As mentioned in last month’s blog, I have found there are four primary reasons why teachers need to communicate with parents. In the last blog, I covered reasons for positive communication and regular specific praise of a student. If a teacher successfully opens the line of communication with parents, it can make addressing concerning behavior – this month’s topic -- easier to discuss.
Understandably, parents do not like hearing about issues concerning their child. The conversation can create a tense situation between teachers and parents, and sometimes even between parents and their child. To minimize tension, teachers should keep the following steps in mind when addressing concerns about a child’s behavior, health, or emotional needs.
1. Prioritize the concerns
Before contacting parents, teachers should prioritize their concerns. When a challenging behavior arises, it can be natural to start seeing other concerning issues as well. For example, when we see a student exhibit rough behavior with their peers, our attention will begin to focus on that child more and more. We do it to gather documentation and to make sure that we are there to redirect them as needed. But, in the process, we naturally notice and highlight any other problems, whether they are true problems or not.
For this reason, teachers need to do two things before contacting the parents. They need to prioritize their concerns and identify the root issue. Some of the newer issues that are noticed may only be branches of the root problem and will be handled when the originating concern is dealt with. If we prioritize the originating problem and find its cause, then the teacher may need to only discuss one issue after all.
If there truly are multiple issues that need to be discussed, then prioritizing and recognizing root causes helps keep the teachers and parents focused on the big issues instead of being sidetracked into smaller problems. That can be overwhelming to parents and hurt the relationship between teacher and parent.
2. Create Documentation
Teachers also need to make sure that they have documentation to support each of their concerns. Documentation provides quantitative and qualitative information to parents, gives specifics about the problem, and supports the teacher’s actions and recommendations. If a child is having behavioral problems, then documentation that contains any incidences and how each incident was handled can help establish patterns of behavior, find causal stimuli, and even help teachers and parents find ways to address the concern.
Documentation can also be used to support parents and the child in several ways. I have often used a child’s portfolio work, documentation of behaviors, and other information to fill out questionnaires for pediatricians and psychologists evaluating children for autism and developmental delays. When parents can go to a doctor with a clear notes of what is happening at school, then it is easier for them to start a conversation with their child’s pediatrician about any concerns.
3. Understand the Students’ and Parents’ Perspectives
Parents and students carry outside stresses, fear, and anxiety into conferences with the teacher. When teachers realize that any defensiveness or tension is not personal but rather a reaction to situations both at home and in the classroom, they are able to be more sensitive and caring in their approach. It is also important to keep in mind that children are not acting out to personally offend or harm anyone. Rather, they are trying to handle and communicate their own fears, anxieties, stresses, and even joys in the only way they know how.
When I talk to parents, I try to be highly aware of the family background. Oftentimes, I ask questions to gather background information before I address the problem. Knowing additional information about each student’s homelife can help me approach the situation with a different perspective. Even if I cannot address the issues in class, I can at least use the information to remain sensitive to the family’s situation.
I have had two children in my class this year who act out by hitting classmates. The first child is a very active boy. The second child is a mostly non-verbal girl. The physical actions are the same for both children. However, my background knowledge of each child helps me realize that the root cause of the behavior differs. Therefore, my support of each child in the classroom and my conversations with each child’s parents are different.
Consider the difference between telling a parent that “Blake keeps hitting and hurting other children” and saying, “I think Blake is having a hard time transitioning from roughhousing with his older brothers at home to playing gently with his friends at school.” In the first example, the focus is on the negative action of hitting. In the second example, the focus is on the child and his needs.
4. Don’t Speak Until You’ve Done Your Homework
In the busy bustle of pick-up at the end of each day, it can be easy to mindlessly answer parents questions of “How was Blake’s day?” with the first answer that comes to mind. “Well, he ended up hitting Jake today, so it was a little rough. After a few days of answers like these, parents may stop asking for fear of what the answer will be. One rule I have set for myself and am working on is to try to never answer a parent until I’ve done my homework (prioritize, document, and understand). While I never want to lie or mislead a parent, I always want my answers to reflect the greater understanding of the situation rather than what pops into my head first when I am trying to meet and greet 5 different parents. Anytime there is a concerning behavior or incident that needs to be discussed, it can usually wait until a more appropriate time when you can more carefully consider the issue and how to address it. Instead, use those quick drop-offs and pick-ups to focus on the positives of the day and getting to know a bit more about each family served.
Ultimately, successful parent communication requires strong relationships and sincerity. However, on top of that, teachers have their own homework to do. By taking care to prioritize, document, and understand each child and their situation, then teachers have created a solid framework for their conversations with parents. When teachers truly put the child first and remember that their actions are symptoms of a deeper problem then they help create a more peaceful and impactful conversation.