Recently I was asked, "What is the best way to react besides staying calm when a parent is upset?"
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That is a terrific question, and it's one that we should discuss at length.
There is not one definitive answer.
Staying calm is essential.Sometimes parents will need to vent. They may even attack, criticizing or accusing you of being the problem. Remain calm. Often, their anger subsides in a few moments; they just need to express their frustration.
Don't argue. It's futile. If they are attacking, they are not ready to listen. Also, don't launch a counter-attack. If you attack back, you add to their reasons for being upset. And, it is unprofessional. Just be patient.
I do not want you to think that you are simply supposed to sit quietly and be a parent's "punching bag". If the parent is threatening, accusing, shouting or swearing, it may be in your best interest to pause or end the conference. Politely interrupt a tirade. Phone a colleague, administrator or counselor and request an additional presence. If none is available, reschedule the conference.
If the conference is over the phone, schedule a callback day and time, or suggest a face-to-face meeting. Find a colleague, administrator, or counselor who can attend, and have a conference call or a group meeting.
Demonstrate that you are listening. Use active listening methods (nod, lean forward, etc.) to relate to the parent. Restating the parent's reason for being upset often has a calming effect, because it shows that you are giving the topic consideration and value.
Ask questions, politely. "When did this begin?" "What supports does your child need to be successful?" "What do you try at home that works when...?"
Give the parent respect and preserve his/her dignity. Also preserve the dignity of the student. The parent's "Mama Bear" or "Papa Bear" reaction is natural.
Often, parents are nervous. They are feeling the pressure of having to have a meeting with you. They also may feel like they are being judged for their parenting, and they are naturally feeling defensive. Many also have bad memories of school, too. Keep all these things in mind.
"A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1)
Some general advice for conferences:
- I always invite teachers I'm mentoring to sit in with me on some parent conferences, with parent permission, of course. You can learn a lot by being an observer. Ask to sit in on conferences with teachers that you respect.
- Invite a teacher, counselor or administrator to sit in on a conference with you, especially if you anticipate upset parents. Having an additional perspective sometimes helps keep a meeting purposeful and calm.
- Always greet parents at the door to the room, never from behind your desk. This lessens the feel of "being called to the principal's office".
- Again, sit WITH your parents, not behind your desk. Assemble a few desks together in the room and work as equals.
- When possible, encourage the parent to bring the child to the conference. Having all parties together eliminates a lot of issues; everyone hears the same things.
- Begin and end every conference with a kind word, a firm handshake, and looking a parent in the eyes. These actions communicate respect.
- Always include the positive. What is the child doing well? What is a character trait that you appreciate? Why can the parent be proud?
- Take notes. This is calming for both you and the parent, and is an indicator that you are listening. Confirm any action steps by giving the parent (or student) a copy of your notes as well.
- Remember that you are a professional. Maintain a professional demeanor and use professional vocabulary at all times.
- Be respectful of the parent's time. Be prepared for the conference, and begin and end on time.
- Thank the parent for coming (or calling).
Conducting good parent - teacher conferences and maintaining good relationships with parents is a skill built over time. It is worth the investment. It requires practice.
Ask other teachers to tell you their best and worst parent-teacher conference memories. Then, ply them with questions. This will be a valuable professional development activity.
Questions to consider:
- What is the ultimate goal of the conference?
- What do you want parents to remember about you?
- What other actions can you take to establish a positive climate from the very beginning?
These are my opinion, only. Others may have different thoughts and insights. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
What other advice or questions do you have about parent conferences? Please feel free to leave a comment below.