Have you ever experienced feelings of dread and anxiety before connecting with a parent concerning a challenging situation? Have you reflected on those conversations and thought to yourself, "that could have gone better?"
If you’re in education, communication with parents is inevitable and essential.
As an educator for over 27 years, I’ve had my share of communication with parents involving challenging situations—some have gone well, and others not so much. One of the pillars of emotional intelligence is awareness which includes our ability to be aware of our emotions, the emotions of others, and the state of our environment. With intentional focus, communication can be an effective collaborative tool between parents and educators to foster a student’s success. I’ve learned a lot from my successes and failures, and with emotional intelligence as a foundation, I believe there are six major components to mastering this crucial interaction.
1. Be Proactively Positive.
I want to open with bad news about your child for my initial communication with you. Sincerely,
From the start, this relationship would most likely be strained. To avoid this pitfall, be proactively positive. From the first day of school, invest time noticing each student doing something positive. When you witness positivity, share an optimistic message with the parents. When doing this, it’s essential to be authentic and ensure that your praise is truthful and specific. If it’s not, the relationship with both the student and parent could become troublesome.
Imagine the transformational effects for both student and parent upon hearing positive feedback about their behavior—especially if they're used to receiving only negative comments and news. Positive feedback can change how students feel about themselves, a particular class, subject, or school in general. Additionally, expressing gratitude and acknowledging another’s actions can enhance your mood. Gratitude ignites positive emotions in all parties involved. When we express or receive gratitude, dopamine and serotonin are released in the brain and immediately make us feel good. By experiencing positive emotions, we’re better able to collaborate, perform, and be self-motivated. When acknowledging positive behavior, we're aiding in the potential for our students to flourish.
2. Develop Empathy.
I don’t think many parents want to see their child struggling or causing problems. Often, factors involving family dynamics or relationships outside of school are the root of problematic issues. Before sending that email or making that call, do some homework about the student and their family. School counselors, administrators, fellow teachers, paraprofessionals, and coaches may have insight about challenges or struggles the student or family is currently facing—or has faced in the past. Show compassion and empathy by increasing your sensitivity to their situation.
3. Be Open with the Student.
Building a trusting relationship with your students is key to success. Blindsiding a student will almost certainly destroy trust. If you plan to speak with their parents, it’s often best to be open and honest with the student about your plans.
4. Choose the Appropriate Method of Communication.
An email can start the process of connecting. However, it shouldn’t be the only means of communication with parents—especially when delivering bad news. Written communication lacks tone and intent, which can lead to misinterpretation. A phone call, virtual meeting, or in-person meeting will foster success because it removes certain assumptions. Hearing a voice, seeing facial expressions, and processing body language will help foster a productive conversation.
5. Maintain Calm Communication.
Being aware of your own emotions is essential when entering what could become a heated conversation. Staying calm is easier said than done sometimes. However, when you remain calm, it helps to lessen emotional tension. Take a few steady, deep breaths to regulate and calm your nervous system when preparing for the conversation. If you notice the parents' emotions rising, validate their feelings of concern or frustration and recommend taking a break to allow for time to regain composure—if necessary.
6. Follow Through and Follow Up with Gratitude.
Continue to foster the relationship by checking in and maintaining an open dialogue with students and parents—this will help develop a strong and trusting relationship. To ensure the trust isn’t lost, you must live up to any expectations. Self-management, at its core, is following through with what you intend to do and say.
If circumstances are changing, let parents know. If you see improvement in the student, communicate their achievement(s) with them and their parents. As time passes, continue to connect occasionally to reassure progress has continued to be made. If there is a lag in progress, it will be easier to keep the dialogue and collaboration moving forward. Express your gratitude to the parents within each interaction. It is difficult for many parents to have tough conversations about their children, so sharing a message of thanks acknowledges their investment in potential solutions. Conveying gratitude has been proven to strengthen relationships and solidify a trusting connection (Algoe, 2012, p.458).
The building of trust, authenticity, and awareness are all key components to mastering teacher/student/parent communication. With the recent challenges in education, using these strategies linked to emotional intelligence will undoubtedly create a solid foundation to help build student success.
Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, Remind, and Bind The Functions of Gratitude in Everyday Relationships. Social & Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455–469.