Talking to a parent about a challenging situation that concerns their child can be stressful for teachers and school heads. In this month’s Ilm o Amal, Shahrezad Samiuddin discusses a few strategies teachers can use to improve communication when bringing a concern about a child to his or her parents.
Teachers are uniquely placed to notice if a child is facing challenges in the classroom or not reaching typical development milestones. If a child is facing an issue, teachers or heads should discuss their concerns with the child’s parents right away.
Many teachers and school heads find it stressful to talk to parents in a constructive way about their child especially if he or she has been displaying challenging behaviour in the classroom. Sometimes the parents themselves are badly behaved and may become easily triggered. Both the parents and teachers may find that they are experiencing fear, anger and frustration about an upcoming conversation.
The key to getting through a parent-teacher discussion is to offer feedback to parents without triggering a negative reaction from them. Generally parents tend to react in several ways. Some parents can feel like they are being attacked and can become defensive. They can also turn around and blame you for their child’s challenging behavior. Other parents may try to minimize the problem and pretend nothing is wrong. Still others might react by meting out strong punishment to their child. When it comes to their children, fairly reasonable parents can become emotional and irrational.
Teachers can take the following steps to help parents become more open to their feedback. There are no guarantees, of course and you may end up triggering an undesirable reaction from the parents. However, for most situations, the following methods will increase the likelihood that the parents will become your allies rather than your foes.
1. Build a Relationship with the Parents
Get to know all the parents of children in your class before a problem crops up. Teachers should work on building a relationship with the parents throughout the school year, so they have some idea of who they are talking to should there be a problem. Begin as early in the school year as possible, if you don’t know them at all. If you know a parent even a little bit you are likely to see them as a partner.
2. Start on a Positive Note
Start talking to the parents on a positive note. Discuss the child’s strengths. For instance, “Mikael is very helpful in class and considerate of other children” or “Sara is very good at Math”. This helps dispel the negative feelings the parent may have about the meeting and can be reassuring. It will also help prepare the parents for the difficult part of the conversation.
3. Ask Questions
Ask questions and gather as much information as possible about the problem from the parents. This may eventually lead to the solution. Ask “Why do you think Ali is tired / restless in class?” or “Tell me about how your child is reacting to the change of location / his father’s job transfer?”.
4. Ask Parents for Solutions
Invite the parents to suggest solutions. Often parents know their child well and have an idea about what will work in the situation. They may have put off using the solution because they may have doubts about it working. Or they may not have explored the solution. As a teacher you should not feel obliged to offer a solution. Probe further and try to come up jointly with a solution. Ask questions such as “How do you think we could work together to solve this?”
5. Plan the Conversation
Think ahead and plan the conversation. Think about what you want to accomplish with the conversation. Make sure you have extra time beyond the allotted time to discuss the issue further if that is required.
6. Believe that the Parents Want the Best for Their Child
Start the conversation with the belief that all parents love their children and want the best for them. Parents are sensitive about their children and want you to like and appreciate them. When you communicate from this belief you are more likely to achieve your goal effectively. If you have your own child you know that raising one can be intimidating and difficult. If you come from that place of understanding you will be more empathetic towards the parents and the conversation is likely to be more effective.
Listen to what the parents are saying with an open mind. You will only be able to solve the problem effectively if you listen to the parents’ perceptions and gather information. Use body language to convey that you are listening to the parents. Look into the parents’ eyes, nod and ask questions.
8. Be Direct
Communicate directly with the parents. After stating all the positives and listening to their side of the story, say what you have to say. Be direct and say ‘I expect Mishaal to complete her homework every day and I would appreciate it if you make sure she has a quiet place where she can sit and work without distraction at a set time.” Explain that the homework that you have set reinforces what has been taught in class and completing it will help their child stay on top of the class work. Or say plainly “ I have noticed Sameer is hitting children in class and any behaviour that interferes with children’s learning is unacceptable”. For the discussion to be effective parents need to hear the plain, unvarnished truth.
9. Use Technology Wisely
Many people hide behind technology to avoid conflicts; however this strategy does not solve anything. When dealing with a problem do not simply shoot off a text message or an email. Ideally you should meet the parents in person and use technology to set up the meeting. If you think an email would be effective, write it out and then sleep on it. If you wrote the email in a fit of emotion, the break will help you cool down and reevaluate the situation, reread your words and make any changes. You may even decide not to solve the problem by sending the text or email the next day. If a parent gets in touch with you through text or email regarding a serious issue concerning his or her child, say you will be more comfortable if you can discuss the issue face to face.
When it comes to communicating with parents about their child what you say is as important as how you say it. Children do better in school when teachers actively communicate with their parents. Seeing parents and teachers working together to solve problems can also be reassuring for a child and can help them feel nurtured.
Shahrezad Samiuddin works at TRC. She is also a journalist with a special interest in traditional and new media. She has written feature pieces in Dawn on various issues, including on the media. For almost a decade, Shahrezad has been writing the Auntie Agni column in Dawn. She writes on a variety of subjects for Aurora, the Express Tribune, The Herald (Dawn group) and The Indian Express. She has also co-authored a book on Pakistan for young readers called, Pakistan: Castle with a Thousand Doors.