As a new-in-post SENCO who is preparing to welcome back pupils and staff this September, once you have familiarised yourself with the Code of Practice it can sometimes feel overwhelming to know just where to begin practically. Resources such as the SENCO Induction Pack and Lorraine Peterson’s ‘Top 10 tips for SENCOs at the start of the academic year’ are a fantastic starting place, though one of the things you will want to think about early on will be how to develop effective partnership working with families this year and how to even begin that task in the current climate!
For many families across the country the return to school will be particularly daunting this year, and the pandemic coupled with the restrictive measures may have made pre-existing health and social disparities worse. However, effective communication and partnership working within school can help to mitigate the effect of this.
A fundamental part of this will be understanding the experiences of pupils and their families. Neither pupils nor parents are a homogenous group and a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not take into account the variety of challenges experienced, which could include navigating loss and bereavement, different home environments, inequalities, uncertainty, transition periods and friendship issues as well as variances in resilience and coping skills (Mental Health Foundation, 2020) for both pupil and parent/carers alike.
For parents one practical approach to developing a strong basis for working in partnership this year could be as simple as holding an informal coffee meeting, whether socially distanced or remotely, to provide a forum for families to share key issues and concerns that may be common across your setting and establish a shared purpose.
This provides a shared forum with other individuals often facing similar issues and can be especially helpful if families have personal reasons for finding it difficult to engage with school e.g. own negative experiences in education or simply finding formal meetings daunting.
The structure for this could be a simple as;
- 10 mins to welcome and settle people, make sure everyone has a cup of something and a biscuit.
- 5-10 mins on a topic of your choice to get the discussion going, perhaps on what will be familiar or different as we move into the new school year, sharing some tips on e-safety for those continuing to learn remotely or signposting to support for those who are struggling with our ‘new normal’.
- Then open the floor to questions and discussion – also a good point to offer a second cup of tea!
However, don’t be afraid to make it your own and be led by the cultural values of the families you are working with. The aim is to remove barriers to engagement and create a space for open, reflective and empathetic listening. For some this may be best achieved with tea and cake after assembly on a Friday, for others it may need to be online after school to fit around the schedules of working parents and carers. There may not always be a consensus but be open to re-visiting and challenging existing practice, trying new approaches and accommodating different ways of working with families.
For particularly vulnerable families or those who would just prefer a less public forum to discuss their hopes and concerns for the new school year, a small meeting based around the principles of structured conversation, which focuses on joint goal setting through active listening may be the best approach. Again, the SENCO Induction pack and the AfA Structured Conversation Handbook are great sources of further information on the benefits of and steps to achieving a structured conversation approach.
Regardless of how you approach working with families this year remember you do not always need to be the person to solve the problem. Families will often need signposting to other services or they may have benefited just from feeling heard and having their opinions valued. To borrow a quote from the British Psychology Society ‘taking time to listen to the experiences of families and not assuming that the process of easing out of restrictions is a positive one is critical’ and at the centre of all partnership working though this period should be the pupil. This is true of pupils as well as parents and now is the time to place relationships with pupils front and centre, reminding ourselves that these relationships are our best agents of change.
Although many pupils may be expressing a need for support directly to us either verbally or by communicating this through their behaviour, we also may need strategies to identify pupils who may be experiencing a ‘freeze’ response but are still in need of our support.
Questions to consider may include:
- Would all pupils be able to name an adult in school they feel they can talk to?
- How would they like to be learning right now?
- How connected are pupils feeling to the adults in your school community right now?
- What about their peers?
- How would they like to be involved in decision making this year?
Depending on the age range and level of need of the pupils you work with you could adopt a range of different methods, including options for non-verbal communication such as drawings, RAG ratings and small world boxes to ensure your pupils have their voice heard.
Communication in whatever form is effective for engaging your families in your unique context will always be the centre of effective partnership working, and now more than ever this should extend beyond communication because there is a review or transition coming up.
So, whether you are new to the SENCO role, new to the school or returning to a school life that looks very different from this time last year, remember:
- Be creative in finding an approach that works for you as SENCO and the families you work with. This may use strategies you’ve seen in other settings or it may look totally different to anything you’ve even seen in another school – be led by your families.
- You won’t always have the solution to everything parents/carers raise and that is okay. Sign posting is a key part of the SENCO role.
- Establishing effective partnerships with parents, carers and pupils early on will lay a positive foundation for everything else you want to achieve this year.