By: Erin Swanson, M.Ed.
Teacher-Caregiver Relationships Matter
When you become a teacher, you know you’ll be working closely with students. Likewise, you know you’ll have relationships with their parents and guardians. That said, you might not realize just how much of your time you’ll spend communicating with those caregivers. Before you know it, you’re interacting with them through parent-teacher conferences, Back to School Night, IEP meetings, school events, classroom volunteering, and the many texts, emails, and phone calls that pop up day-to-day.
Just how do you navigate these conversations? Sure, you’ve been trained to work with children and teens, but parents? Whew. That’s a whole other area of expertise.
With our tips, you’ll meet these conversations with greater confidence and ease. It’s worth it—strong teacher-caregiver relationships lead to thriving students.
Extra Compassion in Challenging Times
We live in challenging times. Whether it be the devastation of the pandemic or fires, we all face monumental loss and hardship. Remember the famous saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.” Even in the best of times, people still struggle with their own personal battles. When we keep this in mind, we meet people with the empathy and compassion they deserve.
We each have had our patience strained and our spirits crushed—children, parents, and teachers all live with daily fear and uncertainty. We might see more heightened emotions, anxiety, and outbursts than usual. We’re all being pushed to (or past) our limits. Listen attentively, seek to understand, communicate with compassion, and support each other. We all need support and understanding now more than ever.
12 Tips for Teacher-Parent Communication
1) Build a Positive Foundation with Parents
If the first time you sit down to talk with a parent is about something negative, you’re headed for trouble. When we build trust and mutual respect with parents from the beginning, all future conversations go more smoothly.
Ways to do this:
Reach out just to share positive feedback with no negative issues attached!
- Send a note home that says, “Tyrone did an amazing job on his science project!” or “I want to tell you about something that Kim did today at recess that was so kind.” When parents get an unexpected note or call from a teacher, it’s hardly ever good news. They will be thrilled that you’re simply sharing how proud you are of their child!
Set up intake meetings at the beginning of the year
- These are brief (10-15 min) meetings with each set of parents at the very beginning of the school year designed solely to connect with them and learn about their child before you have any academic or social/emotional reports to give. Don’t have time for meetings? Send home fun family surveys to learn more about them!
Build trust and connection at Back to School Night
- The parents will notice more about your warmth, passion for the job, and dedication to their children than they will about your exact plans for the year. Yes, you should share your academic plans, but be sure to focus just as much on building relationships and trust.
- Center yourself beforehand with the JabuMind app’s brief “Breathe Now” meditations.
- Using Zoom for Back to School Night this year? It might look different or feel awkward virtually, but it’s still an opportunity to connect. Allow yourself some grace and self-compassion. Parents know you’re trying your best.
2) Assume Parents Have Good Intentions
Know that parents and guardians want what is best for their child. Most frustration parents show comes from a place of love and worry. Do your best to keep this in mind when listening to a concerned parent.
When you realize that a parent’s anger towards you might really stem from a place of deep fear, you can release the tension or defensiveness you might feel and speak from a place of compassion. In these moments, you can repeat an intention or affirmation to yourself to stay centered. Instead of thinking, “This parent is being so rude to me!” you might reframe your thinking and instead repeat to yourself, “I bring empathy to conversations,” “I listen attentively and seek to understand,” or “I am calm, steady, and confident in the face of strong emotions.”
The JabuMind self-care app for teachers leads you through creating these positive statements during Week 2’s “Affirming Your Intention” guided meditations.
3) Release Judgments of Parents
It’s easy to jump to a judgment about a child’s parents or home life. A teacher might assume a student showing disruptive behavior might not have any discipline at home or isn’t getting enough attention. Likewise, parents might have similar assumptions about a teacher’s apparent lack of skills. If their child is misbehaving at school, they might think the teacher does not have strong classroom management skills.
More often than not, the answers are not so clear. Look deeper to truly understand what is going on with the child. Remember that parenting and teaching are both extremely demanding roles. Bring empathy to your interactions for a deeper relationship.
Rather than get caught up in your thoughts and judgments, practice being the awareness behind them. The JabuMind app for teachers guides you through meditations on awareness. Week 9 of the JabuMind app’s weekly lessons focuses on the iRest® topic of being awareness. “iRest® teaches you how to take a step back and observe your thoughts, emotions, and circumstances from a broader viewpoint” (Miller 23).
4) Show That You’re Rooting for the Child
When speaking with parents and guardians, emphasize that you are here to help and support the student so he/she can have the best year possible. You want to see the child succeed. This will show the parents that you haven’t marked the child as a “problem” and that you’re committed to doing what it takes to help the child have a positive year.
5) Release Judgments of Students
Imagine you’re at a parent-teacher conference or an IEP meeting. You can sense that the parents are already nervous and on edge in case their child did something “wrong.” Remember that the tone and attitude you bring to these meetings matter. Be careful not to label or blame the child.
When we say, “Wyatt hates reading time and doesn’t want to pay attention to reading lessons” we label him as a student who doesn’t want to try and who has failed. Understandably, parents will react negatively to this type of accusation. Instead, focus on discovering what skills and support the child needs to feel successful and excited about reading.
There’s a helpful term called “Skill vs. Will.” It means that children don’t willfully do poorly. Rather, they lack the skills to be successful. They struggle when they have an unmet need. It is the job of the teacher in the classroom and the parent at home to meet the need and teach the necessary skills, so the student can thrive.
Remember to never diagnose the child with anything yourself (ADHD, dyslexia, etc.—only professional experts can diagnose these. You can refer the child to a specialist if you are concerned, but please don’t make a diagnosis yourself—schools can actually get in trouble if you do).
