We’ve all had it – an angry phone call that just happens to come as you’re walking out of the room to eat your lunch, an enraged parent who stays well into the next several parent-teacher conference times yelling at you and providing entertainment to the ever-growing line of impatient people waiting for their turn, or an accusatory e-mail that questions where you got your degree and how on Earth they ever let you become a teacher because you obviously hate children. I mean, teaching’s the easiest job in the world, right!?
The good news is that you’re not alone. Any job that involves providing services to others is going to unavoidably involve customer service issues. The only problem? We’re not really trained to deal with customer service issues. We’re trained to help kids learn to read, make friends, do math, manage their emotions, solve problems, follow directions, and become productive members of society. We don’t take classes on how to stay calm, friendly, and professional while being insulted, accused, or intimidated! So here are some strategies you can use to calm the fire, build rapport, and engage the parent’s problem-solving skills to better work together for the good of their child!
TALK IN PERSON
I know this may seem counter-intuitive, but I have been able to use it to my benefit many times. Obviously, consider your own safety and choose a private place, but one that is in close proximity to others in case of emergency, like your classroom or office. It may also help to have other staff members present who work with the student as well (special education teachers, social workers, administrators, etc.) The reason I recommend in-person meetings is because you can use your body language to set the tone and direction of the conversation. Sit or stand tall and confidently, and lean in toward the parent slightly when they are talking. I’ve also found that it can to situate yourself slightly (but not too much!) below eye level of the angry parent – this helps them to feel more “in-control,” which tends to be a sure-fire way to get them to calm down faster. It’s also a lot harder for parents to stay angry for a long time when your body language is calm and attentive. It’s harder to do this on the phone when all they can see/hear is your voice! Another tip I have is that if you are seated at a table, keep all your muscles relaxed – it’s a proven fact that our body starts entering “fight or flight” mode when we clench our muscles; seriously…try it!
This part can be really difficult, especially when angry parents start the conversation accusing you of ruining their child, not knowing what you are doing, or questioning your character. However, nothing you say at this point can possibly make the situation any better. I once worked with someone who explained that we all lose about 20 IQ points when we’re really upset. If a parent is still very upset, they won’t even hear you. Instead, allow them to completely vent their thoughts. After they pause for a few seconds, THEN you can have your turn. Cutting them off in the middle of their opening argument is only going to make them feel more frustrated and unheard. So whatever you do, just let them talk!
VALIDATE THEIR CONCERNS
This is just plain ol’ counseling 101. Acknowledge that the parent is upset and apologize for the situation. Then, express how important their child is to you and communicate your desire to find a solution to address their concerns.
IGNORE YOUR FEELINGS
Yes, the social worker just told you to ignore your feelings (go figure, right?) Regardless of how temping it may be to yell back, walk out of the room, or otherwise alert the angry parent to how insane they currently are, don’t. This conversation isn’t about you – it’s about a parent and their (quite possibly unreasonable) opinions regarding you and their child’s education. I know this is difficult, believe me, but you can have your venting time later…just keep it together for the next 15 minutes or so. You can do it!
DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY
Through my various encounters with upset parents over the years, I’ve found that their anger often stems from one or more of the following:
– the parent’s negative past experiences or opinions regarding education
– frustration that their child is not living up to the hopes/expectations they had in their mind for their child
– parent feels as though their student’s needs are not being met or are not being met the way they want
– parent feels as though their thoughts haven’t been considered
– parent’s lack of social or coping skills or their own mental health difficulties
I would say that over 90% of the time, the issue is one of these issues, so don’t take the anger personally. DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T GET DEFENSIVE!!! If the issue is related to something you didn’t handle well, the only real option is to admit your mistake, apologize, and move on.
What this means is that the overarching issue is rarely the one they are actually discussing with you! Now, don’t get me wrong – you’ll have to address the current issue. Just acknowledge to yourself that their anger/feelings are probably more indicative of a larger issue. Which leads me to…
RESPOND TO WHAT THEY’RE NOT SAYING
Here are some examples of things parents might actually be thinking when they say certain things, as well as what you can do about it:
- My kid never had problems last year!
