Our goal as teachers is for our students to succeed. That may mean something different to each teacher – earning a certain score on an exam, overcoming a specific obstacle to achieve a social goal, finally participating in class – but success for all students has to be at the core of a teacher’s goals. So when a student is struggling, it’s difficult, to say the least. You feel bad for the student, you may feel like you yourself have failed, and to make matters more complicated there is one more party you need to address…his or her parents.
Reaching out to parents of struggling students is never “fun”, but we know how important it is and It doesn’t have to be the overwhelming, dread-inducing process so many teachers think of. There are things you can do ahead of time to help prep for an interaction that you know is possible and there are things you can do during the actual conversation to make it as effective and painless as possible – for both parties!
Approaching difficult conversations will always be less intimidating if you already have a relationship with the parents. Of course, you don’t know with which parents you’ll have to have these conversations, so it’s best to form relationships with them all. Send a few messages to let them know about positive things – academically, socially, emotionally, behaviourally – that their child does throughout the year. Provide transparency into daily life in the classroom. Doing this will help the parents grow to trust and respect you and your opinions and will keep them from being terrified every time they see you have sent a message!
As you being the conversation, open with something positive about the child. Even if you are reaching out to the parents about a current struggle, you will certainly be able to find something positive that they have done! Whether it’s making sure another student is sitting alone, offering to help pass back papers, or simply walking in with a smile every day, every child brings something important to our classroom community. Start with that to soften the defensiveness that may follow.
As the conversation continues, show the parents that you trust and value their opinions and feelings and are there to collaborate with them. When it comes down to it, parents know their children better than teachers do and they typically have valuable insight into the lives and behaviours of our students. Listen to their side of what is happening and ensure them that your goal is to work together to help the student succeed. Once they realize you are on the same page, the news you are giving them will be much easier to digest. That said, part of this is recognizing that what you are telling them may be difficult to hear. Exhibit empathy to help them feel understood and supported.
Keep the information simple and easy to understand. Of course, this can vary based on your prior conversation with the parents, but don’t take for granted the wealth of information you know about child and adolescent development, academics and curriculum, and educational verbiage. You went to school and have years of experience that make this information second hand to you, but parents don’t. Combine that with the emotions the parents are experiencing, and they may have some difficulty understanding what you are saying or what it all means to their child. Use everyday vocabulary and provide resources when appropriate that help them understand.
At the end of the day, you and the parents are there for the same reason: to ensure the success and well-being of the student. Keeping this in mind and using the tips above will help you and the parents have this conversation in the most successful way possible.
Emily Williams, SchoolCNXT Editorial Team and former teacher