Tricky conversations: How can teachers have a good meeting with parents or carers?
By Lauren Seager-Smith, CEO Kidscape
As a parent myself, I know how it feels when the teacher ‘wants to have a chat’. Or ‘a quick word’. Or even worse, ‘a meeting’. Your palms start to sweat, anxiety creeps in, and you wonder what has happened. Many parents will be thinking the worst. Some parents will have had a tough time at school themselves, and any teacher-parent meeting automatically feels like a telling-off. This can make it tricky for teachers, too. Having sensitive conversations with parents is part of the job, but how much training and support do teachers receive to manage these meetings?
Over the years, I have attended a lot of school meetings. As an education advocate for children at risk of exclusion, I attended a lot of difficult meetings where emotions were running high. As a member of a behaviour support team, I led meetings with families, and probably most challenging of all, I have attended meetings about my own children. At Kidscape, we support hundreds of families each year who are concerned about bullying, where school meetings have often not gone to plan. This has given us some insight into what steps you can take to have a good – or at least a better meeting.
Communicate outside of meetings
Schools are busy places. This can mean contact with parents is limited. If you mainly talk to parents when things are going wrong, every meeting can be anxiety inducing. Look for opportunities to build positive relationships with parents. Meet and greet at the start and end of the day (where practical), encourage general chat, put a face to a name. Contact parents when things are going well. Tell them their child has gone a great piece of work, has grown in their confidence, or is relating well to others. That way, they won’t look terrified when you head in their direction.
If you need to have an important conversation with a parent or carer, think about the purpose of the meeting, what you need the outcome to be, and the best time and place to have it. Avoid having difficult conversations in the playground. This catches the parent off guard, others will be watching and listening, and it can feel humiliating. It helps the parent if they know when the meeting is happening, and what it’s about. It also gives you a chance to make sure you’re in the best place possible to hold the meeting. You are only human too, and if you are feeling frustrated or tired, it will impact the conversation.
Set the scene
It’s natural for parents and carers to approach meetings feeling defensive. Sometimes parents will be angry and upset. Think about what you can do to create a feeling of safety and help the parent feel at ease. Find a comfortable and confidential space. Perhaps offer a drink. Have tissues to hand. If it feels safe, try not to have a table between you. Consider whether there will be any language barriers or need for additional support in the meeting. Think about the energy you are bringing into the room, take a deep breath. Final tip – don’t sit the parent on a chair smaller than your own. I have been in a meeting where I was blinking up at a teacher from a teeny toddler chair which made me feel four again.
Begin with mutual purpose
When we advise parents on how to have good meetings with schools, we stress how important it is to agree on your mutual purpose. When it comes to bullying, this includes making sure a child feels safe, secure, and able to learn. What do you and the parent have in common? What do you both want to see happen and what solutions can you put in place together?
Think ‘adult to adult’
Talking to teachers can bring up a lot of mixed emotions for people. If a parent didn’t enjoy school, they might feel fearful, defensive, or even intimidated. It’s important to take the lead in putting parents at ease. It’s also important to take off your authority/ teacher hat with parents and talk adult to adult. Create a level playing field and a sense that you are in this together and will work through this together.
As much as you will have information to share with a parent, you only have part of the picture. You need their help to understand what is happening in the life of a child. If you create a safe space, they can help you to check your understanding. Share what you are seeing and experiencing but ask them how they see the situation. Listen to understand. Acknowledge any difficult feelings that might be coming up for them. Say what you see. For example, ‘you seem sad’. It’s all valid and they will bring a vital perspective to any situation. Reflect back on what you think you have heard, then agree next steps together.
Keep a record and agree a time to check in
It’s very helpful to document meetings. Summarise key points and any agreed actions and send these by email to parents. Agree a date and time to check in. It’s important to share when things have got better – not just follow up if there are further concerns.
For advice and training for school staff, visit Kidscape Training Courses.