The first thing to do when facing anyone who’s angry, be it children, parents or even your own staff, is to calm them down to the point where you can have a reasonable conversation with them.
A lot comes down to the parental relationships you’ve built – if you’ve got to know your parents, you can tell when they’re genuinely angry about something school-related or bringing with them anger in relation to something else. In those cases, letting them ‘rant’ for a bit and sympathising with the situation they’re in will eventually result in them opening up.
If a parent threatens violence your response should simply be to get them off the premises, as they present an immediate threat to your staff and children. I’ve only had to manage a couple of such incidents before, and in neither case was I on my own. If you suspect that an individual might suddenly turn on you physically, make sure there’s someone outside your office door – maybe have your caretaker ‘measure up your doorframe’, just so that there’s somebody else nearby.
When it’s happened before, my colleagues and I have managed to get them out of the main entrance. If after doing that a parent still refuses to leave the school site, the only option left is to call the police. That will pretty much destroy whatever’s left of the relationship you have with them, but we’re not punchbags.
The hardest situations of all are those where the parent concerned has a history of mental health problems, because what follows won’t always involve a rational conversation. Should a parent display that type of behaviour, it would become a safeguarding issue and require the intervention of the designated officer at our LA. That would then hopefully open a pathway where social workers and other professionals can attend to the issues involved.
In term’s of what you shouldn’t do, losing your temper is top of the list – you can’t afford to get into slanging matches. Just wind up the conversation, keeping things as light, smiley and friendly as you can – even when deep down, all you want to do is shout back. If things descend into a sweary shouting match, the parent risks being banned from the premises and that’s all. The member of staff could potentially lose their job.
It’s also useful to identify which senior leaders have the best relationships with certain parents. At my last school, there was a one parent who couldn’t stand me but adored my deputy head, and another whose feelings were the other way round. When we needed to deliver a tough message to either of them, they’d hear it from whichever person they liked the least. If they reacted badly, they then had the option of complaining to my deputy or head or I about what the other was making them do.
Knowing that we were liked by the parent, our response would be to reassure them – ‘Don’t worry, you and I can sort this out’ – when we’re actually all on the same side.
A parent’s anger will often stem from a sense of injustice at something that’s happened to their child. Ultimately, what’s needed most is for them to know and understand that everything you do is done solely in the children’s best interest.
Kate Owbridge is executive headteacher at Ashdown Primary School, Crowborough; follow her at @kateowbridge