When Parent Communication Becomes Miscommunication

This is the second in a series from Lessons From the Classroom designed to help teachers improve parent communication. 

It happens to all of us. Despite our best efforts at positive parent communication, the response we receive is anything but. We are left shaking our heads and exclaiming, “OMG, what just happened?!”

Solving a Conflict in Parent Communication

Let’s face it, communicating difficult news is tricky, people are complex, and chances are you will eventually find yourself in a difficult conversation or situation with a parent. In my 30+ years of teaching, over which I have taught 1,000+ students, this has happened to me more than once. I have learned some things about parent communication. So what do you do when a parent is upset with you?

1. Assume the best. Recognize that what most likely happened is a case of miscommunication, either on your part, the parent’s, or both. What we think we said or meant may not be what the other person heard. This can be especially true of e-mail where tone-of-voice and facial expression are absent.

2. If the contact was made through e-mail, make the follow-up contact in person or over the phone. Hearing the subtleties in someone’s voice and observing their facial expressions aids communication.

3.  Take a deep breath, offer a reassuring comment, and ask a clarifying question or two. I often start with something like, “I’m sorry. I seem to have upset you. Help me understand. Please tell me specifically what I said that was upsetting.”

4. Listen openly to the parent’s response. Do not interrupt or become defensive. This can be difficult, particularly if the parent is very heated. If you stay calm and offer an “uh-huh”or “I see” here and there, the parent will know that you are sincerely listening. This is key to diffusing anger. Follow up with any clarifying questions you may have.

5. Now it’s your turn. If the parent has misunderstood your message, let them know that you did not clearly express yourself. Try delivering your message again, stopping along the way to ask the parent if they have any questions about what you just said. Then move on to seeking the parent’s help in developing a plan for addressing the problem. Stay calm and professional in your tone. As a wise colleague once put it, “grace under pressure” should be your mantra.

6. If the parent remains upset and is unable to engage in making a plan to address the issue say, “You and I both want the same thing, the best possible school experience and success for your child. Do you think we can be a team and work together for that?” Hopefully at this point the situation will have calmed, the parent will be ready to move on and you’re on your way to creating a plan. If not…

Thank the parent for their time and wish them a good evening. If you are feeling at a loss as to how to proceed with addressing the problem you are having with the child, without the involvement of the parent, enlist the help of your school counselor, a colleague or your principal. They can be very helpful to you in coming up with strategies.

Sometimes You Need to Hang Up

If at any point in the conversation the parent starts yelling at you or is otherwise disrespectful, end the conversation. I have had to do this more than once. In my second year of teaching, I ran afoul of a parent when I forgot to serve her son’s birthday cupcakes at snack time. At that time I was teaching two sessions of kindergarten. This child was in my afternoon session. The cupcakes were dropped off in the morning while that class was at Phys. Ed. Not wanting those kiddos to see the cupcakes and be disappointed that they were not for them, I put the cupcakes in a closet. Out of sight, out of mind, I forgot about them.

The birthday child never mentioned the cupcakes, and when his mother came to pick him up she exclaimed loudly in the hallway, “What? What do you mean you didn’t have your cupcakes?!” I felt horrible of course, but no amount of explaining or apologizing would satisfy her. She was sure it was a sign that I did not like her child. When this mother returned with her husband for their fall parent conference a couple of weeks later, she let me have it a second time…for 45 minutes.

After that experience I resolved to never again allow a parent to do that to me. Nor should you. If a parent becomes belligerent, politely end the conversation. Having a child in your class does not grant a parent license to abuse you. Promptly inform your principal of what occurred, as she may well be hearing from the parent and will be better equipped to respond if she has first heard what has happened from your point of view. Your principal can also advise you on how best to proceed with the situation. Sometimes this means having an in-person conference with the parents with the principal and/or school counselor present. That’s okay. Having a third-party present helps to keep an uncomfortable situation under control which helps the meeting to be productive. It also sends a message to the parent that you are committed to reaching a resolution and in a way that respects everyone involved, including you.

Despite our best intentions, no school year will be perfect. Parent communication can be tricky, but with a few strategies in our pockets we are better equipped to succeed with difficult conversations.

A graduate of Tufts University (BA Child Study) and the University of Southern Maine (MSEd. Educational Leadership), Ingrid Whitaker has been an elementary school teacher in Cape Elizabeth, Maine for more than 30 years. Ingrid has taught kindergarten and second grade in addition to 4th grade. Maine’s recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching and a finalist for Maine Teacher of the Year, Ingrid creates lessons for Lessons From the Classroom in addition to teaching. Her highly-rated, complete print-and-go lessons are available on a wide range of engaging topics. The mother of three grown daughters and a son, Ingrid lives in Wiscasset with her husband Ethan and their Maine Coon Cats, Mr. Bates and Mr. Tufts.

Ingrid’s lessons are available at Teachers Pay Teachers.

 

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