– “I’m frustrated that no one else has told me about this problem before!”
– “I don’t understand what you’re doing that my child is struggling with.”
> Provide a description of the differences between this and last year and outline your classroom procedures/methods
> Mention some positives about the student
- My child does NOT have a learning/behavior/social problem!
“I can’t bring myself to admit that my child might have a learning/behavior problem.”
“Was it something I did? This is all my fault.”
“Are they ever going to be able to go to ________ (graduate, go to college, have a normal life, etc.)?”
> Back off a bit by loading up on positives about the student’s performance, while also squeezing in a few of your concerns gently and in a way that conveys that you have the child’s best interests in mind. Some parents actually go through the grieving process when their child is diagnosed with a disability, so take it slow!
- You keep _________ and I think it’s stupid/ridiculous/wrong, etc.
“I don’t understand what you’re doing. Please explain it to me.”
“I don’t feel like you’re listening to my ideas about my child.”
> Explain your rational for doing the thing the parent expresses dislike for
> Ask for suggestions from parent and attempt to find a compromise
- I have better things to do than come in and talk to you.
“I feel really uncomfortable and awkward in social or school situations.”
“I am stressed out in my current life and don’t know how I can fit something else in.”
> Acknowledge that schedules are busy and offer alternatives to in-person meetings
FOCUS ON THE STUDENT
Repeatedly bring back the discussion to the student. Acknowledge the parent’s feelings, but shift back to concrete, measurable data regarding the student. Have discipline referral data, grades, progress monitoring, behavior counting, etc. readily available. Throughout this process, keep reiterating your desire to work with the parent to help the child do the best he or she can. Also avoid statements like, “I have a difficult time teaching when Johnny is up out of his seat all the time,” which shift the attention onto you. Even, I-Messages shift the focus back onto you and away from the child, so try to avoid them if you can (I know, I know…just this once. They’re great for general daily problem-solving!).
FIND A SOLUTION
Asking questions like, “What can I do right now to better meet your child’s needs,” “What types of things does your child enjoy at home,” or “What strategies have been helpful for your child in the past,” activate the problem-solving areas of the parent’s brain, which are separate areas than those activated during anger or stress. These types of open-ended questions can also help a parent to feel included in their child’s educational planning. I often say things like, “you know your child better than we all possibly can,” to help them feel as if they hold the power.
PHRASES TO AVOID WITH PARENTS
- “I have 25 other students. I can’t ______.”
> It’s not about you! This is their baby you’re talking about after all!
- “You need to take your student to the doctor.”
> Saying this can get your school into major trouble and could even put them in a position to have to pay for any medical bills the child incurs. Be very careful about suggesting outside services and check with your building administrators regarding how they would like you to handle these situations.
- “In 16 years of teaching I have never seen a student __________.”
> This shifts focus onto you and away from the child. It also doesn’t convey a lot of confidence to the parent that you’ll be able to help their child, which can be very frightening and discouraging.
- Anything with the words “mental retardation.”
> I’m sad I even need to say this, but it’s not 1970. Those are outdated medical terms. Please use the current language!
A LAST RESORT
Sometimes, you’ll encounter a situation involving a parent who is extremely aggressive, threatening, or just not in a place to have any type of conversation. At these times, it’s definitely not inappropriate to suggest that you continue the conversation at a later date or when other individuals (administrators, other staff members, etc.) can be present. Do the best you can to build rapport and a feeling of teamwork with the parent, but always consider your safety! If a parent seems unable to calm down after venting for several minutes, a conversation at that time probably won’t be very productive anyway.
Sure, conversations with angry parents will never be the best part of your day, but hopefully these tips will help you feel more confident during your next tough interaction. Remember, you are the expert on education, but the parent is the expert on their kid!
If you can stay calm, convey an attitude of patience and concern, and activate the parent’s problem-solving skills, you both have the power to create a very powerful, collaborative relationship to help your students do the best they can! And after all, isn’t that why we’re in this anyway?