important to share that with parents and families. But that conversation can be very difficult, which is why it’s important to be prepared and have a bit of technique under your belt.

Ah Mr and Mrs Pollock, thank you for staying back. I wanted to talk to you because I’m a little bit concerned about Jackson’s artwork.

MRS POLLOCK
Really? I thought that was a source of great pride for the school.

PHILLIP
It is. Absolutely. But both the content and the context have become increasingly inappropriate.

MRS POLLOCK
In what way? 
Oh my…

PHILLIP 
And there are quite a few of these...
As you can see, what started out small has become increasingly elaborate...

MR POLLOCK
Are you sure it’s Jackson?

PHILLIP
Oh I’m sure. I caught him drawing on the back of my jacket when I was on playground duty last week.
I have to say on a technical level our art department is particularly impressed with this piece. Much attention to detail. 

MR POLLOCK
You want us to punish him?

MRS POLLOCK
No. No, he’s a creative, artistic teenage boy.

PHILLIP
Absolutely - Mr and Mrs Pollock, I’m more interested in finding out what’s driving this behavior. 

MR POLLOCK
He’s so good at home.

PHILLIP
Of course. But I’m afraid we don’t have the opportunity to get to the bottom of this right now. Could we make an appointment next week? With Jackson. And we can explore this matter further – together. 

MRS POLLOCK
Yes, of course. Thank you Mr Bird.

PHILLIP
No, thank you. It’s a pleasure to work with such supportive parents. 
Jackson. 

Julia Zemiro:
Yes. Ah look everybody wants to be Banksy these days don’t they? Well that went quite well but Phil of course makes it look easy. What are some of the difficult or challenging conversations that teachers and parents have?

Sarah Inness: 
About a whole range of issues I think we can think of – anything from graffiti, it can be about behavioural difficulties at school that might result in some consequences that could involve heavy discipline. It could be not being in class – wagging, it could be body image issues – 

Julia Zemiro:
Drugs. Could it be that full on? Sex? 

Sarah Inness: 
Absolutely – drugs, alcohol, sex, sexuality – they can be all very difficult depending on the parents’ backgrounds, their own thoughts, beliefs about those issues. 

Andrew Fuller:
Well I guess one of the most concerning conversations is often around suicidal thoughts. It’s often indirect because it’s often brought to the attention of staff by their friends rather than directly but it’s a cause for immediate action. Now obviously some parents will kind of respond with great, great alarm but it’s interesting over the years there are some parents that when you tell them that their child’s actually been thinking about this and that we have some evidence for that – they’ll kind of respond in a kind of slightly off hand way and I used to think they were being dismissive of the issue. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s actually the sort of bubble of denial and I have to break through that denial to actually help them to realise this is serious – we have to get to the point and work out some strategy for action. And so the point of the conversation we have with a parent around a difficult issue is always to get to some form of action and it’s very important to understand or just really think your way through what is the action I think that’s most appropriate.

Placid Jayasuriya:
One thing we found working with schools is and, you know, I didn’t realise this when I was in the teaching profession but, you know, some of these families may have other support that’s happening at the same time so you’re not the only person trying to have a connection in a wellbeing or a welfare role.

Julia Zemiro:
What if you’re talking to them about problems they’re having at home – I mean because that already feels like a bit of a boundary you’re crossing.

Sarah Inness: 
Yeah. I think that for parents it can be that automatic sense of wanting to –

Julia Zemiro:
Deflect it a little bit and being defensive, which is fair enough –

Sarah Inness: 
Absolutely and protective around what their practices are at home. So it’s maybe sitting down and having that conversation in a way that you might be able to draw out the solutions they have at home and maybe identify some gaps together where they could do with some support and seeing it more as a partnership rather than that conversation of coming in as an expert, giving you my advice or telling you what you should be doing as a parent and allowing that space for acknowledging that there might be difficulties with raising that child and where those gaps are and together figuring that out.

Julia Zemiro:
What else can you do to make it not a blame situation for parents?

