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Tips to Prepare for and Approach Challenging Conversations with Parents

Sep 29, 2022    |   Family Engagement

Strong relationships between school and home set children up for success, and connecting with parents of the children in our care is one of the most important parts of our work as early learning and care providers. Building these connections requires maintaining open lines of communication with families, even when the conversation is sensitive. Check-ins about challenges, concerns, or disagreements can be intimidating, but they are a crucial part of reinforcing trusting relationships and supporting the needs of the children in our care. In this article, we share some tips that can help you prepare for and approach challenging conversations with families.

Challenging and Sensitive Conversations

Challenging conversations refer to any check-ins with families that might have strong emotions tied to them. These could include conversations about a child’s behavior, such as biting, hitting, or other aggression. Emotions can be triggered during meetings in which you express concerns regarding a child’s development, wellbeing, or safety. Reminding parents about logistical issues can also be sensitive, as when parents repeatedly pick up their child after closing time or are not following certain rules and policies of your center. 

It is important to recognize that some conversations could be challenging for educators or care providers, particularly if the topic reminds them of some of their own childhood difficulties or trauma. Any of these types of conversations could create vulnerability and other big feelings – both on your part and for the family – so, you’ll want to approach them with sensitivity and care. 

How to Prepare for the Conversation

Preparing for the conversation is a crucial starting point when you must check in with families about difficult topics. It helps to ensure that both you and the parents are on the same page, have collected your thoughts, and are ready to hear each other out in order to have a productive conversation. Some preparation tips are included below. 

Set a time and prepare the family 

Setting a time that works for both you and the parents is necessary to ensure that everybody is prepared. Because difficult conversations require time to think and process, they are far less likely to be successful when they are sprung on parents suddenly, or during pick-up or drop-off, when they might be in a hurry. 

Set a time that works for everyone who will be at the meeting, and schedule a meeting space that is quiet and private, so that you can converse without interruptions. When you reach out to schedule the meeting, give the families some context about the conversation so that they can prepare for the discussion. You might send an email with a message like, “I’m hoping we can schedule some time to talk about a few things that I have noticed regarding Tina’s development. Is there a time that works best for all of us to meet together, within the next week?” 

Reflect before the conversation

Setting time for reflection allows you to process any feelings that you might have about the topic before the conversation takes place. It will help you to collect your thoughts, remain calm, and speak clearly as you connect with the parents. The article, Preparing for Challenging Conversations with Families, a document from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in collaboration with the Administration for Children and Families, Head Start, and the National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement, explains: 

“Reflecting on your possible reactions to a topic can help you prepare for and understand the strong feelings, attitudes, or opinions you may have, whether they are positive or negative….Remind yourself to keep looking for the strengths in a family, even when there are challenges to address. When you can do this, you are more likely to have a productive interaction. These positive interactions promote respectful partnerships with families. These partnerships are the foundation for facing challenges together.”

Reflection can be done on your own, or in collaboration with a co-worker or supervisor who understands the situation and can offer honest feedback designed to open the door to solutions that have everybody’s best interests in mind. 

Prepare Your Notes and Questions

It can be helpful to go into sensitive meetings with a basic outline of what you would like to say, and a few questions prepared to ask the family. If you are sharing observations about a child, having a running list of what you have seen or noticed can help to provide families with some more specific information and details about the situation. 

You should also have questions planned to ask the family, to ensure that you are giving them a chance to share their own perspective and thoughts about the situation. This will reassure parents that you respect their knowledge and experience and that you want to work together to help their child. You might ask questions such as…

  • Is this something you have observed at home? How do you typically respond? 

  • What has worked for your family? 

  • What do you think about this? 

  • Is there anything else that has happened or that you’ve observed at home that could be related?

  • Is there anything in particular that our team can do to support your child and family? 

Approaching the Conversation

Once the conversation has been planned, and you are getting ready to meet with the family, you might be feeling worried or anxious about the conversation. These feelings are normal and are representative of how much you care about your connection with the parents. Focus on listening and on encouraging solution-oriented conversation throughout the meeting, so that both you and the family leave feeling heard and hopeful about what is to come. 

Be Aware of Your Feelings

As you go into the conversation, be aware of your feelings and take a moment to ground yourself. If you notice that you are experiencing any negative feelings, take a few slow, deep inhales followed by long exhales. In the article, How to Communicate with Parents, ZERO TO THREE advises that “Tuning into your feelings is very important. When you’re not aware of them, they often rear their ugly heads in ways that can interfere with building strong, positive relationships with parents.” Being aware of any frustration or negative feelings before you meet with the family can help you to approach the conversation with a sense of awareness so that you can remember to pause, slow down, and work towards connection and collaboration. 

Go in with Openness and Curiosity 

The most important thing to remember during these conversations is to maintain a sense of openness and an interest in better understanding the perspectives of the parents and family members. Rather than approaching the conversation with frustration or judgment, think about how you can partner and work alongside the family to support the needs of the child. Remember to ask questions, avoid interrupting when parents are speaking, and seek to understand how they might see the situation. 

Remember that the conversation is not about telling the family what to do, but instead is about finding a solution that works for everyone and respects the unique needs of the family. 

End with Next Steps

Always end the conversation with next steps. For educators, these might include sharing resources with the family, offering different support options for the child in your classroom, or introducing new activities that support development. For families, next steps might include sending additional comfort items to school with their child, rethinking their morning routine to create a smoother drop-off time, or connecting with additional services to support their child’s needs. 

Make sure that everyone is on the same page about what to expect moving forward, and plan a time to check in again to see how everyone is feeling about the way things have progressed. This will help maintain a line of open communication and ensure that everyone shares similar hopes and expectations. 

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