Five Steps for Having Difficult Conversations With Parents

Five Steps for Having Difficult Conversations With Parents

It’s midway through the school year and you notice one of your students has fallen into a pattern of missing work and struggling on tests and quizzes. You know it’s time to reach out to the student’s parents. It’s natural to feel anxious when calling home, especially to discuss an issue such as a student struggling. However, in partnering with parents, if you keep the focus on the student, it’s possible to have a successful conversation and end with a reasonable plan.

About the Term “Parent”
Students come from a variety of homes and family structures. Many children are raised by grandparents, siblings, other relatives, and foster parents. “Parent” is used here to refer to and honor anyone who is the child’s primary caregiver.

1. Connect authentically.

As you begin, demonstrate that you know the student and recognize them as an individual. Be direct and genuine as you engage with the parent to create a working relationship. Be clear and specific about what is unique about this student while sharing your recent observations and your concern. You might start with, “[Greeting], it has been nice to get to know [student]. He has been really engaged with the chess club here at school but has been finding it difficult to complete schoolwork and prepare for tests.”

2. Listen to understand.

Parents send their greatest treasures to school each day and want what’s best for them. When you call, parents may feel scared or defensive. As the parent responds, hear the words they are using, not the tone, to honor their knowledge of the student. Provide an open-ended question: “What have you noticed about [student] at home?” As the parent finishes, summarize what you heard.

3. Remain focused on facts.

While you are sharing what you have observed about the student, help the parent to see how this is impacting the student and/or her relationships with her peers. Be as objective as possible and focus on what you have observed. That might sound like: “When we study or practice in class, I’ve noticed she tries to engage with her classmates in unrelated conversations. Her peers choose to ignore her, and she responds by putting her head down on her desk.”

4. Work toward a common goal.

Use your observations and the parent’s shared information to come up with a goal. Working as a team, you can support the student as they continue learning. For example: “It sounds like we are both noticing the same thing, that she seems to not know how to study, as well as when and where to complete work. You mentioned that you have a place for studying at home. Can you encourage her to use the space? It would also be helpful if she came in for extra help so she and I can work on developing additional strategies.”

5. Schedule a follow-up.

One powerful way to engage a parent in supporting the student’s ongoing success is to determine what the time frame is for observing any changes in the student’s behavior. This might sound like, “We have a good plan in place, and we know that change won’t happen overnight. How about we touch base about her progress in two weeks. What’s the best method to connect?”

Students are learning both academics and social skills in school. Behaviors or patterns, like not completing homework or not studying, will require partnership with parents. While it’s possible the parent might be defensive, by continuing to display openness, honesty, and belief in the student, you can engage in a positive conversation that lets the parent know the student is seen as a whole person. Start early and connect as often as possible for the success of the student.

For more resources to help you communicate effectively and productively with parents, check out Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership, Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More, and

Seeing the Good in Students.

Hilary Woods is a seventh grade English teacher in New Hampshire and a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher.