During the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I discovered an essential truth about myself: I enjoy working with kids.
Between tutoring elementary school students in spelling and reading, babysitting when my schedule allowed, and spending my summer as a 4-H camp counselor, keeping kids safe and having fun at the same time naturally led me into a career as a middle school teacher and summer camp program director.
Not until my student teaching experience did I discover that, as much as I loved working with the kids, meeting and conferencing with parents wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.
How do you approach a person you don’t know well to tell them their little angels aren’t quite as angelic as they seem, or that you suspect they could have problems keeping them from learning or socializing as well as they could?
No one likes being reminded of what they don’t do well, so it stands to reason that when confronted with genuine concerns about a child’s achievement or behavior, parents will understandably grow protective and, quite possibly, bristle at the idea of something being amiss.
I had the fortune of working with a history teacher who not only knew how to approach parents, but looked forward to it.
He approached issues with children from a purely professional standpoint, never taking misbehaviors personally and working to honestly understand each student from the core of who they were.
As a result, parents knew this and responded to him in the spirit of collaboration, not challenge.
To this day, I consider his methods each time I meet with a parent, either in my classroom or in camp settings. I learned from him by observation, a few lessons of which I think are worth repeating.
When you’re facing a parent and want the best for them and their child, use one of these approaches to make them an ally, not an adversary.
Offer A Compliment Sandwich
The single best piece of advice I ever received in relation to dealing with uncomfortable, awkward, or unfamiliar situations (with parents and students alike) is to offer a compliment sandwich.
Rather than jumping right into a litany of complaints about a student, start with a complimentary observation of one of the student’s strengths, followed by the main issue you’d like to discuss, then round it out with a second compliment or positive note.
For example, if Darlene is known for disrupting class by shouting out answers without raising her hand (or ruins camp activities by yelling inappropriate comments), begin by telling parents that she is terrific at handing in homework on time (or being on time for lunch).
Let them radiate for a moment in the good news, then segue into your concern that she is having a difficult time following rules for raising her hand (or making campers uncomfortable with her comments).
After conversing about ideas they may have to help modify her behavior, close with a mention of her positive attitude or how creative her arts and crafts activities are.
Let their first impression of you be positive, and their last impression of their child be positive, to keep them open to future conferences and discussions.
Have you ever been told in a blatant, confrontational way that you’ve made a mistake without the benefit of being able to explain yourself?
Parents often feel threatened when other adults relay the shortcomings of their children, because it’s automatic to personalize the child’s behavior as a direct reflection of themselves.
An easy way to initiate a conversation about concerning behavior is to ask the parents first for their observations of their child in regards to specific behaviors. The behavior discussed can be specific, but the inquiry needs to be open-ended to develop trust.
For example, if Travis’ drowsiness in his morning classes is affecting his work, or worse, he’s falling asleep, ask parents if they have noticed anything at home that would suggest he’s not getting enough sleep or if he has any medical issues that might be making him tired.
If they don’t have any insight, ask them to detail a typical evening in the home and probe for specific details that can help bring clarity to the problem you’re having. Parents have eyes and ears for a reason: to be your assistant in helping their child be their best.
Solve A Problem
If inviting observations meets with a dead end, a second option is to reframe your concern in the form of having parents help solve a problem. The most effective way to do this is to present them with facts–not opinions—and, even better, documentation regarding your concern, then invite them to brainstorm possible ways to approach solving the problem.
For example, if Becky only finishes homework two nights a week, share the homework she’s turned in with the parents and explain the missing assignments. Then, ask their ideas on how this problem can be solved to lead Becky into turning in her homework every day.
Start by asking if there’s anything you can do to help her (have her write assignments in an agenda book, give her a special folder for homework papers, have a two-minute conference before she leaves class to make sure she understands the work), then ask what they can offer.
By taking a step in good faith toward helping the child as well as sticking to the facts, you take the pressure off parents to scramble for possible explanations and turn the issue into a puzzle that can be solved through an honest, joint effort.
Discussing a student’s behavior with parents can be seen through one of two lenses: parents vs. camp staff and teachers, or camp staff and teachers in a united front to help a child be their best.
Being mindful of the way you approach parents can make the experience more meaningful and productive for you both. Connecting with parents as allies is the first step in developing a healthy, trustworthy relationship that will benefit the person who matters most: the child.
Beth Morrow is an educator, author and co-program director for Camp Hamwi, a residential camp for youth with diabetes. Reach her at Beth@BethMorrow.com.