One of the most difficult aspects of being a classroom teacher or administrator is opening discussions with parents or family members when you have a concern about a child. The first step is to remember the goal is to help the child. It is not to find blame, complain, or push the problem onto the family. Instead, our goals will include creating a team approach, treating family members with respect, and being treated with respect ourselves – while problem solving. This is a tough job!
Here are three powerful strategies that will help:
1. Empathize. It is very difficult for parents to hear that their child is having problems, and if this is a repeated issue, the parents may very well be angry, defensive, and exhausted. Show caring, kindness, and understanding. How? The easiest way is to listen. Ask the parents what their experience has been, and how they are understanding the problem. Let them know you have heard what they are saying, even if you disagree with them. Understanding and agreeing are two different things. In order for the parents to listen to you, they must feel like they’ve been understood. You are both on the same team so don’t try to “make” a parent listen or see your points. Here's an example:
“I can see that it’s been very hard for you to deal with Daniel’s tantrums. It sounds like you feel that they are happening because other children are bothering him.” (Even if you know other children are not bothering him, you can address this later. The important issue is to build a team first!)
2. Share Information. Keep yourself calm and neutral while describing the behaviors you are concerned about. Do not use a judgmental tone, and give clear examples. Avoid drama in statements such as, “I can’t tolerate Daniel’s tantrums anymore – he’s disrupting the whole class!” This meeting is not about your problem or emotional needs, it’s about the child. Focus on when the behavior happens, when, and how often. “Daniel has been throwing himself on the floor at the beginning of group time. He does this almost every day, and it takes him about 15 minutes to gather control again. We let him go to the quiet corner to calm down.”
If it’s an academic problem, show examples of the child’s work. Remember that the family may not be able to process this information if they are anxious, afraid, or emotionally agitated. Some denial is normal and works as a powerful coping strategy for us all when we are emotionally overwhelmed. You can offer the information again at a later time. Don’t push.
3. Offer Hope. The most important step is to offer hope. Share with the parents the strong belief that, working together, you can help the child. Let them know you have some ideas for what steps can be taken, and how you will get started. This is the part of the process that will solidify the team approach and help the parents to stop being defensive if they have been previously. If parents are very emotional and angry – you might want to start out with the hope step: “Mrs. James, I’d like to talk to you about Daniel’s behavior because I have some ideas for how to help him. Can you meet with me later this week?”
If you can’t offer any hope, then you should not be having the meeting with the family. First, do your homework and find out ways that the child can be helped – even if it is a referral. If you can’t offer hope because you are so angry, frustrated, and exhausted, then do not have a meeting with the family yet. Wait until you can pull yourself together and be professional. Teachers can often forget how damaging their angry words can be to a parent.
In a future post, I will discuss more ideas for working with parents who are angry, and take that anger out on you. But for now, I think you can prevent most of that kind of behavior by using the strategies above. Here are a few more resources for teacher-parent communication:
Please share with us what you have found is the best way to establish a team approach with families!