Talking with Parents about Problems

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Conversations about a child who is struggling in school are stressful for parents and teachers. Both parties may experience feelings of anger, fear, frustration, and confusion, along with a sense of inadequacy, as they try to talk about challenges a child is facing. I recently experienced this myself when my six-year-old son came home from school pleading to be moved to another class or home-schooled because a group of children were being mean to him. I felt responsible, and guilty, and when I spoke with his teacher about the situation, I could tell that she shared those feelings as well.

A few weeks ago when I had the opportunity to speak with Katie Couric about “What Teachers Wish Parents Knew,” one of the questions she asked me was about what parents should do when a child is having a problem in school. I shared a few strategies parents can use to improve communication when bringing a concern about their child to a teacher, including:

  • Take a deep breath and make sure you are calm before sharing the concern
  • Set up a time to talk rather than talking on the fly at drop off or dismissal time
  • Always presume positive intentions and begin the discussion by asking questions and gathering more information

These same suggestions hold true for teachers when bringing a concern to a parent. Here are some additional ideas that are specifically for teachers:

  • Build a foundation of trust and understanding in the early part of the school year, so that if you have to have a difficult conversation with a parent, you’ll recognize each other as partners rather than adversaries. It’s not too late to start this if you haven’t already.
  • Consider opening difficult conversations on a positive note. While it’s important to be upfront with parents if the purpose of the meeting is to discuss a problem, it can be reassuring for anxious parents—and provide some healthy perspective—if you begin by describing a few positive things you’ve noticed about their child in the classroom. Something brief but specific will do: “Alicia really seems to be enjoying math this year” or “Jason has a lot of empathy and often reaches out to children in need of help.”
  • Use language that conveys curiosity. Meeting with parents to discuss a problem provides an opportunity to gather information that might help you to solve the problem. Consider it a chance to gather missing pieces of the puzzle and use language that conveys that spirit, such as “Tell me more about . . .” or “Why do you think he might . . . ?”
  • Use language that invites parents to suggest solutions. Often teachers feel pressured to come up with all the answers, when in fact parents may have an idea that would work particularly well for their child. Open-ended questions such as “Have you seen anything work in the past when this has happened?” or “Do you have ideas about ways we could work together to solve this problem?” can be helpful in inviting parents in as true partners in the problem-solving process.

When teachers actively communicate with students’ parents, children do better, both socially and academically. This is especially important for a child who is struggling in school, as seeing his parents and teachers working together to solve the problem can be tremendously reassuring. Certainly for my son, knowing that his teacher and parents were working as a team to solve the problem helped him quickly move from not wanting to come to school to feeling safe and nurtured there.

Carol Davis is a professional development designer at Center for Responsive Schools.

Tags: Back to School w/ Families, Difficulties with Families, Family Connections, Working with Families

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