Imagine a student in class who is constantly disrupting the flow of the learning process of others, by excessive talking, throwing ‘spitballs’, laughing and refusing to follow instructions. Behavior supports and targeted interventions have all been tried with the student at the classroom level, and now you’ve decided that it’s time to call for backup. It’s time to call the parents at home and report this child’s behaviors.
Hoping to engage the otherwise ‘uninvolved’ parent is going to be challenging, because the overall tone of the parent, in the past, has been combative and defensive, and conversations usually have been unproductive. No cooperation from the parent is likely, as far as you can tell, because the parent insists this child never does such things at home, and could never at school.
“He knows better!” Besides, the child often described you as ‘mean’, and concludes that ‘my teacher doesn’t like me’. From prior interactions, the also parent agrees with the child. So, what can you do to form an alliance with the parents of your students? You can start by some self-reflection.
Before you engage parents, and potentially ‘disrupt’ their daily routine, reflect on the last time that you called upon them. What was the nature of the call? Was it to report something positive about their child or to report a problem? What about the last two or three occasions? Do you see a pattern? The parents may see a theme. Are you still wondering why outreach efforts aren’t met very favorably? When the telephone rings, or an email arrives in their inbox, the parent probably exclaims in anticipated frustration,” What does that teacher[principal, school] want now?”
If the primary reasons for communicating with parents is to ‘tattle’, and scream for help, then chances are that your call will not be well received this time, either. ……..Unless you change YOUR tone, and frame your messages in a more positive light.
Preface this one by acknowledging the last conversations with the parent and begin this one differently. Begin with ‘positivity first!’ Certainly, little Johnny or little Jessica does something right in class! Mention those things.
Another tidbit of lasting importance: communicate regularly, positively and respectfully with cultural responsiveness.
Conversations involving difficult feedback are never easy, but good frames can help you enter them without immediately igniting defensiveness. Then it takes a positive mindset and curiosity to move through the conversation. Leave the majority of talk time for the other person and really listen. By speaking your truth honestly and listening to the truths of others, you’ll help the conversation become more authentic and your relationships become deeper and more trusting. You truly can learn to say what you mean without being mean!
I’ve learned that there are two components to a feedback exchange. One is the content—the message the person initiating the feedback (the observer) wants to deliver. The other is the relationship—how important the person, in this case, the parent, on the receiving end of the feedback is to that observer.
If we focus only on content in delivering feedback, we may deliver a message that’s too unfiltered, laying it on the line in a critical or judgmental way. This can feel painful to the person we’re addressing and can provoke defensiveness and negativity.
Yet if we focus only on the relationship, our message often gets blurred or not heard at all. This often happens when we pair “warm” and “cool” feedback. Think “two glows and a grow,” and the listener might either focus totally on the glows (dismissing the “grow”) or obsess about the “grow” and not even hear the strengths mentioned—strengths that could be built upon to improve results or change behaviors.[this works well with students themselves, too]
So when a teacher has a concern, how can that teacher give feedback that the person will hear and accept as valid? What kind of feedback moves the hearer[parent/child] to take responsibility for making some changes?
Give “communicative feedback” that “clarifies the idea or behavior under consideration, communicates positive features worth preserving … and poses concerns and/or suggestions toward improvement” I call messages with these qualities reflective feedback. This approach works well for opening up difficult conversations with families, colleagues and friends. And it’s an excellent tool that teachers can use to start conversations with parents to give feedback.
The approach starts with showing up with a positive mindset about the parent and their child. Begin with the belief that this person, like you, is capable and wants the best for their child, and also wants to do the best job possible to support their child’s learning success. Also believe that the parent IS doing their best. Your role is to focus on strengths and help add to the knowledge and skills he or she already has.
The reflective feedback frame uses three steps:
- Offer a clarifying question or statement connected to your role as educator, and the role of the parent, as they are linked to learning and school performance, or current concerns. Clarifying questions and statements emerge from curiosity—from something you’re concerned about or want to know more about. They seek to make underlying assumptions explicit.
- State the value (or potential value) of the person you’re talking with or the idea under consideration. With a value statement, you express what you value about the person you’re addressing or the topic under consideration. You affirm a specific strength you’ve observed and make your own opinions about the topic or question explicit.
- Pose a reflective question or a possible action to stimulate thinking. Reflective questions engage the other person’s thinking and request a response. They help the listener think more deeply, creatively make new connections, and see other points of view.
These three steps open up a conversation for giving constructive feedback, and each question or statement should take no longer than one minute! Ideally, this conversation won’t involve giving a long list of examples justifying your observations or presenting your ideas for change. Engage the other person in thinking about his or her role to support learning and behavior at home. The ultimate goal is to foster partnerships with parents, build their capacity, listen, collaborate and reinforce classroom instruction. We want them involved to enable you to maximize learning outcomes, as equally influential members of the school community.
This kind of feedback is specific and builds on people’s strengths. It changes the conversation from one in which the observer does all the talking (and thinking) to a dialogue. The person giving feedback speaks less than the person to whom the feedback is addressed.
When we engage parents as valued partners in learning, the relationship will benefit EVERYONE- parents, teachers and students. For those parents whose past school experiences led to negative perceptions of educators, and influenced their beliefs about the educators’ perceptions of them, it is important to engage in ways that highlight their strengths, and acknowledge their role in their child’s life. We can help to alter their perceptions, increase self-esteem and self efficacy, and help them start anew. Parents need teachers to be supportive of their role as parents, and teachers need parents to be supportive of the value they hold for classroom teachers. It’s all in the approach to communication. Positivity first!