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Teaching Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized   |   Oct 10, 2011

Conveying bad news in a parent conference

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Conveying bad news in a parent conference

By Angela Watson

It’s the conference we all dread: telling a parent their child a) is failing a subject, b) needs to be tested for a disability, c) doesn’t have any friends, or worst of all, d) all of the above. Your stomach is twisting and turning just thinking about having to confront the parent.

So, what do you do? Here are a few tips for sharing bad news in a conference:

  • Choose the time and place carefully.If you think a parent might be confrontational, arrange to have the conference in the school office. (In fact, I held most of my parent conferences in the school office for safety reasons, especially after school hours.) If you think the conference might be overly lengthy, plan it for before school instead of after so there’s a set ending time.
  • Start the conference with a warm welcome. Give the parent a warm smile when you first make eye contact and make small talk while they’re getting settled at the table. This is a simple conversation between two adults, not one sentencing the other to the electric chair. Relax and help the parent relax.
  • Share something you love about the child.Prepare what you’re going to say ahead of time if needed. I like to share an anecdote about something charming, funny, or cute the child has said recently. The more the anecdote shows that you understand the child’s personality and appreciate him or her for having that personality, the more receptive the parent will feel toward what you say next.
  • Ask the parent if s/he has any concerns.Many times parents have a good idea about why the conference was needed, and letting them bring up the elephant in the room allows you to hear the family’s take before sharing your side.
  • Be gentle and factual when sharing problems.Leave out your personal opinion and share the objective facts about what you’ve observed. Remember that this is someone’s baby you’re talking about. Parents send us the best they have; they’re not keeping the good kids at home. Put aside your own frustrations and try to speak the way you’d like your child’s teacher to speak to you. The parent-teacher relationship is a crucial one, so keep from getting overly emotional.
  • Don’t try to convince parents to see problems your way.If the parent is apprehensive about the information you’re shared, it’s not your job to change their mind. Don’t take on that responsibility and press the issue. Give the parent time to think, talk to other family members and friends, and get back with you another time. Often the parents’ first reaction is denial and they need time for bad news to sink in. Allow them that and be gracious about it.
  • End by reiterating everything that’s going right. Close the conference with a recap of the child’s recent successes and key areas of progress, no minor how minor they might be. Make it clear with your words, tone, and attitude that you believe the child can improve, you appreciate the parent’s time in meeting with you and supporting education at home (even if you feel like the parent is not doing everything they should), and that you are on the family’s side in wanting the very best for the child.
  • Double up on praise and good news in the coming week. The parent is likely to be hyper-sensitive to everything you say and do after a tough parent-teacher conference, so watch the comments you make on the child’s graded work that’s sent home and be encouraging in your daily/weekly reports. Pass along as much positive feedback as possible.

Conveying bad news in a parent conference

Another idea is to have student-led conferences. A few years ago, I developed some guiding questions to use in these conferences (click here for a printable conference question sheet you can download, pictured at left.) Asking questions lets parents know their opinions and experiences are valued.

The student-led conference format also holds students accountable for their academic and behavioral choices, and gives the parent the opportunity to see the teacher and child interact and (hopefully) witness the strong rapport.. You can read more on my student-led conferences page.

How do YOU share uncomfortable news with parents in teacher conferences? Tips on what to do/what not to do?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. GREAT blog post! I’ve sat in on so many parent meetings (usually when the teacher is trying to push CSE services on the parent because they’re at their wits end) that are negative, negative, negative. I always talk about positives first, whether in parent meetings or at the CSE table. What can the child do? What is positive about their work habits, personality, behavior, etc? What skills to they have? Then, I discuss any deficits, concerns, or problems. Going in guns blazing on what’s “wrong” only serves to put the parent on the defensive.

    1. Thanks, Aimee! You make some great points. It’s so easy to be at your wit’s end in a conference, especially if the parent has cancelled multiple times or not shown up. By the time you get them face to face, it can be tempting to just release all your frustration on them! I hope this article is helpful in reminding teachers to take a step back from those difficult feelings and try to communicate with the parent in a way that will produce the best results. Every child has positives–things they CAN do well–that can be emphasized and celebrated.

