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Keeping your family-school partnerships strong

written & curated by michael grose & the parentingideas team
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17 February

How to have those difficult conversations with parents, and not get shot!

Submitted by:
Michael Grose
Teachers must deliver unpalatable news to parents about their child's anti-social behaviour, a 'poor' attitude or lack of progress in learning. It's tempting to avoid having those conversations with some parents for fear of embroiling yourself in an argument, or even worse contend with their aggressive behaviour.

The modern tendency to shoot the messenger when we don't like the message is now evident among many parents, making life challenging at best, and stressful at least for teachers and principals.

A recent article in The Age, 'We need to talk about your child' - how schools handle difficult conversations’, highlights the fact that conflict between parents and teachers is getting worse.

According to Dr Philip Riley from ACU who researched the findings from the latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, conflict is getting worse and that ‘significant numbers of principals [and teachers] are engaged in conflict with parents in particularly hostile environments and that parents are the worst offenders when it comes to threats of violence and bullying.’

And Dr Sue Saltmarsh from ACU ‘links the conflict inherent in the difficult conversations contemporary teachers and parents have to the development of a pressure-cooker education environment where children, teachers and schools are pitted in perpetual competition.’

In the past teachers could simply rely on their experience to get by with parents. To say this is no longer sufficient is stating the obvious. Teachers and principals need training in higher-level communication skills so that not only they can stay safe, but also they can get their message across and still maintain a working relationship with a parent.

Here are three higher-level skillsets that every teacher can/should have in their toolkit so they can successfully negotiate difficult conversations with parents about children's behaviour, attitude or learning.

1. Use the 3rd space

One of the biggest challenges many educators face is how to psychologically prepare for a challenging meeting. It's all very well to produce proof of poor behaviour but all the proof in the world is next to useless if your self-talk is lousy and you are still stuck in teaching mode. One of the best ways to prepare mentally is to take yourself to a third space giving you time to prepare. The concept of the 'third space' can be physical: go to the staff room for a five minute breather between teaching and a meeting; or it can be psychological: take a few minutes to leave the previous activity and get your mindset right for the next. Going to a third space helps you get your all-important headspace right for your meeting.

2. Use 3-point communication

Great communicators know how to use eye contact effectively. When delivering bad news to parents expert communicators will invariably look at a third point- a chart, a child's report, a prepared note, or even an imaginary report. This use of a third point separates the messenger from the message. It is less confrontational and gives parents a chance to think about the news before speaking. Most teachers are trained to make eye contact, but it's important to break it when giving bad news. But learning new skills often means breaking old habits, and challenging old orthodoxies.

3. Use the language of cooperation

Language is powerful when it's nuanced. A parent of any teen knows full well that they need to choose their words carefully when talking to them. The key to communicating successfully with teens is to frame issues as if they are in control. That means asking rather then telling, accepting their point of view without agreeing to it, and focusing your language on you rather than them. The same principles hold with parents. As much as possible use the language of cooperation rather than the language of negotiating, which invariably reflect a winners and losers attitude.

There is no doubt that the requirements on teachers are greater today than ever before. But the demands to communicate more effectively are present in every profession, not just teaching. So as well as focusing on improving your teaching and leaderships skills, it's a natural part of professional life to also improve the way you communicate with parents, who are key stakeholders in their children's education. As the old saying goes, don't wish for things to be easier, wish that you become better. In the case of working with parents, that means do PD to add higher-level skills to your communication and leadership toolkit.

Become a Parentingideas Schools Member and get support for your teachers to build partnerships with parents. Our practical and useful Teacher PD program will help develop staff skills in communicating with, relating to and managing parents. Find out more now
  • communication
  • conflict
  • parents
  • principals
  • schools
  • teachers
  • violence
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