Communicating with Families: Operating from a Place of Empathy
It was the morning of the first day of school and for the first time in four years, I was preparing my daughter to attend a school where I was not one of the teachers. She was wondering many of the same things I was wondering: Would she like her new school? Would she make friends? What would her teacher be like? She was very anxious and nervous about this school year, and so was I. This anxiety is one of many that parents experience over the course of a school year. In these moments, being able to sympathize with and discuss parents’ concerns will make communicating with them richer and more beneficial for everyone involved. Here are some tips for accomplishing that.
Consider Parents’ Perspectives
Parents want their children to experience academic success, feel cared for, and build positive relationships when they are in school. Many different factors can positively or negatively influence a parent’s perspective on school. A parent may be drawing from their own school experience, or they may be influenced by situations that their child has encountered during previous school years. A parent’s perspective might also be influenced by their familiarity with the school or their beliefs about education. Being aware of these factors can help you express authentic empathy when communicating with families.
An Empathetic Approach
Connecting with families both early and often in the school year helps to reassure families and build genuine partnerships. When meeting with families, presume positive intentions and approach interactions from a place of empathy. This can be done when you:
- Listen with openness—It can be easy to formulate your response while a parent is speaking, especially if what they are saying makes you feel defensive. However, truly listening to a parent’s thoughts, concerns, and questions lets the parent know that what they have to say is important. It can also provide valuable insight into how the parent is truly feeling and what they are trying to convey about their child.
- Respond with understanding—Summarize and ask questions if needed to be sure you understand what the parent is sharing. Make sure your responses convey your understanding as well as your support. Use language such as:
“I can tell that this is really important to you.”
“I want to make sure that I understand what you just shared with me. Is it that…?”
- Provide realistic and genuine feedback—Let parents know what you can do to support them and their child. Provide realistic timelines and solutions when addressing a problem. Also, be willing to let parents know if you need more time to work through a situation or if you need to get support from additional staff members. Schedule times to follow up or check in as necessary.
Language That Conveys Empathy
Any of the following sentences or sentence starters can help you communicate your positive intentions to parents:
- “I can tell that this is really important to you.”
- “It sounds like you are really thinking about what might best support your child. Here are some ways I can help.”
- “I want to be sure that I am able to provide you with as much support as I am able. Let me check with ____ and get back to you on ___. In the meantime, I will plan to…”
- “It’s really helpful to hear your perspective. Here are some ways that I can help in this situation…”
- “I would be happy to discuss this further. Allow me to get back to you tomorrow with a few days and times.”
- “Can you share more about that?”
- “What is something that has worked for your child that you would be willing to share with me?”
- “I’m sure ______ [situation] can be ______ [difficult, sad, challenging, etc.]. How can I help your child while they are at school?”
- “I appreciate your bringing this to my attention.”
For parents, anxiety might start on the first day of school, but it’s likely to appear in other situations as well. Reminding yourself that all parents want what is best for their children can help you approach interactions with parents from a place of empathy. To get more ideas about how you can communicate with families, check out our What Every Teacher Needs to Know series.