How to Talk to Difficult Parents During Parent-Teacher Conferences


As a teacher, an important part of your role is communicating with parents, which can often be tougher than dealing with a crazy class of students. We'll give you some tips on how best to handle yourself during difficult parent-teacher conferences.

Parent-Teacher Confrontations Happen

Parent-teacher confrontations are a great opportunity to talk about issues like poor grades, disruptive behavior, weak study habits, potential special needs, and more. You can make the most out of these meetings by gathering examples of the behavior and thinking out possible solutions and action plans. Warning parents about issues when they happen on a daily basis is also a good way to keep parents engaged in their child's problems.

However, as a teacher, you have a lot on your plate. Parents do as well. Sometimes you won't have the chance to discuss student issues until parent-teacher conferences roll around. Even if you come extremely prepared and calm to the meeting, the situation can still take a turn for the worse. We will discuss some common situations you may run into as well as advice on how to react.

Parents in Denial

Many parents will be unwilling to believe that their child has a problem and will instead blame your inaccurate evaluation or poor teaching skills. Attributing the issues to someone else is easier than admitting their kid's shortcomings or wrongdoings. If a parent is in denial, first try to put yourself in their shoes. They love their child, and they don't have the full picture since they are not in the classroom with you.

To help move the conversation along, psychologist and school consultant Michael G. Thompson suggests being blunt: ''You have all learned how to positively connote your comments in order to soften the blow to the family ego…and to save yourself the pain of bearing direct bad news. All cushioning attempts will be most unhelpful to denying families, who must be told in no uncertain terms what the trouble is, so they cannot deny it.''

Difficult parent during a parent-teacher conference

Gathering examples of student performance is an especially great tactic here. If Michael is always turning in half-baked work, pick out examples of typical and exemplary student work to show his parents (white-out the names for confidentiality). You can compare his work to that of his classmates and your rubric to give parents concrete evidence of the issues that need to be addressed.

Aggressive Parents

Hearing that your child is performing poorly or acting rudely is difficult. In the face of this news, some parents will get angry--''No way this could happen to my child!'' Again, they may blame your teaching or evaluation skills as well.

When you have to deal with an aggressive parent, try to stay calm and focus the conversation on the specific behavior that is problematic. Explain that you are not diagnosing or failing the student. You are simply bringing an issue to their attention so that you can figure out a solution together. As Dr. Thompson advises, ''During the meeting, even when under attack, remember: no offense, no defense. Never defend yourself or your actions and refrain from counterattack, no matter how provoked. Your quiet listening will be disarming and disorienting to the aggressive parent, who expects to hurt or be hurt.''

Active listening is one strategy that can help you diffuse the situation. This technique basically involves repeating what someone said back to them in their own words. The main goal is to gain a clear understanding of what a parent is saying, with the secondary goal being that the parent notices your obvious interest in what they are saying. One teacher training program found that active listening ''…enhanced understanding of teachers' and parents' expectations, ease problem solving and decision making, allow expression of feelings, and increase school-home collaboration.''

If you are concerned about a potentially combative parent, consider bringing in a third party, such as a counselor, assistant principal, or another teacher. As a teacher, you want to be diplomatic and understanding, so you may not be the best person to deliver difficult news.

Further, you should definitely talk to a counselor or administrator if you suspect neglect, abuse, or serious behavioral problems. Your role is to address academic matters and classroom behavior, not to get involved with possibly dangerous situations.

If the conference does become confrontational, you should feel empowered to say, ''I understand this is a lot to take in right now, so let's reschedule and continue our discussion another time.'' This could make the parent realize they're overreacting, and they will calm down. If not, it will at least end the now pointless conference and give you the chance to reschedule with a neutral third party.

Uncooperative Parents

Some parents will believe their child has an issue, but they have no desire to work with you on fixing it. They may find the problem hopeless or think only they can help their child. Perhaps you've talked through your ideas for correcting the behavior, and they reject every single option.

Teacher and parent discussing an issue

One way to prevent this situation from happening is to ask for the parent's input first, before offering up your solutions. When you bring up an issue with their child, a parent will certainly have thoughts on why that behavior is occurring. They may also have already tried some solutions, to no avail. Involve them in the conversation as best you can to keep it constructive.

If the parent nevertheless refuses to cooperate, lay out your best solution and how you plan to execute on it. Explain why you think this solution will help the child improve and what the positive consequences will be. The parent may decide to avoid helping with your plan, but at least you have set clear expectations that you can point to in future conversations and to your superiors.

Absent Parents

You may also need to deal with a situation where a student's parents are simply not involved. Maybe the child comes from a broken home, or their parents are too busy working to attend parent-teacher conferences or answer your calls. You can be as persistent as you want, but they may never respond to you.

First, you should bring this up to your principal since they may hold more weight in communicating with the parents. Second, consider asking the student if there is another guardian you could talk to. You may be able to reach a grandma or other family member who is available to talk with you.

Whether you are dealing with angry, skeptical, or absent parents, the most important tip to remember is to keep your cool. Always think about what is best for the student, and do not be afraid to call off a meeting and contact a school administrator for back up.

By Meghan Cooney
September 2016
teachers teacher tips & tricks

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