6) See Parents as Part of Your Team
Parents and caregivers are on your team. They want the child to thrive, just as you do. You’re all working towards a common goal. Parents and guardians know a lot about their children. Treat them as experts and glean valuable information from them. Ask them what works best for them when at home with their child. When you show openness to the parents’ knowledge, rather than claiming that only you know the right approach, the parents will likely feel heard and become less defensive.
For example, you might try saying, “At school, we’ve tried giving Sam a 5-minute head’s up before transitions to help him prepare. What have you tried at home to help Sam with transitions? What does Sam usually respond best to? Is there anything Sam has not responded well to in the past, either at school or at home?
7) Respond to Blame with Curiosity
Having a parent or caregiver blame you for something is one of the worst feelings. Your reaction might be one of anger, irritation, defensiveness, self-consciousness, hurt, or confusion. Take a deep breath. Draw from your inner resource of strength in these moments. Richard Miller of iRest® explains it this way, “Your inner resource is an inner refuge of constant stability, safety, and well-being” (Miller 22). Week 3 of the JabuMind app teaches you how to connect to your inner resource.
Remind yourself that these parents are just concerned about their children. They are displacing their own worry, frustration, or insecurity on you. You can diffuse the situation by seeking to understand their point of view, rather than defend yourself right away. Approach the conversation with curiosity instead of fiercely trying to be right.
Release the idea that this is a personal attack on you (even if it feels that way!), and instead focus on how you and the parent can work together to help the student. You might try repeating back what you hear from the parents in a gentler way and offering solutions.
If the parent says to you, “You’re not challenging Cody enough in math, what you’re teaching is too easy for him,” you might say, “I understand you’re concerned about Cody’s opportunities for growth. He’s a bright boy and often wants to take math concepts further than the daily lesson. Here are some ways I have differentiated instruction to help him grow. Let’s talk about some more ways we can work together to offer him extensions and keep him excited about math.” Often, this will soften the parent’s response so the conversation doesn’t lead to heated emotions and argument.
The JabuMind app will teach you how to ground yourself in these challenging moments. Under “Challenging Times” in our library section, you’ll find meditations such as “A Conversation with an Emotion or Feeling,” “Comfort in Discomfort,” “Lengthening Exhales,” and “Helping Hands.” For more, check out Week 4’s meditations on breathsensing, Week 5’s meditations on bodysensing, and Week 6’s meditations on welcoming opposites of feeling and emotion. With these tools, you can regulate your emotions and stay steady.
Often, we leave these difficult conversations feeling rattled. I remember engaging in a challenging conversation with a parent over a lunch meeting, and then hopping right back into teaching. Take a moment to recenter yourself before you return to teaching. JabuMind’s meditations on “Stress & Anxiety” will bring you back to a place of calm.
8) Be Careful with Emails!
The way you reach out to parents makes a big impact. More often than not, texts and emails come off harsher than over the phone or in-person conversations. If you must send an email about an academic or behavior concern, keep details on the email brief (know it’s a written record the parents can save or show to others). Keep emails regarding concerns brief and always set up a plan to talk on the phone or in-person in more detail.
9) Speak from a Place of Love and Concern
Whenever you must share an issue with a parent, always come from a place of love and concern. Don’t jump right into the problem. Instead, start off by sharing positive feedback about the student.
For example, “I’m really enjoying having Alma in my class. She’s such a supportive classmate to her peers, always chipping in to help when someone doesn’t understand the directions. One area I see where she could use more support is reading. I notice she seems frustrated with the more challenging chapter books she’s trying.
10) Speak About the Student as a Whole Person
For recurring behavior issues, focus on the student as a whole person. Always separate the behavior from the child. Sam is not a “disruptive kid.” Instead, he is a child who sometimes shows disruptive behaviors.
Focus on the child’s strengths as well as challenges. For example, if the child has recurring behavior issues and you need to implement a daily behavior tracking sheet, make sure the tracking sheet has areas to fill out when the child did a good job as well as when he/she had difficulties. It can be draining and heartbreaking for parents to hear only about their child’s struggles. There’s always something positive that you can throw in as well!
11) State Issues in a Neutral Way
Remove judgments, accusations, or strong emotions from your language. Simply state facts in a calm, neutral way. Instead of saying, “Daniella was being mean to a student and disrespectful to me,” you might say, “Daniella told a student she wasn’t cool enough to play with her at recess. She then told me to go away when I asked her to talk with me about it. I’m concerned that she’s struggling socially and feels too self-conscious to talk about it.”
Remember—your tone of voice, body language, and facial expression all make a difference in how parents perceive your words! Deborah Gruenfeld, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford Business School, explains that “the pitch, volume, and pace of your voice affect what people think you say 5 times as much as your words.” When you speak in a calm, soothing, and nurturing way, parents will be more receptive to what you’re saying.
12) Communicate Often Throughout the Year
Communicate about a student’s progress and your concerns throughout the school year, not just during report card time or required parent-teacher conferences. If you do so, there won’t be any surprises. Parents will see that you know their child well and care deeply throughout the year. Even more, parents and guardians love getting a sneak peek into the classroom! Send regular newsletters with classroom updates or use programs that connect parents to the happenings of the classroom like SeeSaw or Bloomz.
Teachers, We’ve Got Your Back
These tips will help you manage it all—whether that be parent-teacher conferences, back to school night, IEP meetings, or any day-to-day pressing needs. Want an extra dose of calm and inner strength for these conversations? The JabuMind app for teachers has you covered.
About the Author: Erin has a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. Before joining JabuMind, Erin was an elementary school teacher for the first, fourth, and fifth grades in both public and private schools throughout California and Oregon. She is also certified to teach children’s yoga. Erin is passionate about helping teachers combat burnout with mindfulness and self-care.