Managing Complaints or Complaints Management

Done well, dealing with a complaint can be turned into a conversation.
Engage in a conversation, not an argument

Are complaints from unsatisfied parents inevitable in primary schools? Some employing authorities would say 'Yes' and hence we need processes to manage complaints. Of course there is an alternative and that is to minimise the complaints by training the combatants, parents and staff to engage in a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry, rather than the opposite (which may be a culture of distrust, individualism and blame – at its worst!).

Employing authorities spend significant money, time and energy on Complaints Management. I suggested to my boss one day that the employing authority may be better served in training people how to engage with schools and then train respondents to complaints how to respond so it may minimise the escalation of complaints, and hence save money, time and energy. He responded in agreement, although he believed I was suggesting changing society! This may be a tall order so let's start with training respondents, the people we can influence.

It is important to know responding to complaints is important, especially in an effort to keep children and adults safe.

It is also important to know that response to complaints are often based on the complainant's response to a behaviour of a staff member, NOT the behaviour of the staff member. Responses to behaviours is very unique to the individual. What one person sees as offensive, others may see as humourous. So too it is with responses to staff behaviours. Staff behaviours that one student finds offensive, hurtful and even harmful, another student may ignore or dismiss. It is the student's response to the behaviour that may result in a complaint and hence the need for complaints management.

Using a sporting analogy – if a football player gets tackled through an illegal act, and gets seriously hurt, the tackler may get a serious sanction. If the tackled player gets up and plays on, the sanction is likely to be less. The referee and judiciary are responding to the response to the tackle, not the tackle. Please note I am not saying if the judgement process is correct or incorrect. It is just the way it is, currently.

Now if the response at the school level is not satisfactory in the eyes of the parents, then they may choose to escalate the complaint to the education authority.

It is the hypothesis of this author that if we train parents and teachers how to engage at school, ask questions and respond, then we can minimise the need for complaints management and save money, time and energy for many people. Now I am realistic enough to know that we may not eradicate complaints. I am optimistic to believe that if education authorities invest a portion of the time, money and energy they currently invest in complaints management to engagement / response then we may improve relationships and well-being of staff, parents and students.

Using a medical analogy – managing the complaint is like a doctor treating the heart attack of the patient. Doctors prefer to change a person's lifestyle to avoid having a heart attack. Similarly I am suggesting changing the engagement between parents and teachers to minimise the complaints.

Now before we get too excited, there is no magic bullet. Anything worth doing takes time and effort. Cultural change takes time. Changing human behaviour takes time. We have to start somewhere and we have to start now, as the well-being of teachers and school leaders is being jeopardized due to the toll investigations take, especially when they are proven to be unfounded. Now actions to keep students safe are necessary. The safety and well- being of staff should be considered as well. And if we train parents and teachers how to engage then the need for formal investigations of alleged staff misconduct may diminish.

Firstly, let's understand the five general reasons parents engage with their children's school. Parents engage to share information, usually about their child. No need for action from the school staff, other than possibly taking notes. Simple.

Secondly, parents may engage to understand the history or context of a school matter. This allows the school staff to explain to parents about the school’s intent.

Next, parents engage to seek a solution to a problem, where they want the school to fix something. These occasions require the school staff to act.

Alternately parents engage to get advice from the school, so the parents can do something. Parents trust the wisdom of the school staff and hence want advice.

Finally, parents may engage to give advice to the school staff. While some staff may find this threatening, they could welcome advice from parents if they have expertise beyond education, where the school needs wisdom.

Any unsatisfactory response from school staff to these parent engagements may result in a complaint. Hence, we need to train parents in how to engage and train staff in how to respond.

There are three questions that parents should use when engaging with school staff. (Remember many parent queries are after their child has reported something about school.)

The first question is... What happened at school today? (as my child reported this...). This allows the staff to recount their view of the incident. No accusations, simple enquiry and opportunity for dialogue.

The second question is... What is the as school policy on...? (Whatever the issue maybe). This allows the staff to clarify the school's policy or procedure on the topic. No accusations, simple enquiry and opportunity for dialogue.

Final question is... What can we do to work together for my child's education? This promotes dialogue and the expectation that parents and teachers can work together for the mutual benefit of the child's education.

If parents ask these three questions then staff responses may be appropriate and hence minimise complaints. Now parents may need educating in using these questions. The investment in time necessary to educate parents will be worth it as it may reduce the complaints from dissatisfied parents.

Parents may initially need some coaching as to why they are engaging with their child's school. And once the five reasons are explained and the parents can identify why they are engaging with their child's school, then dialogue and collaboration is possible.

While parents are encouraged to use these three questions, so too are teachers encouraged to use three questions.

Firstly, teachers could ask parents... What do you need? This serves to express interest in finding an outcome to the engagement and a willingness on behalf of the teacher to listen to the parent. Again, opening dialogue.

Secondly, teachers may ask the parents... What do you think that (parent request) would look like in our school/class? This question prompts the parent to see the proposed outcome from the view of the teacher. This prompts dialogue.

Finally, teachers may like to ask if there was anything else the parents wanted to ask or say. This question allows the conversation to close once the parents have said all they wish to say.

The premise of this article is that if a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry be established between parents and teachers then the need for complaints will diminish and the need for significant time, money and energy will decline. Win win.

Hence employing authorities are invited to invest in training parents and staff in how to engage with each other. This will be like improving the lifestyle to avoid the heart attack. And isn't that what parents and teachers want and need to improve their well-being.

Please note the author is not expecting perfection, understanding that when people are in a heightened emotional state, they may act impulsively and complain despite the best efforts to train parents and teachers. The investment will be worth it.

Take a look at Andrew's latest book Balance – Building Positive Relationships within Educational Protocols

Photo by Miguel A. Padrinan