Andrew Fuller:
Well it has to be very clear, I mean not every situation sadly can start off being collaborative so you might want to have somebody who sets up the initial interview and then have two other people who do the hard bit of it and then have somebody else who basically finishes off the interview and helps them kind of keep the contact with the school.

Julia Zemiro:
What if you’re not prepared, Sarah?

Sarah Inness: 
Well it’s disastrous sometimes – 

Julia Zemiro:
Preparation is everything.

Sarah Inness: 
Well sometimes you can wing it, I think that sometimes – but a difficult conversation you need to be prepared, you need to have an idea about – - 

Julia Zemiro:
I mean teachers wing it every day, all the time and that’s their brilliance as well. I mean you have to because you don’t know what’s going to happen, you go in with this brilliant teacher, with this plan and it goes out the window half way through. But in this situation… 

Sarah Inness: 
I think in this situation where Phil’s sitting down and having an off the cuff conversation with Jackson’s parents, he acknowledges at least he gets this much right that this is not the time to be having this conversation and setting up more time later on to have a more difficult conversation. So that’s the first thing I would say – make sure you’ve got the right time and place set up in agreeance. Maybe have an outline of what you’re meeting there for. I’ve been taught by parents over the years that if you’re having a difficult conversation don’t just ring them up and say ‘I want to talk to you,’ – you’ve been summoned into the counsellor’s office or summoned into the deputy principal’s office because the anxiety just goes up, so having a little bit of an agenda like Phil says – We need to talk about this, I’d like to have an understanding about what’s happening, how we can support your child. I think that’s really important that you’ve already set an agenda even emailing that out to a parent before they come in so then they know, that they’re prepared a little bit emotionally for that and they can come in and talk a bit from their point of view and the anxiety will still be there but it won’t be as strong.

Julia Zemiro:
Should a student be involved there?

Sarah Inness: 
It depends on what things, of course you don’t want a student involved when it’s regarding some discipline issues that perhaps you need to lash out some consequences or maybe the parents would like to talk more about their relationship at home with their child. I think there are some times when you need the child involved. Yeah.  

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Sometimes it’s the language barriers. You might attempt to use a student to interpret for you and in some cases you can’t do that –

Placid Jayasuriya:
Yeah, exactly, again, it depends on the situation and, you know, it’s very easy for a family and for the schools sometimes to use the student for the translation because it’s quicker, it’s there, ready to go but, you know, having those difficult conversations you just need to be really, you know, is this the right place for this young person to be? So maybe it’s not fair for the parents themselves because the young person may not be translating it properly.

Julia Zemiro:
Wow. I didn’t even think of that before – I’m so naive – I’ve gone ‘of course they’ll say “I’m in trouble because I cheated,” of course they’re not going to say, “I’m in trouble because I’m pretty.”

Placid Jayasuriya:
But even some of the concepts to translate could be difficult for that young person. So having a professional interpreter or having your multicultural education aides if you’re lucky to have one at your school, using those tools to support the conversation so it’s for both really, for the parents and for the teacher.

Monique Parlevliet:
Can I just say also, I think sometimes the reverse can be true too that if the conversation is flowing even if you had something else to go to, if it’s something that could be rescheduled, then maybe excuse yourself. Because from a parent’s point of view if I was actually going, you know, I need to talk about stuff and we were getting into the conversation I would hate to be told we have to do this at a different time. Like obviously there’s going to be times when it’s unavoidable but yeah I think it would also be good if the schools sometimes were able to sometimes go with the flow and go yeah we need to – this conversation’s working so let’s have this conversation now.

Julia Zemiro:
Now, how do you manage a parent who is angry or aggressive?

