'Difficult' parents in schools

Most teachers will say that the vast majority of their school’s parents are a genuine pleasure to work with. They’re supportive, respectful and appreciate the efforts of staff.

This is a good thing. The research is quite clear that when parents and teachers are working together well, better outcomes are achieved for students.

But the reality is that some parents can be very difficult to work with. From my work in schools throughout Australia, I can vouch that this is true across the socio-economic spectrum, in both public and private schools. Teachers expect to deal with challenging behaviour from students. But the behaviour from parents can often be far more challenging.

Here are a few of the challenges educators deal with:

  1. Disengaged parents: At one extreme are parents, some from well-to-do families, who are very difficult to engage, who don’t answer calls from the school, respond to messages, support their children with homework, or attend parent / teacher interviews. Some disengaged parents are sending their children to school irregularly or late, poorly fed and clothed, with poor personal hygiene.
     
  2. Unreasonable parents: Why should their child have to do homework? Can a teacher give their child a better grade even though the child’s work hasn’t met the standard? Does their child really have to do religious education in a faith-based school? Why isn’t the school coming down hard on a particular student (when the evidence would indicate this is not justified)?

    These parents often believe everything their child has to say and fail to appreciate another perspective, their own responsibilities, or their child’s contribution to a difficulty.

  3. Upset or angry parents: Yes, there are times when parents are right to be upset, particularly when their reasonable expectations have not been met. But some parents misread the situation and become so upset they appear incapable of hearing what school staff have to say. Many can be quite loud and disrespectful, using offensive language. Some threaten litigation if they are not given what they want.

    In a 2009 study by Duncan, Riley and Edwards, Bullying in Australian Schools, more than 80% of 2500 teachers and school staff said they had been bullied by parents.

  4. Physically aggressive parents: Figures show that violent attacks on teachers are on the rise in every State in Australia. In South Australia, for example, incidents of violence against teachers doubled from 231 in 2012, to 469 in 2014, spiking to 549 last year. Some parents believe they are entitled to act in such ways. Too often, such aggressive behaviour is also occurring at the parents’ home, further contributing to difficulties for the children.

School leaders are often on the receiving end of such behaviour. A 2015 study, The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, found that Principals and Deputy / Assistant Principals experience far higher prevalence of offensive behaviour at work each year than the general population.

Principals and teachers often tell me that they believe the problem is getting worse. And, apparently, they are not imagining it.

According to the same 2015 study, bullying or other aggressive behaviour from parents, including threats of violence and actual violence, has increased. The levels were extremely high in 2011 (about 4 times higher than the general population). By 2015, the rate had increased to 7 to 8 times the rate of the general population.

No wonder that Principals, Deputy / Assistant Principals, and teachers, are leading the way when it comes to claims for workplace-related stress. Educators not only see parent-teacher communication as one of their biggest challenges, but also an area in which they are least prepared.

The good news is that there are a range of strategies that can win most parents over. But the reality is that you don’t win them all. There are some parents who are so unwell or who behave so badly, that backup plans need to be in place to reduce the risk of litigation, protect professional reputations, and, in extreme cases, ensure personal safety.


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