Most of us in education have had the misfortune of dealing with a difficult parent or family, had a conflict with a parent or student, or have been ambushed by an upset person in school. Here are 10 strategies, tried and true, that will alleviate a majority* of problems with problem parents:
- First and foremost, remember that the parent loves the child. If they did not, they would not care to interact with you. The child might not even be in school. We may not understand the relationship, but remember that most parents love and advocate for their children as best they can. As Todd Whittaker says, they send us the best kids they have.
- Be careful the language used when communicating with parents. It is unrealistic to believe that it is possible to shame a parent into getting more involved without the parent getting defensive. Instead ask questions like “How much time do you think Sarah could realistically be working on school work at home? Are you comfortable helping Bobby with this subject? Would it be better if Jo stopped in earlier and got help from me?” Parents are often overwhelmed, and never feel like they are doing enough, or are doing the right things to help their child. Many parents dread conferences because they feel as if it is a parental audit. Help them know that their role is to work with the school to find a best strategy, not bear the weight themselves.
- If confronted by a parent who is upset, angry, or aggressive, NEVER react. Ask them what the nature of the problem is, and let them know that you will need to call them back or schedule a meeting so that they can get your full attention, and so you can gather some information, if necessary. Involve others (administration, colleagues). If they persist, politely explain that you have students coming in and that you must go. If cornered in a room, leave. NEVER engage the parent at that time. They are all fired up and you are at a disadvantage.
- When the time comes to meet with an upset parent (or call them back), have a pen and paper ready. Ask them to explain what they are upset about so you can get all of the information. Chances are, if they realize it is being recorded, the conversation will be more civil and less intense. Make sure they know you are taking notes, and make sure you DON’T INTERRUPT! If you do, they will start all over again. In a meeting situation, an impartial observer may be a good idea, then they can take notes while you discuss.
- Take a non-adversarial stance. Staring at someone face-to-face, sitting or standing, can be adversarial. Instead, take a walk together, or sit next to one another looking at something on the desktop.
- Be proactive. Be the first story home. Call before they hear the issue from the student or other faculty. Get your story straight, and welcome them to discuss it and let you know how you can help.
- Offer your time. Time is the only commodity that can be offered as an olive branch that does not look like a buy-off or a reward for bad behavior. Offer to make it right by staying late with the student, by dropping a paper off at home, or by volunteering the time somewhere else. It is a goodwill gesture that may not even be seized upon, yet solidifies honest intent.
- Make a paper trail. For this I prefer email interactions, because there is a built-in document trail associated with it. For verbal or telephone conversations, take notes. In addition to agenda and meeting notes as suggested above, take a few notes after the fact as to where things were left. Key phrases all of the parties said, and some specifics that could aid in further situations. This is required, for good reason, in many schools.
- Remember that it may not actually be personal. Some people are just abrasive, argumentative, or difficult. They are like this with the person at the deli counter, with the person at the post office, and with people they work with. They may even be like that with family members. It stands to reason, then that they would not deviate from this approach dealing with teachers or school leaders. Try to focus on factual information, and let the behavior slide off unnoticed. In other cases, the conversation might really be about divorce, unemployment, alcoholism, or mid-life crisis. Again, the conversation in the school setting needs to be solution and fact based. We can never know where people are really coming from when we interact with them.
- Kill them with kindness! Pretend not to hear the insults. Interact with difficult parents often, and make them know that they will get a smile and a pleasant demeanor every time, regardless of how difficult they have been. In fact, seek them out when possible. It makes parents uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of that sort of attention sometimes. Stay with it.
*There are cases where none of these will work. Please make sure to involve administration, law enforcement, or union representatives when dealing with anyone who is overtly abusive, irrational, or who may create a danger to you or others. Above all, be safe!