We’ve all been there. Something is happening at school, and you have to contact a parent. Sometimes, we call home and work out a plan very easily, but there are times when we have to deal with challenging parents. It can be intimidating, but you can effectively communicate with difficult parents with the right strategies.
Whether it is a student who is not behaving appropriately in class, a sweet, well-behaved student who is struggling, or perhaps a student who is not working at his/her potential, we often have to make uncomfortable phone calls home. Our job as a teacher is to work as a team with the parents and our administrators to help our student succeed, but sometimes, we have parents who are a bit more difficult.
Here’s how to deal with challenging parents
1. Establish boundaries regarding communication.
One important thing you can do to make sure you’re in a place to calmly discuss student performance is to set boundaries. Technology is great for many things, but it also means some parents will email us after school hours. As a parent myself, I often email someone when I think of it, because I’m a really busy person. If I don’t do it then, I’ll probably forget. That does not mean that I expect a response right away. Within 24-48 hours is great for me, but I know how busy people are. 😉
It’s helpful to establish a time-frame in which you will respond to emails and communicate that early in the year. If you need a day to respond, make that clear. If you cannot (or do not want to) respond to emails at night, sharing that with parents ahead of time will clear up any confusion. When a mom insists she emailed you for the homework assignment at 9 pm, you can remind her that you check email when you arrive at school. As much as this may anger the parent, you do not have a responsibility to check emails at night. Changes in technology advancement do not have to mean lack of respect for a teacher’s time.
I’m not suggesting that you should never respond to emails at night. If you are comfortable with this and have a set time that you might look at them, then communicate that to your parents. It’s really up to you to set those boundaries. Sometimes, you have to show people what treatment you’ll accept.
I also recommend giving yourself time before responding to an email if your emotions are high. It’s very easy to react quickly, but this can result in a less-than-calm email. Sleep on it, respond when you are more calm, and reread it a few times before you send it!
2. Establish boundaries regarding meetings.
Ever have that parent who walks up to you as you are leaving school with a few quick questions? You’re on your way out the door to pick up your child, your arms are full with three teacher bags, your coffee cup, your water bottle, and all the other things you haul back and forth, and this parent wants to have a quick talk in the parking lot?
Ask that parent to email you and set up a meeting. Explain calmly but firmly that a conversation right now isn’t possible. Suggest a few times that work for you, ask the parent to check his/her calendar and email you with a few times they could come. Tell the parent you’ll look at your calendar when you receive and email, and you’ll set up a time.
I suggest doing this any time a parent shows up unannounced for a quick meeting. You’re sending the message that you are receptive and do want to help his/her child, but that you need to be respected for the professional that you are.
3. Beware of digital trails.
In this day and age, it’s especially important to remember that anything you write in an email can be saved forever or shared with any number of people. Be extra mindful not to share personal details about other students, and take time to read back over what you wrote. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable with your principal seeing what you wrote, rewrite it. Even when you feel attacked, you need to maintain professionalism. It will go a long way if you do have to bring administration into it.
I’ll give a quick mention to social media, too. Do not post negative things about parents or kids on social media. Ever. In fact, just don’t share negative things about anyone on social media. It’s not necessary, it’s not professional, and it’s just plain rude. Not to mention that it is a violation of privacy and you could face legal repercussions.
4. Don’t meet the parent alone.
If you feel at all uncomfortable with a parent, ask to meet with him/her when an administrator can be present. I learned this my first year of teaching, and I am forever thankful that my principal suggested this. If you need to deal with difficult parents, you don’t have to do it alone!
If you don’t feel your administrator needs to be present, it’s still a good idea to have a colleague there. Sadly, sometimes words get twisted around, and it’s nice to have someone there who can speak about what was said and/or done during a meeting.
5. Brainstorm together.
Parents often have a lot of really great ideas for how to reach their children. They have insights we don’t have that might help us understand behavior or performance issues. Parents can help us identify strengths we might not have witnessed yet. They can be our greatest ally, but this means working together.
Yes, we are the experts in our classrooms, but often, parents can provide us with a wealth of knowledge about our students. When parents are especially difficult, just remember that they love their child very much. We might not understand or agree with them, but we can still work together for their child.
6. Take the high road.
Show the parent respect, even when you feel they are not respecting you. I figure, it’s always better to be kinder than necessary, because being unkind only makes me feel bad. It keeps me up at night, and I don’t sleep well as it is. I’m not going to be walked on or pressured, but that doesn’t mean I need to be disrespectful, either. It took me a long time not to be intimidated by certain behaviors. Now, I just take a deep breath, remember that I am a professional, and I treat them with the kindness I wish they’d show me.
You’ll have a lot of meetings with parents over the years. A lot of those meetings will go smoothly, leaving both you and the parent feeling good. Some of those won’t, so it’s important to know how to deal with challenging parents.
Need some ideas for dealing with challenging teens? Read this.