The parent-teacher relationship can withstand conversations about poor behavior if we use the right tone of voice and phrases. Here are the six keys to getting through a difficult discussion with Mom or Dad:
1. Start the conversation with a friendly greeting.
2. Stay focused on the issue at hand.
3. Be gentle and speak with a calm voice.
4. Step into the parent’s shoes and consider what they are hearing.
5. Present a positive along with the negative.
6. Provide a task for the parent to complete.
Let’s walk through a scenario.
Six steps that preserve relationships
What happened: Reuben was verbally bullying another boy, making fun of his speech impediment until the victim cried. This is some very tough news to deliver to a parent! But we can do it with professionalism and empathy.
1. Start the conversation with a friendly greeting
“Hi, Mrs. Thomason, this is Sharon Smith, Reuben’s teacher. Did I catch you at a good time to talk?”
Allow the parent to respond before rushing into your reason for calling. Be the calm professional and let Mom absorb the fact that the teacher is calling (which normally is not a good thing). Then continue with a “we’re in this together” statement before she even hears the bad news:
“I need to share with you what happened with Reuben today and let you know how you can help out.”
2. Stay focused on the issue at hand
Provide a succinct statement about everything that occurred. She needs to know the full extent of the incident.
“Reuben was making fun of another boy’s lisp today, and it went on for a while. The other boy finally let me know about it after lunch recess, and Reuben did spend some time in the principal’s office.”
Caution: What does human nature compel us to do when we are trying to sell someone on our point of view? We pile on the reasons, trying to build an assault-proof structure that will stand against any attack. DO NOT DO THIS.
Audio: Example of what NOT to do
3. Be gentle and speak with a calm voice
Always remember that you are talking about a child. Sometimes, in our frustration over behavior and our trepidation about calling parents, this is easy to forget, and we act like we are an attorney delivering closing arguments to convince a jury of a defendant’s guilt.
Tap very, very lightly. Do not get out the metaphorical sledgehammer and pound on your point, even if you are staying focused on the pertinent issue.
Humans feel the blows of criticism with enhanced sensitivity. Think of your own reaction to anyone – even your best friend – criticizing anything about you. Whether it is your choice of shoes or your choice of spouses, criticism is very hard to take.
Now, imagine your reaction to an authority figure criticizing you – it’s ten times worse to get pointed comments from your boss than gentle comments from a close friend.
So don’t get all psyched up for a call and start delivering knock-out punches. The teacher-parent relationship will not survive such an approach. You need only a couple of concise points, spoken gently, in order for most parents to feel like they are receiving a body blow.
But, just because you are being gentle doesn’t mean you shouldn’t name what happened.
“We had a serious discussion about what bullying is and how it affects other children.”
Notice that the word “bullying” is surround by an assurance that we had a discussion, not a lecture.
4. Step into the parent’s shoes and consider what they are hearing
Put yourself in the place of Mom or Dad. If a teacher calls to complain about your child’s behavior, what do you actually hear? Do you hear:
“Ms. Jones, Lance made some poor choices at lunch today and hit another student.”
Or do you hear:
“Ms. Jones, I think you are a horrible parent.”
When I got a call from preschool about my son knocking over other kids’ blocks (I’m not kidding – this really happened!), it caused me to question my entire mothering ability.
“But I’m a stay-at-home mom!” I said to my husband. “This isn’t supposed to happen! What have I done wrong?”
Unless the parents are completely jaded to their kid’s poor behavior (and plenty of these parents exist), Mom and Dad will feel at least a bit of guilt and self-recrimination over poor school behavior. We can’t stop that from happening, but we do want to keep them on our team for the benefit of the student.
Stopping for questions is a good way to insert a natural breathing space into your delivery so that you aren’t doing all of the talking (it’s a discussion, not a lecture… just like you had with Reuben).
“Do you have any questions I can answer about what happened?”
Keep answers short and factual. Examples:
Mom: “Oh my gosh… I’m so sorry.”
You: “I know. I wanted you to have all of the information so you could talk to Reuben tonight.”
Mom: “How do you know he really did it?”
You: “The playground aide saw and heard it happening, and then Reuben admitted it.”
5. Provide a positive along with the negative
Think about this in advance so you are ready. As much as parents may agonize over their child’s behavior, they will also instinctively want to protect them from unfairness. Including a positive statement lets parents know that you have not permanently labeled Reuben as a behavior problem and that you will continue to engage with him fairly and constructively.
“So Reuben didn’t meet my expectations about working with others in our community, but the good news is that he was very honest about what he did, and I could tell that he understood how it made the other boy feel.”
6. Provide a task for the parents to complete
This is a very important step for showing the parents that you are all on the same team and that they can help you manage the behavior so it has less chance of occurring in the future. Be specific.
Remember, don’t assume that any discussion will cause parents to “fix” their student’s behavior; that’s not the point of providing this task. The point is – again – maintaining that all-important teacher-parent relationship. Asking the parents to do something for you confirms that they are a valued member of the classroom team.
“It would be really helpful to have Reuben write a short apology note. Consider it part of his homework tonight.”
Audio: Hear the call to Reuban's mother
Another behavior phone call example
What happened: Taneeka has been cheating on her tests, copying from others.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Addington. This is Sharon Smith, calling from school. I hope I caught you at a time when you can talk.
“Taneeka has been having some difficulty with doing her own work on tests for the last few weeks. It hasn’t been too bad, and I’ve been working with her. But today, she took another student’s test from my in-box and copied every answer word-for-word on our reading assessment, and I really thought you should know about it. Here’s what happened.
“I had moved her desk closer to mine a few days ago, but when we had a substitute teacher this morning, she waited until a few students turned in their tests. She asked to get a pencil and took a test out of the in box, copied it, and turned them both in.
“This afternoon, when I talked to her about it, she tried to tell me that was impossible, but I got to the bottom of what happened pretty quickly.
“Do you have any questions?
“Taneeka is a smart girl – she’s just lacking some confidence that she knows the material. I had Taneeka redo the test during recess, and I think she really learned something from that. She was surprised how much she knew all on her own.
“I would really appreciate it if you could ask Taneeka to talk through the entire event and then ask her what she learned. I think it would reinforce what I’m telling her in class.
“I’m sending home both the test she copied and the one she did on her own, so those should be in her backpack.”
Audio: Hear the call to Taneeka's father
Video tips: difficult phone calls to parents
Leaving a message
If you have to leave a message:
“Hello, Ms. Pietro, this is Sharon Smith from school. I would like to talk to you today when you get a chance. Nic had a little trouble at school today, which we’ve handled, but I wanted you to know about it. You can call me after 3:00 today on my classroom phone at this number…”
Yes, that message may cause a parent to freak out a little, but at least they’ll most likely call back!