Difficult Parent Conversations: A Guide For Success

By Tony Kline, Ph.D. 

simple truth:

How we present information is just as important as what we present. 

I don't think it ever gets easy.  We all remember our first difficult conversation with a student's parents.  The lost sleep before the meeting, and once it concludes, we realize just how tense our body had come, similar to after a scary scene from a movie. 

research tells us:

Navigating through difficult conversations with a parent is a challenging, yet essential component in effective teaching.  The Harvard Family Research Project reaffirms what teachers know to be true: an engaged family is important for student success.  A family involved in their child's education "...can lead to positive benefits...such as increased school attendance, higher academic performance, and improved attitudes about school."

So here's the good news.  Having challenging conversations with parents doesn't have to feel like a horror movie.  Below are suggestions on how to prepare, conduct, and conclude difficult conversations with parents.  

try this:

  • Preparation is key.  Be prepared for the unexpected, as parents may need to bring children to the meeting, so have materials that they can use in the room to minimize distractions.  Having water and snacks available can be a kind and welcoming gesture as well.  Be sure to have visuals available and organized, such as any student work or records that may be applicable to the meeting.  When discussing academics, having visuals (like Bloom's Taxonomy) printed and prepared can assist parents in better conceptualizing the learning process and how it relates to their child.  Finally, prepare yourself emotionally.  Strive to receive negative parent feedback through a professional lens, not a personal one.  And consider what language you will use if the meeting turns emotional.  This preparation will help during the heat of the moment.

  • Set the tone early.  We understand that starting off a meeting with positive comments about their child is needed, though be aware that our body language will send parents the first message.  Also, do not overlook the basics: use eye contact, thank them for joining you, and use a firm handshake.  It's crucial that together you identify a common goal for the student that both you and the parents agree upon.  This common goal should be referred to throughout the meeting to maintain a focused conversation.  For example, "I know we both want Jackson to be a person who works well with others.  Let's focus this meeting on how he can grow in this area this year."  Finally, you can help to set the tone for the conversation by creating a general agenda for the meeting and sharing this with the parents.  This structure can ease parents knowing there will be no surprises.

  • Be issue-focused.  Offer parents the option if they would like to share first or if they would like you to.  Be sure to let them know you will be taking notes to ensure that you understand their concerns and thoughts.  It can be easy to come to the table intent on just sharing what we know to be true about the student.  However, we need to strive to listen openly and without judgment.  This is easier said than done.  Be deliberate in using "we" often, which emphasizes that this is a collective team effort.  Parents may want to talk about other students and how they impact the issue; kindly but firmly redirect the conversation to their child.  Feel free to remind them that you don't talk about their child to other parents.  At any time that the meeting seems to deviate from the original purpose, return to that common goal that was originally identified.

  • Our words matter.  Remember to begin with at least one specific compliment about the student.  During the meeting, use affirmative words that identify to the parents what the student is doing, rather than what they're not doing.  Be sure to separate and speak about the student's behavior, not the student as an individual.  Refrain from using sarcasm, educational jargon, and absolutes (he always...she never...).

  • Conclude with resolution.  To ensure clarity, explain back to the parents their thoughts/concerns in your own words.  You can also have the parents share what they've heard your thoughts/concerns to be as well.  Be sure to set 1-3 measurable and attainable short-term goals.  Collectively decide when and how progress towards the goals will be shared.  End the meeting just as you started, with a specific compliment, positive body language, and a firm handshake.

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What else can teachers do when having difficult conversations with parents?  Leave your comments below.

For additional reading and referenced research, click here.