Engaging Parents & Guardians

Parents may be understandably cautious about engaging school personnel for a variety of reasons: concerns that the child may be stigmatized or pigeonholed; concerns that school personnel may push treatment in the direction of settling the child during the school day, even if that treatment does not optimally serve the child; concern that school personnel may use information gleaned from their participation in order to deny services the parent/guardian sees as necessary under FAPE; prior negative experience with treatment or with school personnel.

While no one approach is likely to work in all circumstances, and in some cases, it will remain difficult to engage a family, strategies for engaging parents/guardians that appear reluctant include:

1. Assessment of the reasons for the reluctance by specifically asking: “It sounds like you are not in agreement with the idea of referral for an evaluation/the idea of school staff talking with the clinician. If I were in your shoes, I might feel the same way. Can you tell me what your concerns are? Perhaps we can address them while still getting your child’s needs met”

It is reasonable then to craft a plan that attends to the parent/guardian concerns. For example: “It sounds like you are concerned that we will misunderstand what the clinician is saying and your child will be the worse off for it. What if we were to agree that we convey information to, but not receive information from, the clinician. Or what if we were to agree that all communication happens with you present?”

2. Education for the parent/guardian regarding the benefits of an assessment or of communication between school personnel and clinicians. Generally, you’ll get a more receptive audience if you make it clear that such engagement (referral or communication between school personnel and clinicians) is completely up to them, and will not happen without their consent. It may be best to assume that the parent/guardian is completely new to mental health services and therefore needs some orientation to why you are recommending an evaluation. Here is one narrative about rationale for such engagement:

“Apart from family life, a child spends most of her or his time at school. School staff may have valuable observation and experience of your child. Including them in the process stands to benefit your child in a number of ways: Their observations about your child’s function and behavior may provide clues leading to an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan; they will likely be able to help track outcome of treatment; should your child require school-based services, including them on the team may increase the chances they will recognize the need for, and support the idea of your child receiving these services. Should you have a concern that a school personnel has misunderstood or misread your child, a well-executed process of diagnosis and treatment planning might lead to better consensus regarding your child’s circumstance. Most schools have their staff operate as a team, so you may elect to engage other members of the team at school in order to support this process. Open dialogue between clinicians and school staff will also support clinicians being able to make specific recommendations to school staff about how to address issues that arise during the school day. Moreover, clinicians can help school staff and parents come to consensus about needed school-based services.”

3. Never worry alone. It may be that the parent/guardian would be more amenable to engaging with another member of your team; provide for that possibility.

4. Think relationship over time, rather than single encounter. In some cases, it will take time to engender enough trust so that a parent can accept the idea of a referral. If there is not imminent danger, that goal may be best supported by taking an incremental approach rather than by pushing so hard as to precipitate more defensiveness.