  2. I find as the team chair/school psych at the table, I often have to remind teachers and parents that there are strengths and positives in every child. In our time constricted work environments, there’s the pressure to cut to the chase and discuss the issue at hand, forgetting for a moment that cutting to the chase narrows the team view on a very multi-facted child. Love the post!

    1. Mo, thanks for bringing up the issue of time constraints. That’s definitely another factor that can lead to tension and miscommunication in parent-teacher conferences. There can be a feeling of “we don’t have time to talk about the stuff that’s going well, so let’s just jump right into the stuff we need to work on.” I remember being told those exact words at a team meeting for instructional coaches. We all kind of looked at each other like, okaayyy, so just because this a short meeting, it’s going to have to be a list of complaints and problems? I would have rather extended the meeting by 5 minutes in order to start off and end with something inspiring and energizing. Needless to say, that meeting was a real downer. I would never want a parent (or teacher) to feel that way after a conference.

  3. Thank you for this helpful post. I like “Be careful and factual when sharing problems.” I find that sentences like “I’ve noticed _________ behavior when we do rug work.” or “I often see ___________ happening when the students are at their seats.” Phrasing your news like a report helps to leave out personal opinions.

    1. Hi, Nancy! I totally agree about “phrasing your news like a report.” That’s a great way to put it.

      I like to do that and then ask the parent, “Have you noticed this at home, too?” Oftentimes, the parent is nodding right along with me! It’s quite a bonding moment, because I think both parenting and teaching can be isolating–sometimes you feel like you’re the only one dealing with something with a kid and hearing that someone else is going through it, too, is a huge relief! It’s easy to work on a solution together from that point.

      And if the parent says that they don’t notice the problem at home…well, that’s giving me some very important information. I can then determine if there’s something happening in my classroom that’s contributing to the problem and needs to be changed, or something at home that’s making it better that maybe I could try.

      Every now and then I come to realize that the parent is in complete denial and the kid has the same issues at home, but that’s actually very rare. I’ve found that once I have earned a parent’s trust, they will be vulnerable with me and become willing to really examine all the facts with an open mind. I try to do the same. 🙂

  4. Thank you for your useful information. It is always so sensitive speaking to parents when their children are experiencing some kind of difficulty – especially when they want to know what the future holds or when their child will “catch up,” to the others. The hardest to watch is their pain and I wish more teachers would be more sensitive to the emotions that parents experience in conferences like these.
    I love your conference questions sheet which involves the kids too…as kids normally feel quite intimidated in situations like this. I have already downloaded and printed them.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Teachermum, you are so right–when a parent realizes their child is not at the level that the state benchmarks require the child to be at and they ask “When will my child catch up?”…oh that is such a heart breaker! I can’t tell you how many parents I have cried with in conferences.

      Teaching third grade in Florida was just devastating at times because kids who don’t score a 2 on the FCAT get an automatic retention. I had so many kids who were passed on from second grade and didn’t even know how to decode four letter words, and it became my responsibility to tell the parent that this would finally be the year their child would be held back. They knew their child was behind, but the state structured the system so that hardly anyone was retained in the early grades. Every single year I had to deal with the devastation of telling a parent (and worse, their kid) that they were going to repeat third grade. One little boy (a very big, tough kid) burst into tears and cried, “All that hard work…was for nothing???” He ran out of the room sobbing. Mom cried, I cried…that was the worst.

      Oh, the stories I could tell…I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, a child who is struggling socio-emotionally or academically can make a teacher’s life very difficult at times, but if we can step back and remember that the child and the parent aren’t having a walk in the park, either, we can hopefully gain some compassion. We are all on the same side, and we have to do whatever it takes to convince the parents and kids and ourselves of that truth.

  5. I really like your blog!
    In my experience, I agree that one needs to begin with stating positive things! I like to use I-messages, and state my CONCERNS. Sometimes the conference would seem to accomplish absolutely nothing, but the next day I would observe a huge change in the student. When I found myself unable to contact a parent of one of my inner-city students, I would often pay them a visit at their home. Personally, I never had a negative experience doing this. The worst thing was when no one was home. It helped me understand a bit of what the child and parent were going through.

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