Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Threatening behaviour

A fist

The vast majority of parents are supportive of schools' policies and decisions. But what happens when they're not? There are ways to handle distressed, angry and aggressive parents.

It may be a myth that ever a time existed when parents filed meekly into the headmasters' office, were sternly told that Johnny wasn't meeting standards and what they were to do about it, and left solemnly swearing it wouldn't happen again.

If that time ever did exist, certainly it now has gone the way of slide rules and corporal punishment. And in some cases it has gone too far.

Of course schools want parents to take an active, questioning role in their children's education. But it is a reality that incidents of parents confronting and even threatening school staff are on the rise.

Understandably, dealing with distressed and angry parents is an area for concern and even anxiety for many teachers. However, there are measures that can be taken, both by a school and individual staff members, to help them deal confidently with these stressful situations.

Senior leaders will first want to accurately gauge how widespread incidents are. Recording actual incidents and monitoring staff concern can help to keep the issue in perspective. Otherwise, a cycle of defensiveness could creep into all parent-teacher contact which will prove counter-productive in the long-term.

Ways of dealing with distressed and angry parents could be addressed in a staff well-being policy. If the issue is discussed and appropriate resources identified, staff are likely feel better supported and therefore more confident.

Procedures for personal safety are particularly important and some schools organise training for this on a regular basis. It is also important that support systems are in place and that they are simple and flexible.

Individual staff members also need to take responsibility for identifying the support they need and to develop coping strategies. Staff will be better able to deal with stressful situations if they pay attention to work-life balance, replenish their personal reserves, and develop a daily, weekly and monthly plan that is realistic and revitalising.

Being proactive and planning for such eventualities help staff feel more confident and well supported when relationships with parents take a negative turn.

Physical clues

When people are distressed or angry, they may not openly express their feelings. In a face-to-face situation, parents may give off clues such as:

  • facial expression, particularly clenched teeth and loss of eye contact

  • body language such as clenched fists, changes in posture or hunching shoulders

  • change in voice tone and pitch, shrill or harsh tones, braking or quavering speech

  • increased rate of speech

  • breathlessness or sighs

  • silences

When facing an upset parent, teachers need to remember foremost that they are most likely not the direct cause of the distress or anger. However difficult it is, they will be more successful if they can distance their personal feelings from the facts and the situation while with the parent.

One coping strategy is to summarise regularly what the parent is saying during the incident. This does not mean agreeing or disagreeing.

Concentrating on their feelings and the details they provide demonstrates good listening skills and parents will be more likely to feel their concerns have been heard accurately.

Crossing the line

A small minority of parents demonstrate serious disaffection and anti-social behaviour involving verbal abuse or even physical attacks on staff, other parents or students.

The law is not suspended in a school context. Assault (an intentional or reckless act that causes someone to be put in fear of immediate physical harm whether or not there is physical contact) and battery (an intentional or reckless application of force) can both lead to a fine or up to six months' imprisonment. Assault resulting in actual bodily harm can lead to up to five years' imprisonment.

There may also be action for damages, which may include loss of actual and potential future earnings. The DfES has published guidance on school safety which goes into these matters in greater detail.

A parent is a visitor on school property and may be asked to leave. Failure to do so constitutes trespass. A head or principal has the right to ban a parent from a school site but should initially do so on a temporary basis through a letter asking whether there is any reason not to make the ban permanent.

There is no safe way to deal with parents under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is nearly impossible to reason with them and their reactions will be unpredictable.

For occasions like this, a school needs personal safety guidelines so that staff know how they are expected to deal with situations where their personal safety may be at risk.

One possible response is to say it is not possible to talk at the moment, ask the parent to telephone for an appointment, then politely and firmly ask him or her to leave the premises.

Dealing with confrontation will never be easy, but giving staff the tools and training to deal with situations when they arise is the first step.

This information was provided by Eithne Leming, Head of First Base Ipswich, a pupil referral unit for children ages 3-8 with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

More information

The DfES's A Legal Toolkit for Schools provides information about dealing with aggressive behaviour toward staff www.teachernet.gov.uk/wholeschool/behaviour/behaviour

Dealing with extreme situations

The following checklist can help to assess how prepared and confident staff are to deal with difficult situations.

  • What monitoring arrangements are in place for ensuring staff personal safety? Do all staff know about these?

  • Is there a strategy for supporting staff who have dealt with a distressing incident? Have staff had training in personal safety and dealing with incidents?

  • Do support strategies and training link with a staff well-being policy?

  • Are there guidelines to help deal with particular situations, such as racist incidents?

  • Are members of the leadership team aware when to seek advice from their professional association?

  • What protocols are there for inter-agency co-operation where parents have a pattern of making allegations or excessive demands on staff? How is information shared and how does it fit with the Freedom of Information Act and data protection?

Negotiating strategies

When confronted with an angry or distressed parent, staying calm and in control is easier said than done. The following strategies may help:

  • Be aware of your own body language. Adopt an open and non-threatening posture and speak softly even if the parent is shouting.

  • Offer to speak to the parent in a private setting.

  • Use 'I' statements rather than 'you'. For example, "I feel that (student's name) has not given you the whole picture," rather than, "Your son/daughter has not told you the truth."

  • Try to gain clarity about the parent's situation or concern. This will help both of you to keep focused and to establish the facts.

  • Let the parent talk without interruption; curtailing the flow only fuels the anger. Allow silences.

  • Acknowledge the feelings expressed: "I can see that you're unhappy about?"

  • Avoid hurrying the parent. If you do not have time, offer a choice: "You can arrange an appointment to discuss this later today, or I will find someone else who can speak to you straight away."

  • Avoid giving advice at an early stage. This way parents can make their own decisions and will be less likely to blame you if the option they chose does not work out.

  • Be clear about the boundaries of your role but ensure that you take responsibility appropriately. State clearly what you can do for the parent.

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