Sarah Inness: 
I think it’s important to make sure you look after yourself so if you know already that there’s some difficulties with a parent and they start to approach you, make sure that you’re in a place where you can make a discreet and quick exit if you do need to. But also difficult parents or more aggressive parents, it’s really important to have someone else there with you to share that. I’ll often ask if it’s ok if I can have someone else come in or just say today we’re meeting with so and so today and that we’re just meeting as a team, and so that way you’re protecting yourself and if that parent wants to lash out you’re safe. You’re in a bit of a safer place. So it’s important to keep your head and try and be calm. Give them some space to say what they need to say and often you might not be able to answer those questions or concerns straight up. But I think Andrew mentioned earlier was really nice to say ‘Is this something I need to know right now or is this something you want me to do something about?’ and then figuring out do we need to escalate it say to a deputy principal or a principal if this is such a significant concern that’s causing so much angst or is this something you need me to hold on to? Sometimes the anger isn’t directed at us as staff in schools, it’s more about the whole situation, and it might be about how it’s being managed. 

Julia Zemiro:
Because parents can have different views about the same child.

Sarah Inness: 
Absolutely. Yes and I think that’s typical for many families and that depends on how the relationships are going at home.

Julia Zemiro:
Yeah. I mean it’s funny we don’t want to label and you say oh we’ll use the term ‘difficult’ but angry and aggressive are two very good words you can use to describe what’s going on so what else could you do?

Andrew Fuller:
Well the first thing I think is to realise that threes aren’t good. So groups of three people would generally result in two people ganging up against the third. So fours are far safer than threes. So you’re either going to have a conversation with the student by themselves and then the parent by themselves or if you’re going to have both have one parent and the student in the room and if you think it’s possibly going to be fractious you need to have a colleague there. Which means of course that planning is essential. It’s also then about modular – just as it is with engagement in a classroom it’s modulating the level of energy of the class. When you’re dealing with somebody who’s in a heightened mood you’re also modulating their level of energy. So you obviously have some difficult things that you need to convey to that person and you’re uncertain how they’re going to react and so what you’re watching for is how their energy goes. Because if it gets too high it can escalate into aggression, so one of the ways of course of calming ourselves down is by being able to express ourselves. So it maybe that rather than finding yourself doing a bit of a monologue you might have a short comment and then you might flick to them and say ‘What do you think?’ and give them a chance to kind of – and wait til they’ve cooled down a bit before you put in the next part.

Julia Zemiro:
These are all very serious issues, can you just check in with parents –  random, lighter, just ‘How’s everything going?’ 

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Yeah definitely.

Julia Zemiro:
Without them feeling kind of like ‘What, what have I done wrong?’ and it’s like ‘nothing, just checking in, just hoping everything –  ’

Sarah Inness: 
Well that’s it. I think that that works well. I will sometimes just check – follow in after a holiday period and just check in with a parent and say ‘How have things been over the break?’. Acknowledging that sometimes two weeks away from school and at home, within that environment seeing the same people can actually increase some negative behaviours. But it can also be incredibly relaxing and so getting a sense or a picture of how a student’s coming back to school – but there are other times that you can check in and it doesn’t have to be a serious thing and I think it’s part of building a relationship with your parents.

Julia Zemiro:
And can checking in just actually put it on the parents’ radar that they should just be aware what’s going on in that way?

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Yeah, definitely, and parents appreciate that fact that you take your time and make a phone call and they know that you care about their child. And it makes such a big difference.

Placid Jayasuriya:
Checking in will actually help the teacher and the parent to have those difficult conversations perhaps later on. We’ve talked about how having that positive relationship from the get go, and having those positive interactions and maybe use – coming back to some of those when you’re having those difficult conversations. And I think it’s even probably more important for the parent to know that, hang on, consistently over the six months or 12 months this is the way they have behaved with me, the communication and the relationship, you know so it gives the parent a little bit of trust. 

Julia Zemiro:
Trust. A little bit of trust – they know that they can go to that teacher.

Placid Jayasuriya:
That’s right and also that it may not be as bad as it seems –

Julia Zemiro:
It’s not a panic.

Placid Jayasuriya:
Or it’s not that they have a thing against their child because it’s not consistent. They’ve been supporting and giving their feedback and updates throughout the years so. 

Julia Zemiro:
In this conversation we’ve talked a lot about the need to be open minded. Which reminds me of a quote by the British poet John Wilmot who once said, “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.”