The Challenges of Dealing with Parents in Conflict Situations

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 16 April 2018
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

One of the most challenging aspects of school leadership is dealing with parents in conflict situations. It may once have been the expectation that when problems arose with a pupil, parents would sit in an embarrassed silence in the head’s office and hear what they should do with their erring offspring. If that time ever did exist, it has certainly long gone. The pendulum may now have swung too far in the other direction. A recent article in The Belfast Telegraph is an alarming account of what can happen when a head teacher is faced with threatening behaviour from a parent both at school, at home and on social media. 

The fact that the police and courts supported the principal and that the parent received a suspended jail sentence is reassuring, but does not mitigate the trauma and anxiety endured. The principal rightly says that “no training could prepare you to cope with such extreme behaviour”. This does not appear to be an isolated case. In April 2015 The Independent reported that teachers and particularly head teachers are increasingly facing serious abuse from parents both in person and on social media.

“Teachers are increasingly being abused online by their pupils’ parents – with growing numbers forced to endure personal insults, sexual smears and even threats. New research shows that parents – rather than children – are the driving force behind a sharp rise in the number of teachers complaining of being abused on social media.

The survey of 1500 teachers by NAS/UWT in 2015 quoted that increasing numbers of teachers had videos or photos taken of them without consent and posted online by pupils and that threats made against them by a parent were also on the rise. This is happening most commonly on Facebook, but there have also been rises in pupils using newer sites such as Instagram and Snapchat to abuse teachers.”

While the most serious harassment examples obviously require intervention by the police and legal protections, training for senior school leaders in this area can help. I have already discussed problems of social media abuse in my article on “How to Handle Difficult Conversations in Schools”. With the help of Michele Berry of Charis Consultancy, ASCL Northern Ireland provided training workshops for school leaders in dealing with face to face conflict in the workplace. Good advice which was offered in those sessions, equally relevant to meeting distressed or angry parents, recommended that it is vital to listen calmly to the parent and allow them to “have their say”. This assumes that they are not crossing lines in terms of personal insults or threatening behaviour in which case the meeting should immediately be terminated.

Parents feel a deep-seated need to defend their offspring – even when they are in the wrong and it simply frustrates them if they are denied the opportunity to discharge this responsibility. The temptation, of course, is to interrupt when criticisms or negative comments are made about the school as a head’s natural instinct is to be equally protective of the institution and staff. When the parent is finished then the issues and possible consequences which the pupil’s behaviour or actions have raised can be discussed.

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. The vast majority of parents are supportive of schools' policies and decisions. But how should school leaders act when parents are distressed, angry and aggressive?

Having a visitor policy which can be publicised, by displaying suitable posters in areas of the school that may be entered would be a necessary first step. Examples are common in hospitals and doctor’s surgeries already. NAHT and ASCL both have excellent advice on these measures. Suggestions include outlining the actions to take when an incident arises, including asking the person to come into a more private space or to leave; emergency contact details; how to record the incident; possible responses by the school including banning visits and legal action. The policy should be accompanied by a risk assessment identifying potential risks to staff and appropriate actions to take.

An ASCL Leader article gives useful warning signs for potential aggressive behaviour by visitors. These include facial expression, particularly clenched teeth and loss of eye contact,

body language such as clenched fists, changes in posture or hunching shoulders; changes in voice tone and pitch, shrill or harsh tones, braking or quavering speech; increased rate of speech, breathlessness or sighs or silences.

The article recommends that when facing an upset parent it should be remembered that we are most likely not the direct cause of the parental anger. However difficult, it is best to remain emotionally detached from the situation while with the parent. It is helpful to summarise regularly what the parent is saying during the incident without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing. As suggested above, concentrating on their feelings and the details they provide demonstrates good listening skills and parents will be more likely to feel that their concerns have been properly heard. Unfortunately, as the Belfast Telegraph story outlines, a small minority of parents can demonstrate anti-social behaviour involving verbal abuse or even physical attacks on staff, other parents or students.

Providing staff training on the warning signs and actions to take when problems arise is certainly a good idea for schools. The Leader article also emphasises that the law applies equally in a school context as it does in society outside. “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.”

NAHT advice for dealing with violent or aggressive behaviour summarises perfectly the objective for us all in these uncertain times;

“At all times the common purpose remains clear: to achieve zero tolerance of violence, threatening behaviour or abuse in schools, and to ensure all members of the school community, and all visitors to the school, can be confident that they are operating within a safe environment.”


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This article is correct at 16/04/2018

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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