Dealing with parental complaints: a best practice guide

‘Unfair’ test scores - ‘strict’ uniform policies - a perceived ‘vendetta’ by a teacher against their child. There are a multitude of reasons a parent might call, or visit, your school to lodge a complaint.

While most teachers and principals are aware of the guidelines for dealing with parental complaints, handling the more complex ones can be challenging.

There might not be a one-size-fits-all approach to handle every incident, but there are some important guidelines educators can follow to ensure that a bad situation is not made worse.

Handling a bullying complaint is no exception.

Dr Sue Saltmarsh, associate professor of educational studies at the Australian Catholic University (ACU), told The Educator that the first course of action should always be to take such complaints seriously.

“Listening to the concerns that have been raised, learning as much about the situation as possible, and keeping all parties informed about how the issue is being handled are all important ways of keeping bullying incidents from continuing or escalating,” she said.

But what about rare or complex issues that might land schools in uncharted territory? There are ‘grey areas’ that require a more nuanced approach and, as happens from time to time, some complaints that may go unresolved.

“Many parents I've interviewed feel that their complaints are either not taken seriously or are treated as the actual problem,” Saltmarsh said.

“In other cases, parents may not be consulted until a situation has escalated into a major problem, when involving them earlier might have enabled them to respond in a more proactive way.”

Saltmarsh added that schools that are serious about student wellbeing and do their best to provide safe learning environments tend to be schools “with a strong culture of engaging respectfully with parental concerns”.

“There are many times when principals are confronted with situations where the solution isn't necessarily clear or easy, especially when things take place outside of school and its immediate jurisdictions,” she said.

“When it comes to responding to bullying complaints, it is important that children and parents are heard and real resolutions are enacted.

“We have countless examples of young people who have left school early, suffered long-term psychological damage and even taken their own lives because of school-related bullying and violence that have been overlooked or downplayed by teachers or school leaders,” she said.

Saltmarsh said that as evidence from the current Royal Commission is showing, failure to respond to complaints – whether that be ignoring them, or allowing damaging situations to continue rather than intervene – is “a crucial factor” for student safety and wellbeing.

“There's nothing 'grey' about a respectful and proactive response on the part of schools is far preferable to regrets over lives damaged or lost,” she said.

Australian Principals Federation (APF) federal president and Canning Vale College principal, Ron Bamford, told The Educator that a complaint often comes from a long line of issues that have never been reported.

Bamford said talking to the bully and getting their version of events is important given that there are always two sides of any dispute.

“Shared Concerns is a strategy of getting the students together to talk through the issues and arrive at a consensus. For most issues this gets some agreements around behaviour moving forward,” he explains.

“Some parents may be out for blood in the initial complaint but coming in too hard too early can do more harm than good.”

Bamford said the key issue for principals is navigating  "helicopter" parents who are solely focussed on their upset child and become very defensive when a principal suggests that their child needs to adjust their behaviour.  

“For these parents the fault is always external. This becomes really difficult when dealing with complainants who have a disability. My advice in this area is to use a person who understands the disability, such as autism, to help work with the parents and child,” he said.