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The P-N-P Trap

I have mentioned the OREO method of parent-teacher communication a few times in my previous blogs, and I will finally be addressing it in this blog. For those who have not heard of it, the OREO method (also called the Sandwich Method in business communication) of communication uses a positive comment, negative comment, positive comment formula when addressing any type of potential concern with a parent.

At its most basic, it can seem like a great formula. The teacher hopefully disarms a parent’s nerves by giving them great news about their child, before hitting them with the bad news. They then soften the blow by either retelling the good news or giving an additional positive piece of information about the child.

As a director, I have seen the OREO method used again and again by teachers. Unfortunately, it is often unintentionally misused by well-meaning teachers who have always been told to “start with a positive comment.” There are three main issues with the OREO method. The first is that it assumes the parent won’t see through the ploy, which could potentially worsen the parent-teacher relationship. Second, teachers can become sloppy and unoriginal in their positive comments, making them ineffective. Last, when used incorrectly, it draws the focus away from the negative comments to such an extent that the real concerns are easily brushed aside.

So, is it never acceptable to use the OREO method? I tell my teachers that everything depends on the relationship they have already built with the parents. Yes, there should always be a positive to balance out the negative. However, the positive can come in different ways. Some parents prefer that I get straight to the point. Anything else, and they feel like I’m sugar-coating the issue. If I have built a strong enough relationship with them over time, they know me and where I am coming from with any concerns. In situations like these, my positive is my personal initiative to reach out to them with understanding of where the issue is coming from and my willingness to work with the family in order to find a solution. I also make it a point to give regular positive feedback for all children.

When I do use or approve of an OREO method style communication, it is only when the words are carefully chosen to avoid generics and clichés. The positives are filled with specific examples (see my post on positive communication) of the behavior I am praising. Furthermore, I still want to avoid sugar-coating the issue. If the problem is to be constructively addressed, it needs to be the focus of the conversation.

Compare the two examples:

Example 1: Blake is a clever boy with a bright future, but I am concerned about his behavior in class. He often disrupts the other children and does not turn in his work. He does have a good heart and his peers all like him. I really do think he has a bright future ahead of him.

Example 2: Blake has a very active mind and is fortunate that he can learn new concepts quickly. It makes it easier for him to get work done faster than many of the children. However, I am concerned that he doesn’t focus on his work, and instead uses the time to talk and play with his friends. He is really funny, and he makes everyone laugh with his jokes. At this point though, we need to find a way to help focus on his work during class and find more appropriate times to keep his friends laughing. I would love to hear what strategies you use at home to help him get his work done.

In the first example, the problem is the teacher uses a “hit and retreat,” and is typical of what I see from OREO method communication. It could be almost any boy. “Bright (or bright future)” and “clever” are two of many generic compliments. The problem is briefly mentioned without any further information or context and then abandoned. From a parent’s perspective, it can be confusing. If a child’s behavior is enough of an issue that it warrants the teacher taking the time to communicate about it, there should be context and an attempt at finding a solution.

The second example is a modified OREO. It does begin with a positive, but this time the positive is specific to Blake. It also provides context for the problem. Instead of labeling him as disruptive, the teacher mentions that he is using his time to talk with and make friends. The final positive zeroes in on how Blake’s sense of humor could be used constructively instead of as a distraction. The problem is not abandoned. There is a refocus on a solution and an attempt to enlist the parent to help their child.

Teachers like to use the OREO method because they think of it as “cushioning the blow.” And, honestly, we all know parents who need that cushion. The OREO method is not always a bad thing. What is bad is when the method is used without thought about the relationship with the parents and without providing context to the parents. Ultimately, teachers communicate with parents because they want or need to work together to find solutions. However, that partnership cannot happen unless parents are fully informed of the extent of the problem. When teachers retreat behind clichés, it makes it that much harder to form connections and find solutions.

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