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Dealing With Difficult Parents

Forming good working relationships with parents is imperative in helping your students be successful.

Dealing With Parents

I like to think that I possess strong interpersonal skills. I am able to not only pick up on others’ emotions and social cues, but react to them in a way that allows me to establish and maintain a good relationship. When I’m unable to do that, I feel like I’ve personally failed in some way.

In truth, it’s unrealistic (impossible, even) to think I can win over every person I meet.

This is true for my students’ parents, as well. Each August, our school hosts a “Sneak-a-Peek” event, allowing children and parents to visit their new classroom and meet their teacher. Parents often take this opportunity to introduce themselves to me, and to ask any questions prior to beginning the school year. It’s a whirlwind of an hour and a half, with all new faces and names, and I’ve promptly forgotten every encounter as soon as everyone has left. Since parents are only focused on meeting one person (me), they tend to remember it more vividly. Same goes for “Back-to-School Night.” The next time I might see my students’ parents isn’t until November at parent-teacher conferences. A lot can happen in that time.

"Forget public speaking; the scariest thing for me is when parents have no questions at Back-to-School Night."

Teachers use the term “difficult parents” to describe many different types of parents.

Sometimes someone who advocates for their child might seem demanding when they only want the best for their son or daughter. Other times, a parent who isn’t involved in their child’s education can make helping that student difficult. Personally, my biggest concern is the parent who doesn’t share her concerns with me until well into the school year. Forget public speaking; the scariest thing for me is when parents have no questions at Back-to-School Night. There is no way I’ve covered absolutely everything, so I can only imagine what conclusions they’ve come to before I’m even finished speaking.

Open communication is your first line of defense.

One thing I’ve learned in the dozen years that I’ve been teaching is that you can never communicate too much with your students’ parents. And while communication alone is not enough to win over difficult parents, it is your first defense in establishing a good working relationship.

"One thing I’ve learned in the dozen years that I’ve been teaching is that you can never communicate too much with your students’ parents."

I use an online communication tool to send out up-to-date information about curriculum and classroom events as well as to set up Parent Conferences. It allows me to have private messages with parents, and even shows me who has seen my announcements. If your students’ families don’t have internet access, hard copy newsletters are still the best way to share information. Many teachers personally call their students’ families to check in. No matter how you do it, you should do it regularly so parents feel in the loop.

Clarity is key.

In my time as a special education teacher, I learned quickly that although I knew the information I wanted to convey, I’d find out later that I wasn’t always as clear as I thought. Special education terminology is notorious for its acronyms, and in trying to be efficient in some very long meetings, I would use some abbreviations. Parents often wouldn’t ask questions for fear of looking foolish or uninformed. I realized soon enough that I need to word things in a variety of ways to ensure that my message is clear.

Reflect before you react.

When things don’t go as planned, the best thing to do is pause to reflect on your next course of action. Being reactionary only serves to heighten the tension, and possibly make the situation worse.

Ask a teammate if they’ve ever dealt with a similar situation to see if their solution would work for you, too. Seek out the child’s previous teachers to ask how they handled interactions with this particular parent. Meet with your principal for advice, and maybe even have her attend a meeting with the parent to help clear up any misconceptions. And when you do meet with parents, be kind. Take time to listen. You don’t know what challenges they might be dealing with that could have led them to this situation.

"And when you do meet with parents, be kind. Take time to listen. You don’t know what challenges they might be dealing with that could have led them to this situation."

People are complicated. We can’t expect to win over every parent, and placing blame does nothing to serve the students we’re charged with educating. Forming good working relationships with parents is imperative in helping your students be successful.

Related Resources: Teacher-Parent Conference Resources, Teacher-Parent Collaboration Resources

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Want to read more from this author? Check out Amy's tips on making your first year of teaching a successful one, building a positive classroom community, or learn what special education teachers wish "regular" education teachers knew.
Author Bio:

Amy McKinney, M.Ed., is a third grade teacher in Pennsylvania. She has been teaching for eleven years, eight of them in special education. Her experience working with students with special needs has helped form her philosophy on teaching and collaborating with her colleagues. Follow her on Instagram: @theuniqueclassroom.

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