“You say … I hear …” tensions in professional/parent partnerships

In this blog entry Nick Hodge and Katherine Runswick-Cole reflect on some of the factors that might lead to a lack of understanding between practitioners and parents/carers  of children with Special Educational Needs.

Inspired by #festABLE tweets, a blog about dealing with difficult parents of children with SEND  and a very kind mention in Jarlath O’Brien’s blog, we decided to reflect on the issue of parent-professional partnership drawing from our recent book chapter:

Hodge, N. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2017) ‘You Say, I hear’: understanding parent-professional partnerships in special education. In Runswick-Cole, K., Curran, T. and Liddiard, K. (eds) (2017) Palgrave Handbook of Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies, Basingstoke: Palgrave.*

We have long been interested in parent-professional relationships in the often conflict ridden world of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).  From our different subject positions as teacher and parent of a child labeled with SEND, we have had numerous conversations about why it is so difficult for teachers and parents/carers to communicate.  From our work in universities with teachers and parents, we know that, as much as it may feel like this at times, parent-professional conflict is not simply produced by ‘bad’ teachers and ‘troublesome’ parents.  In particular, we reject ways of representing certain types of parents or teachers in negative ways.  We see little value to such an approach.

We know that demands are made on teachers and on parents in systems that make up the legislation, the paperwork, attitudinal and structural barriers to the inclusion of children labeled with SEND.  In the chapter, we drew on Lipsky (1971)’s work on ‘street-level bureaucracy’ or, the paperwork and other demands, to understand how teachers and parents are caught up by the need to meet the demands of the system as much as the demands of the child.

We think that it is this current SEND system that inevitably promotes lack of empathy between teachers and parents in their communications, working against the possibility of productive parent-professional partnerships.

In the chapter, we explored some examples where there seems to be an empathy gap between teacher and parent, describing parents’ reactions to what teachers said to them.

You say … I hear ….

You say…

 

I hear …
Head teacher: have you thought about going back to work?

 

Parent: she thinks I’m an over anxious mother with too much time on my hands.

 

Teaching Assistant:  she was really tired when she came in this morning. Parent: we never go out because of her difficulties with fatigue, we never do the things other families do, and just for once, when we do, you have a go at me! You’re telling me off.

 

Doctor: what’s your job? Parent: what does it matter what my job is?  You are judging me

 

Occupational therapist:  I didn’t tell you about DLA (Disability Living Allowance: A welfare benefit for disabled children and adults) because I knew your partner had a good job.

 

Parent: You shouldn’t be claiming benefits.

 

Teacher: He has said he doesn’t want to go to work experience. You can over rule him at home, but I can’t, he’s seventeen.

 

Parent: Adult services won’t look   after my child properly.

 

Teacher: his teaching assistant reads with him, I have 29 other children in the class to think about.

 

Parent: the teacher doesn’t see my child as her responsibility.
Inclusion Officer: you are not entitled to a Rolls Royce service. We have limited resources that we must allocate fairly.

 

Parent: you are a greedy, pushy, selfish parent.

 

Teacher: I know he’s lashing out but that is what children with autism and epilepsy do.

 

Parent: You don’t see my son, you don’t recognise him as an individual.

 

Speech and Language Therapist: your daughter is making really good progress. Parent: hey?  She’s still really struggling – oh no, they are about to discharge her!

 

Speech and Language Therapist:  I’m sorry but your child doesn’t meet the criteria for our service.  There are some spaces on the anger management classes for parents.

 

Parent: You think I have a problem with anger and I can’t parent my child.
Receptionist at LA offices: [hand over phone so slightly muffled] it’s Mrs Smith on the phone, are you in? Parent: the whole office thinks I’m a problem.

Hodge and Runswick-Cole, 2018: 545

We know that while the examples above are taken from a parent’s perspective, we could just as easily have found examples of teachers, too, feeling that they are engaging with parents who lack empathy.

In the chapter, we explore the work of McKenzie & Scully (2007) to think about how things could be different in these difficult conversations.

In sympathetic moral imagination one does not try to imagine being the other from the inside. Rather, one recognises that the other is different from oneself, one imaginatively engages with her perceptions and experiences, as she represents them, and one responds emotionally to her perspective and her situation. (MacKenzie and Scully, 2007: 347).

Sympathetic moral imagination means that you try to imagine how an event is experienced by the other person, rather than how we think we would experience it if it happened to us.  This is more than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, this is about imagining, as best you can, that you are that person, in their shoes.

It is clear that the current SEND system, of failed reforms and ever increasing funding cuts, does not nurture an environment where sympathetic moral imagination has the space to grow, but we also know from #festABLE that it is possible to create those spaces and to nurture relationships for the best interests of teachers, parents, and, of course, children.

We need to fight current systems and approaches that define children labeled with SEND by what are said to be their deficits and disorders, and, at the same time, strive to engage with sympathetic moral imagination, or just be a bit kinder, in our relationships with each other.

* You can read our chapter in The Palgrave Handbook of Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies – available from libraries.

Nick Hodge, Professor of Inclusive Practice, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University, @goodchap62

Katherine Runswick-Cole, Chair in Education, The University of Sheffield, @k_runswick_cole