How Does Your School Deal with ‘Problematic’ Parents?

Published
18 August 2016

Some parents, for a variety of reasons, have problems with their child's school, a teacher of the school or procedures that operate within the school. In many cases, these parents do not deal with their problems through the school’s complaints processes.

Sometimes this is because the complaints processes are not well known, not easily accessible or considered to be too difficult, or perhaps the parents believe that they will not be given a fair hearing. In other instances, parents use the correct channels and procedures but do not wish to abide by the outcomes of the grievance process. Although the school may have followed correct procedure, parents who do not accept the determination are challenged for not ‘following the umpire’s decision’.

‘One of the reasons that is often cited by schools for not effectively managing complaints is that they would be overrun with complaints from pushy Type A parents and they can’t avoid to allocate resources to this process.  Unfortunately, this amounts to letting pushy Type A parents control the agenda whilst the legitimate feedback of other parents that really does reflect on your school’s standards of services is not captured effectively.’ The issue of complaints handling has been detailed in a paper written by James Field, Managing Director of CompliSpace and presented at the 2014 ANZELA Conference. The paper can be accessed here.

Regardless of the reasons behind the failure to use the school’s complaints processes, parents see their problems as very real and their perception of the complaints handling process is often exacerbated by the school's opinion on 'correct' parent behaviour at the school, in public venues or on social media or towards specific staff.

However, it is arguable that an angry parent is better than an absent parent. While not ideal, this anger often conveys advocacy. Parents generally will cooperate if they believe that the teacher or the school genuinely cares about their child, has their child's interest at heart and respects them as parents.

These are not new issues and all schools have to deal with parents who, for a variety of reasons, require careful management and/or a good deal of time. For example, “Teacher Retention and Attrition: Views of Early Career Teachers” Buchanan and Prescott et.al. from the University of Technology Sydney state:

“Learning how to deal with parents can also be a problem for inexperienced teachers. Participants complained about some parents’ lack of interest on the one hand or their hostility on the other. They also reported their discomfort at being effectively child-minders for some students in later years of high school, who were staying at school even though they and their parents had little apparent interest in their education.”

Gruber and Gruber, in their article ‘10 Tips to Deal with Difficult Parents Effectively’ provide some excellent advice for teachers who are experiencing either disengaged or ‘helicopter’ parents. And while a quick internet search brings up dozens of references for teachers, it reaps very little information for schools on a broader level.

Some schools believe that if they have a ‘Parent Code of Conduct’, and if they ensure that this is incorporated into the enrolment contract, that they can exercise their ‘right to admonish’ parents who breach the Code, by ending the enrolment of the child.

If schools choose to use a Code of Conduct for parents, they should consider the following terms: Parents are expected to follow the Parent Code of Conduct. Serious breaches of the code may lead to the withdrawal of your children from the School. The terms ‘serious’ and ‘may’ both allow a generous scope for interpretation by the school. In addition, each case would have to be judged on its own merit–with the addition of legal advice.

In most schools, the enrolment contract usually only identifies who is legally liable to pay the fees. Codes of Conduct, although valuable tools to ensure that parents are aware of their rights and responsibilities, can be more difficult to enforce. If a parent fails to pay school fees, in general, this can be a fairly clear process. If the enrolment contract is well written, the school is in a reasonable position to seek legal recourse or can end the enrolment of the student and then seek legal recourse for the outstanding fees. Generally, it is a standard breach of the contract.

However, it can be extremely problematic to end the enrolment of a student solely on the basis of the behaviour of a parent. Schools should seek legal advice before thinking about progressing down this path for a number of reasons:

  1. Firstly, and most importantly, what has the child done? If the child’s ongoing enrolment is not being brought under scrutiny for ongoing breaches of the schools behaviour management policies, then to end the enrolment on the basis of poor parent behaviour could be considered to be discriminatory. There is a huge difference between the expulsion of a child for very poor behaviour and the ending of the enrolment of a child.
  2. Secondly, is it possible to provide solid evidence that a parent has a ‘poor attitude’ or that the parent has simply ‘breached the code of conduct’? It could be argued that you can’t take ‘attitude’ to court! Sometimes, there can be evidence of ongoing ‘bullying behaviour’ towards staff and/or aggressive emails and correspondence; but the behaviours need to be on-going and the school should show evidence that it has followed its anti-bullying policy. Behaviours can, and should be, identified, recorded and brought to the attention of the parent by the principal. This could be considered to provide evidence to support a case to end an enrolment.
  3. Thirdly, if the issues are being raised on public social media platforms, has the school met with the parents and asked them to remove the comments? Has the school investigated if the social media provider is prepared to have inappropriate comments removed? Does the school have a policy that addresses negative comments on social media by parents?
  4. Finally, if a parent has a grievance, has the parent really been heard? Has the school given the parent a genuine opportunity for the problems to be aired, reviewed and acted upon? Have there been any formal meetings where the school can show evidence that they have fulfilled the requirements of their policies and their obligations to the parents? Is the principal approachable?

If the school believes that they have followed due process and that they have given the parents time to present their grievance, or if the school sees the behaviour as problematic or unjustifiable behaviour, then there are other steps that can be followed before immediately seeking to end the enrolment of the child.

  1. The parent should be brought in for an interview and the issues about the parent’s behaviour towards the school or the staff need to be presented clearly and in an open and fair manner. The parent should be given the right to respond and, if necessary, the right to have a supporter present. Following this, the school should document the outcomes of the meeting (not all of the details), indicating the requirements for the school and the parent to follow and a consequence if this is not done.
  2. Should the parent continue to exhibit poor or problematic behaviours, the school could then limit the contact points for the parent–for example, the parent may then be advised that they may only contact the deputy principal or the head of school. Once again, this should be raised in a formal meeting and documented in a letter. This is often done to support teaching and non-teaching staff who simply do not have the time or appropriate venue to deal with a demanding or aggressive parent on a regular basis.
  3. Should the parent cause further issues with the deputy principal or head of school then the contact could then possibly be only through the principal. It would also be advisable to report the matter to the school board as any further escalation of the issue may require board intervention. Once again, it is recommended that this is dealt with in a face to face meeting with a follow up letter of confirmation.
  4. Finally, and always following legal advice, the school can ask the parent not to attend the school premesis. This does not stop the child from attending but as most non-government schools are generally independent, they have a right to refuse access onto their campus by a person if they choose to do so. This is really a very drastic step and it should only be used in extreme circumstances and with a finite time frame.

Note that escalations of this type are rare and sometimes they can also result in legal actions against the schools. If the school shows that it has followed a fair, transparent, and reasonable process (as per their policies), the school will be in a far better position to fight any possible legal claim.

Does your school have a culture of openness regarding parent complaints? Do you have documented processes in place to deal with problematic or aggressive parents?

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.