A teacher's guide to having difficult conversations with families

Preparing yourself to have a difficult conversation.

Be prepared

A great way to feel in control of a difficult conversation is to prepare ahead of time so that your nerves or emotions don’t get the better of you. Take a few minutes to complete the following steps:

  • jot down the key points, any information that supports your position on the matter, and any questions you may have.
  • print out, or otherwise make easily accessible, any student work or emails you may want to refer to during the conversation.
  • familiarise yourself with any school policies that may apply to the staff or students involved.

Preparing what you want to say, knowing what other issues might arise, and having available the relevant supporting documents will remove some of the stress you can feel in these situations.

Listen actively to understand the views of others.

Listen actively

All conversations are made up of talking and listening – and both are equally important. It’s critical to listen – not just stop talking – when the other person or people in the meeting are talking. Don’t switch off or try to talk over them. You may learn something about them that you didn’t know, or see the situation from a different angle. The other person will feel heard and is more likely to be open to further discussion. If they see that you’re switched on and engaged with them, they're more likely to do the same for you.

To make sure you’re understanding, it can also help to repeat what you hear the other person saying. For example, try saying, “So this is what I’m hearing you say…” Ask open-ended questions to get more information, while reframing or clarifying as much as you can.

Ensure that communication is clear and direct.

Share specific concerns

Clear, direct communication is a big part of tackling difficult conversations. As you describe your concern, provide context, be direct, and share specific facts. Try to set aside your own feelings about the student’s behaviour or academic struggles. Share relevant examples of what you’re seeing. Explain any steps you’ve already taken to try to address the concern.

Use sentence starters such as:

  • I’d like to share something that happened during [subject/time period] today to get your take on it and how we might address it.
  • Today during [subject/time period], [student] really struggled with [behaviour/skill]. In the moment, we handled it by…
  • I’m reaching out to ask for your help with better understanding [student]’s challenges with…

Suggested approach

  • express how you view the situation, what you think is the main issue that needs to be resolved, and why you’ve reached that conclusion.
  • follow this up by telling the other person exactly what you hope to get out of your conversation with them.
  • do you want an action plan for the student, regular meetings with the parent, professional development or support from a member of the school’s executive team, or some other actionable agreement?

This will help everyone involved to get on the same page about the issues and to develop a clear vision of how to proceed.

How to build trust in school-parent relationships.

Build trust

Families have their own perspectives about what’s happening with their child. Take the time to ask for their input. When you do, you’ll invite family members to have an equal voice in the conversation and to respond with dignity. Because they know their child best, their knowledge and advice can be very useful.

Ask for the family’s perspective in an open-ended way that doesn’t impose your viewpoint. Make it clear you’re neither blaming them nor asking for them to come up with the solution all on their own. Keep the focus on finding solutions together. Below are some questions you can ask. Choose one or two from the list to start.

  • What are your thoughts on the situation?
  • Is this something you’ve noticed at home, too?
  • Has your child mentioned any of this to you? Would you share with me how [student] described the situation?
  • Is there anything else you’ve noticed at home that may be related to this concern?
  • Has [student] had difficulty in this area in the past? Can you share what has helped?
  • Are there things you do at home that might work at school?
  • Are there things that you know won’t go over well that I should avoid?
  • Is there a teacher who knows/works well with your child that you’d suggest I speak with?

How to end difficult conversations and move forward.

Move forward

To end the conversation, be clear about what you plan to do next. This is especially important if you’ll be meeting in person or asking other staff members for advice.

Leave the door open for more communication, and close out the conversation honestly. For example, don’t say “This has been a great conversation” if it didn’t go as well as you had hoped. Instead, say something like “I know this was tough to talk about. I appreciate your input/thoughts/honesty.” Use sentence starters like:

  • Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. As we discussed, I’m going to [confirm next steps you agreed on].
  • I’m glad we had a chance to connect and talk this over. My next steps in supporting [student] are going to be…
  • I’m glad we’re able to work together to support [student]. So, at home, you’ll [summarise discussed strategies] and at school, I’m going to [summarise].
  • I feel like this was a good start. I’ll speak with [any additional staff], and we’ll set up a time to continue this conversation.
  • Thank you for your time. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you think of anything else.

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