Difficult conversations with parents

Written by: Sonia Gill | Published:
Photo: iStock

Sonia Gill outlines two common difficult conversations with parents and three common mistakes that can hinder teachers when trying to resolve sensitive issues

When it comes to having difficult conversations with parents there are a few which seem to come up, time after time, school after school:

  • A mismatch of ability expectations – my child should be on a higher reading level/should be in the football/netball team, etc.
  • Not accepting their child has some special needs (understandably this can seem to be a heart-breaking message for the parents).

Often staff can get caught up in these issues, with them coming back time and again with the same parents and the teachers involved not being able to move forward constructively. This is often due to three common mistakes:

  • Not closing the perception gap between the parent and the teacher.
  • Not clearly explaining the consequences of the current course of action.
  • Not establishing common ground.

There are few techniques that can really help to overcome these challenges and create a more useful dialogue with a parent when your explanation is not getting the break-through you hope for.

Closing the perception gap

Let’s suppose a parent believes their child is currently at a higher ability, in reading, than you have assessed. You don’t think they are ready to move up a level and hopefully explaining this to the parent will be enough.

However, if it is not and you find this issue keeps coming back, it can be helpful to actually raise the fact that you have a perception gap between you and to ask the parent what they would need to know in order to believe that their child is at the correct reading level.

You can also share what you need to see for you to believe that they need to move up a level – this is information they might be able to provide you with.

Your position in this conversation is really important, it is one of wanting the best for the child and being willing to be convinced – genuinely. If a parent is right that their child is at a higher level, I am sure you will want to know this and it helps for them to see that you are open to it. Sometimes we can get so focused on what we believe that we are not always as open as we should be to the other person’s side.

Explaining the consequences

Telling a parent their child has SEN is a hard message for anyone to deliver and even harder to hear – it is the case that not all parents want to hear it.

A method that can help in this situation, if they are reluctant to have their child assessed, is the “two worlds” technique. In this we help the parent see how their actions today play out in the future.

In one instance the child doesn’t get the additional support and the parent doesn’t work with the school (or whatever the real situation is that you are trying to resolve) and we project forward to what this could mean for the child: “Mrs Jones, if we don’t work together to support Sara now, when she gets to her GCSEs she will be further behind and closing this gap will be even harder, so hard I’m not sure it will be possible. This will seriously affect her life chances.”

And then show the alternative, the better reality: “But if we can work together we can put support in place for Sara and we can work with you to make sure you can support her at home so this has the lowest impact on her.

“Then she will be in a much stronger position and certainly not as far behind. If we’re to give her the best opportunity we need to start working together as soon as possible.”

Establish common ground

“Chunking up” is when we move up to a higher conceptual level in the conversation. This sounds tricky but the following example will show how simple it really is.

Let’s take the previous example, of a parent who thinks their child is at a higher reading level. You can get caught in the details of what they can and can’t do, what books they are reading, what words they are using and you can feel like you are going around in circles. When this happens “chunking up” can be a really useful technique to break the impasse.

In the conversation you are working at the level of the parent putting forward their case, “but he can read really long words”, “he’s reading harder books at home”, and you’re putting yours forward by sharing what you are seeing in school.

To “chunk up” at this point is to move up a level: “Mrs Smith, I think you and I both want Joe to be a strong and confident reader...” This is the “chunk up” – “to be a strong and confident reader” – it is the common ground which then allows you to come back down a level but in a more useful way: “...so why don’t we talk about how we can work together to help him become a really strong reader?”

If the desire to move up a reading level is about the fact other children are at a higher reading level then this will help get the focus back to where it needs to be: the child’s being great at reading.

This technique could be also used with the parent who is finding it hard to accept that their child has special needs: “We both want your child to go on to have a happy life, with many opportunities, and have been given the chance to help create that for them.”

As with all techniques they have to be used genuinely, I have seen and heard too many people trot out “it’s all about the children” with as much meaning as a mortgage disclaimer statement.

Said with meaning, with heart and logic, these are powerful ways to move forward, but without it they are just words. So have a go, maybe you have an on-going parental issue and one of these techniques can help you to resolve it, so you are not still having the same conversation next term.

  • Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, specialising in supporting headteachers and school leaders.


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