LDnet: Tips for Effective Conversations with Parents
Tips for Effective Conversations
By Kara Bratton, Ph.D.
Student behavior is a growing topic of discussion among educators. While addressing challenging behavior in students has always been a concern, a related issue is talking with parents about the behavior and getting everyone on the same page. When teachers, administrators, and parents disagree about what is happening and how to approach challenges, emotions often start to escalate, and little may get resolved. Let’s talk about some strategies for how to effectively communicate when it comes to student behavior, especially when there seems to be resistance.
Keep this Bible verse from Colossians 4:6 in mind:
“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (NIV)Before diving further into this topic, keep this Bible verse from Colossians 4:6 in mind: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (NIV) Teachers may find this easier said than done when emotions flare on both sides, but as Christian educators we must continuously model this at every step, even when the other party may not.
If you are also a parent, think about what your instinct may be in a similar conversation. You love your child unconditionally, and your initial reaction may be to defend your child, often before you have all the information. Think about this going into a conversation with parents if they initially defend their child or come into the conversation with a defensive attitude. This could seem off-putting to us in the school or be interpreted as aggression. Take time to pause for a moment and think about how parents’ love for their child may be coming through in a different manner than you might like, and remember to show grace! This is also why it is important to talk to parents separately without the child in the room. There may be a time when it is appropriate for the child to be involved, but having an initial conversation with parents can provide the opportunity for parents to not feel as defensive.
Prior to meeting with parents, fully document those behaviors and events that concern you. When you do meet, be sure that your presentation of those behaviors and events is objective. It is not helpful to insert subjective comments that make assumptions about what has happened or the reason behind it. It is natural that we sometimes come to our own conclusions about the behavior, and this can spark our emotions as educators. I often hear comments when asked about behavior such as “he’s being manipulative.” These thoughts only reinforce a power struggle between you and the student, or parent, and rarely result in productive conversations and solutions. Strong opinions about behavior often escalate emotions, and that is one thing we should try to control on our end in these interactions. We cannot control parents’ responses, but even if they should become very emotionally charged, we should make every attempt to stay calm and objective on our own end.
If you’re in a conversation with parents, or even a student, and feel that you’re struggling to stay objective, it is okay to take a break and continue when less emotion is involved. This may be a break for a few minutes, but sometimes it can be beneficial to wait a day or more, depending on the situation. It is okay to politely call an end to the day’s conversation with a prayer and explain that you’d like to follow up at a scheduled time in a day or two.
Parents may not see at home what you are noticing at school, or they may not realize that it is outside of what teachers typically see for students at that age. Even when you present documented behavior objectively, there may not always be agreement. Parents may not see at home what you are noticing at school, or they may not realize that it is outside of what teachers typically see for students at that age. When this happens, it does not mean that one party or the other is wrong. This is often a good time to ask parents about what they observe at home that may be different from what you’re noticing at school. Ask about how they respond to situations at home or how they see their child behaving differently in a variety of situations. This often helps to create solutions rather than a situation in which someone is right and someone is wrong.
Continue to focus the conversation on helping the child and coming up with solutions that will be helpful and in line with school policies. When we see students with behaviors that have not been resolved following the standard practices of the school, this means we need to think about the response differently.
Continuing with the same practices we’ve already tried is unlikely to change the behavior at this point. Talk with parents to determine if there may be some underlying causes for the observed behavior. For example, did something change with the family or socially for the child? Have there been any medical or dietary changes? This information, along with the objective observations you have documented, should help to get to the root cause of the behavior, which promotes finding solutions. It is hard to resolve behaviors when you can’t establish the cause of them. Come to the conversation prepared with some ideas, but also listen to ideas the parents may have. If appropriate, start by giving them options for what they think may work best. This part of the conversation, however, may not happen at the same time as the initial conversations.
You may be planting an important seed for the future.If parents still seem resistant or guarded at the initial conversation, it may be best to suggest meeting in another week so that everyone has time to think through what has been said, process the information, and come back ready to talk about solutions. Parents may have some fear or negative experiences from conversations with other teachers or people in the child’s life. We need to be sensitive to this, even though these negatives may remain unstated. If we continue to provide a positive and safe environment, build trusting relationships with parents and their child, they may be open to further conversation down the road. This may not be on our ideal timeline, but you may be planting an important seed for the future.
- With whom do you anticipate needing to have a “conversation” before the end of the school year?
- What needs to happen to successfully conclude that conversation?
- To whom can you go if you need help with the situation?
None of these suggestions excuse unacceptable or inappropriate behavior nor do they eliminate consequences that need to be enforced. To move forward with proactive and effective solutions to behaviors, however, it helps to have a plan from the beginning for keeping the conversation positive and focused on helping the child. If you think about these ideas ahead of time, it can lessen the potential for the conversation to deteriorate and become unproductive. God shows His grace to each of us and to each of the children and parents we encounter. As difficult as it is at times, we strive to model that grace in our interactions as well and to remember that even the child with the most challenging behaviors is a child of God.
Please know that Lutheran Special Education Ministries is here to support you in working with students in your classroom. For more ideas about addressing challenging behavior and to help with specific questions and concerns in your classroom, contact us at https://luthsped.org or email email@example.com.
Kara Bratton, Ph.D., is special education director at Lutheran Special Education Ministries.
Photo © iStock/Steve Debenport