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.
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?
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