Monday, March 26, 2012

3 Tips for Sharing Concerns with Parents


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!

12 comments:

  1. It is very important to creat a team with the parents when a child is having a problem. As a parent it is very hard to hear that your child is having some problems. It's important to put yourself in thier shoes and be prepared for a wide range of reactions such as denial or anger. My daughter had a very hard time when she started Pre-school. She had trouble making friends, using her voice, and getting along with others. One day she bit another child, that day when I went to pick her up her teacher pulled me over to the side and handed me an accident report and tole me my daughter bit another child. She also told me I need to speak toher and show her how to express her anger in a different way. I actually started to get defensive becuase she was typically aggressive. As the teacher told me the entire story I asked her if she was doing anything in the classroom to prevent this behavior and she explained that she seperated the children after the incident. I felt as though she was putting the blame for this situation on me or my parenting skills instead of building a team or partnership with me to fix her behavior. Also this was the last time she exhibited agressive behavior in class. I feel it is a touchy subject when speaking to parents about concerns you have about thier children and should be expressed with caution.
    Dahlia Mohamed

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    1. I'm sorry I had meant my daughter wasn't typically agressive**

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    2. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Dahlia. I think this is a good example of how teachers can inadvertently trigger defensiveness. It would have been better is the teacher shared with you what SHE was doing to help prevent the biting. It is difficult (if not impossible) for a parent to stop a behavior that is occurring at school if the parent is not in control of the school environment - including teaching social skills in context.

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  2. That is exactly how I felt. I will use expereinces like this one, when I am a teacher. I was defensive and also concerned with my daughter's behavior. Experiences like this will help me when I am the teacher and need to approach a parent. Thank you Dr. Rand.
    Dahlia Mohamed

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  3. I agree that this is a difficult and sensitive topic. I am fortunate to have such a good team of colleagues who support me when it comes to dealing with parents.

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    1. Jib, What do you think makes your team's approach so successful? Can you share any tips with us?

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  4. One of my classes taught me to use the sandwich approach when speaking to parents. The idea would be to say something good about the child, state the problem you are having with the child, and say something good again about the child. The idea would not to say more bad things than good thing so the parent will not feel threatened.

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    1. Wynta, this is a terrific idea because it forces us to find really consider the strengths in the child. So it's not only beneficial for connecting to parents, it might also help us to have a different view of the child.

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  5. Parents are an integral part of their children's learning experience, so I believe that we should make them apart of this process. If we keep them out then the child has a possibiity of failing. When talking to difficult parents or being the bearer of bad news, one should always be empathic and let the parent know that. Always state the positives about the child first. If the parent becomes diffult always keep your cool. Never good to have both parents and teachers unnerved. The teacher needs to remain calm and collected and state the facts in an empathic way.

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    1. How true, Kareen, about keeping one's calm. I've found that many teachers have great difficulty with this. As soon as a part shows some agitation, they get defensive and angry which can escalate the situation. Being able to remain calm when a parent is upset is a tremendously valuable professional skill!

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  6. Hello Dr. Rand!

    Just as we discuss in class, I definitely agree that teachers should have a good amount of communication with parents. I also strongly believe that when talking to parents about their children, we must not just list all of the negative actions that the child has done. As teachers it is very important to approach the parents in a way where they realize that we hear them and are on their side. They need a sense of hope and they need to feel that we are hopeful and doing everything we can to help the child.

    Unfortunately, in the school that I am student teaching in, the teachers are not very "big" on having a good amount of communication with the parents. They say that "if you give an inch they take a mile." In other words, they feel that if you make yourself available to the parents by giving out phone numbers or emails, the parents will start to contact you on a regular basis and take advantage of the situation. Other than offering limited time for communication, the parents also present negative information to parents without sounding hopeful. For instance, there is an autistic student in the classroom and occasionally he acts out by crying, screaming, kicking etc. The students father is constantly being notified that his son is misbehaving and the teachers usually suggest that the child should be put on more medicine. The parents almost always leaves without ever being told anything good about his son and from what I hear he never receives any hopeful feedback.

    I wish that I could talk to the parent but the teachers prefer to be the ones to talk to him. It is very frustrating!

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    1. I can see why you are so frustrated! Parents always need to hear positive comments about their child - even when things are challenging. It's too bad they are so afraid of parents. I had a graduate student in my action research class who did a research project that included giving out her cell phone number to her parents in her 2nd grade class. She wanted to see if this improved the children's homework completion. What she found was that only one or two parents ever called her. No one abused it. I think we need to trust parents more. If a parent does cross the line and contact us too much, it's important to speak with them clearly and politely and let them know you can't respond more than once a day (or whatever you think is reasonable.)

      Another possibility is email since it is easy enough to ignore it if it's too much and be able to answer when we have the time.

      And finally, the teachers are probably saying so many negative things because they are frustrated and probably anxious. They might need more help in figuring out some strategies for dealing with challenging behavior. See my free booklet on this site for more ideas.

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