A lot of work goes into supporting students that struggle with learning difficulties or behavioural problems at school. But the truth is, a student doesn't live in isolation and whatever problems he or she has at school flows on to the rest of the family. Parents can find themselves dealing with these difficulties relentlessly as the school tries to balance the student's needs with those of the rest of the class. And unless there is some support for the parents themselves, they can struggle to hold it all together. When overwhelmed parents are no longer able to function well, the student suffers and in turn, so does the school as the problems escalate. There is a finely balanced ecosystem between the school and home and it's in everyone's best interests for it to be healthy.
So what can teachers do to support overwhelmed parents?
1. Provide a Safe Space for Conversation
Many people associate school with authority due to their own childhood experiences. Plenty of parents know the dread of a phone call or message from school, accompanied by the feeling of being “in trouble” or reluctance to see the principal (possibly as a legacy from their own school days). Problems at school often bring up negative feelings and memories.
To combat any negative feelings or perceptions, it is imperative that teachers create neutral territory if open conversation is to occur. This space must be a judgment-free zone where teachers can encourage overwhelmed parents to talk about what is happening at home and ways that the school can help to empower them to face the challenges in their lives.
2. Be an Active Listener
Encourage parents to open up about what is going on in their lives by making it clear that you are willing to listen. When they do begin a conversation, be an active listener by making eye contact, giving the conversation your full attention, reflecting back some of the things that have been said and expressing empathy.
For some people, feeling heard can empower them to face the challenges in their lives. It can give them the strength that they need if they feel that someone is on their side and understands what they are going through. It can also remove any negative feelings associated with school from their own school days.
3. Work Together on Strategies
The home-school ecosystem works best when all parties work together to solve problems. If this doesn't happen, overwhelmed parents or poorly functioning schools can become part of the problem.
In the case of overwhelmed parents, this can mean working together on a strategy that might work for getting homework done, for example. Or it might mean figuring out a plan for helping a student with reading at home, or some strategies for getting to school on time. It will be something that is specific to that family and their situation, so a “one size fits all” approach won't work.
4. Be Flexible
You might find that you spend a lot of time putting together an action plan and you have great hopes that it will work for everyone and solve some problems. But after a week or two, it's possible that a parent will come to you and tell you that the plan you worked so hard on just isn't working. You might feel disappointed, but be prepared to start again and work on something new or tweak the original plan to make it more user-friendly. Finding a solution is usually a process of trial and error so be patient until you find something that works and is mutually satisfactory.
5. Communicate Regularly
It's important to stay in touch even if you have provided some support for overwhelmed parents and things are working better. A teacher's life is busy and it's easy to think that the problems have been solved or reduced and you no longer need to be involved in that situation. But small gestures can go a long way to maintaining the gains you have made.
Parents love to hear about any little victories and success that their child has had. Even though it might seem unnecessary, a note or a text about a student's achievements or progress has can be highly encouraging to a parent. It may provide motivation to keep going; success breeds success. Even an occasional phone call or note to encourage them or ask how they are going can provide a big boost to an overwhelmed parent.
Small things can make a big difference. If you would like to know more about how you can support any overwhelmed parents in your school, feel free to contact us. We would love to hear from you!