Meeting tips 4: Handling conflict effectively

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When parents and carers raise issues, schools will often respond more positively than you might imagine. Sometimes conflict does occur, but there are ways to handle it effectively.

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Disagreement does not always mean conflict

In the course of your child’s many years at school, there are likely to be times when you and your child’s teachers or other staff disagree. You have different perspectives on many issues – that’s natural. Students do their best when their families and school share their different perspectives and knowledge, and work as a team.

A disagreement between you and the school does not have to be a problem, or turn into major conflict. All of the strategies in this section of Learning Together, and throughout the resource, will help you to develop an effective working relationship with your child’s school and to resolve issues early, before they turn into big problems.

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Respect everyone’s views and be open to suggestions

When discussing a concern or problem with the school, stay focussed on getting the best outcome for your child, but remember that everyone has something to contribute. You are an expert in your child’s needs and strengths, while each staff member brings their own expertise in their professional roles. Look for common ground and give positive feedback where you can – this will help to build respect and trust, and make people more open to criticism.

Try to give specific examples of your concern whenever you can, but remember that that are usually a number of perspectives on a given event, and that there might be other factors that you or your child are unaware of. Your child’s perspective and your perspective are crucial. However, investigating every angle and listening to all views will help everybody to understand the problem better, and that will help you to work out the most effective solution.

You can show respect for others’ views by asking their opinion, and by using “I” statements when you make suggestions. “I was thinking this idea might help, what do you think?” or “I would prefer it if the school did this”.

Don’t be distracted or dissuaded from achieving your main objective – a better outcome for your child. But try to be open to alternative solutions to the problem, which might be just as effective, or even more so, than your initial ideas. When seeking solutions to a problem, one idea is to have a ‘brainstorm’ – where all ideas are offered without judgement – and then to talk over the merits of each suggestion before agreeing on a way forward.

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Active listening – a very useful tool

Sometimes, people in a discussion do not always listen well to what the other person is saying, because they are thinking about what they want to say next. This is particularly the case if you disagree with someone – you might be rehearsing your arguments in your head, rather than really focussing on their words, and trying to understand their perspective. It’s hard to find a solution that works for everyone, if people do not listen to one another well.

Active listening means staying quiet and calm when another person is speaking, and focussing on what they are saying. You can take notes if it helps. It’s often a good idea to repeat back the person’s main points back, to show that you are listening, and to check you understood their meaning: “I think you are saying x and y. Is that right?”

Non-verbal communication is also very relevant. When you are actively listening, your body language shows this. Different people have different styles of non-verbal communication, for example depending on their cultural background and personality. However, common ways to show you are listening include turning and looking towards the speaker, nodding, making acknowledging sounds like “Mmm-hmm”, and “Uh-huh”, and perhaps eye contact.

It is easier to listen well to other people in a meeting if you know you have prepared well, and are clear about what you want to say. You might take in your own notes of key points you want to cover. This will help you to give others your full attention, because you know that when it is your turn to speak, you won’t forget something important that you wanted to say.

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Problems are part of life – but solving them can lead to breakthroughs

Speaking up to someone in authority can be intimidating. Many people find it difficult to raise problems, criticise others and handle conflict. Teachers and others can also sometimes become upset or find it difficult to handle conflict or criticism. We are all human. Taking a break in such a situation can be helpful for everyone.

The fact is, disagreements and problems are part of life. If you and the school can work together to solve problems before they get bigger, everyone will benefit. And as Limor’s story shows, confronting and working through a problem will not only help your child directly – it can potentially deepen the understanding and partnership between you and your child’s teachers. And that’s good for everyone.

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