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How to Deal with Difficult Parent Conversations at Your Preschool

With preparation and patience, you will be able to approach difficult conversations with confidence

How to Deal with Difficult Parent Conversations at Your Preschool

How to Deal with Difficult Parent Conversations at Your Preschool

Working in early education is incredibly rewarding, but it doesn’t come without challenges. Sometimes, sensitive issues arise that require difficult conversations with parents and families. These conversations can feel uncomfortable to navigate, mainly because you and your staff work hard to build trust with the families in your program. 

Here’s how you can turn difficult conversations with parents into opportunities for increased understanding, trust, and problem-solving:

1. Decide what types of conversations warrant in-person meetings.

Not all issues with parents require an in-person meeting; the most appropriate form of communication depends on each situation. For example, if a parent forgets to pay tuition, a phone call or message is a perfectly acceptable way to remind parents that their payment is due. 

However, if a parent has missed a few tuition payments in a row and you’re unsure if their financial situation has changed, a video call or an in-person meeting might provide a better opportunity for finding a solution that works for everyone. 

In general, if the topic is sensitive enough where body language and tone of voice will make a difference in how they receive the message, you should probably use a video call or an in-person meeting for the conversation. If you’re concerned that a parent might take a screenshot of a sensitive text message or email chain and share it with others (or post it on social media) out of context, it’s probably best to move the conversation to a face-to-face meeting or phone call. 

Most importantly, trust your instincts—you’ve worked hard to build trust with families and know them best!

2. Prepare for the conversation.

For more sensitive conversations with parents, prepare beforehand so you can stay focused and engaged during the discussion. Start gathering relevant observations and concrete examples that will be helpful for the conversation. 

For example, if you’ll be talking about a child’s developmental progress, consult your records of the child’s milestones and detailed observations that you can reference throughout the conversation. Parents are more likely to listen and understand when you share real examples instead of opinions. 

It’s also helpful to anticipate the questions parents will most likely ask during the discussion. What would you be most curious about if you were in their position? Have you had similar conversations with other parents in the past, and if so, what information did they want to know? Think through your responses to these questions beforehand. Be prepared for parents’ rebuttals. Parents may criticize your policies and procedures or even point out errors. Instead of responding defensively, acknowledge their perspective and any missteps on your end, and gently guide the conversation back to the topic being discussed. 

Many childcare providers have also found it helpful to create a simple meeting agenda to share with parents ahead of time or at the beginning of the conversation. Sharing the discussion’s agenda keeps everyone on task and reminds parents that your goal is to problem-solve and work together to find a solution.

3. Remain calm.

When you are having difficult parent conversations or discussing sensitive issues related to their child, emotions may run high. Often, parents can often feel frustrated or even angry, and may raise their voices. The best way to respond in these tense situations is to be direct and calm. Stick to the facts and take a pause, if necessary, to allow everyone to calm down. When you keep your composure, this can help diffuse the situation and keep the conversation focused. Real resolution can only happen when there is true dialogue and understanding.  

4. Ask for the parent’s perspective and listen with empathy.

During difficult conversations, gaining a deeper understanding of where parents are coming from is essential. Start the conversation by asking open-ended questions to learn about their perspective, such as “What do you notice is happening immediately before Jason behaves this way?” or “What concerns you most about this behavior?” 

It’s essential to repeat back the parent’s main points to them, so they know they are being heard. In addition, repeating key points allows you to prevent miscommunications and misunderstandings. 

For example, you might say, “It sounds like you’re confused about why Jason throws tantrums when he gets home from preschool. Did I understand that correctly?” 

Another great way to show you’re invested in the conversation is to practice active listening and demonstrate genuine empathy for what parents are experiencing. Body language is one of the best ways to show you’re paying attention, so be sure to face them and make frequent eye contact. 

It’s also helpful to use the word “we” instead of “you” or “I” as much as you can. Although this may feel like a small gesture, it’s an effective way to remind parents that you’re on the same team and both want what’s best for their child. The more you can consistently remind parents that you’re working towards a common goal, the more they’ll want to collaborate with you!

5. Communicate how much you care about their child.

While it’s obvious to you how much you care about the children, parents may need an extra reminder—especially during a challenging conversation when emotions are running high! 

Start the conversation by sharing how much you value their child and how grateful you are that they’re part of your program. If you’re discussing an area of improvement for their child, remember to highlight the child’s strengths. This will help keep the conversation positive and remind parents of everything that’s going well, not just what’s challenging.

6. Partner with parents to find a solution.

Once you’ve both had the opportunity to listen to one another, take a moment to recap the main takeaways from the conversation. In your own words, summarize the parent’s thoughts and experiences, and ask them to share what they heard from you. This will allow you to address any misunderstandings before moving forward. 

You’re now ready to create a solution plan together. Ask parents if they have ideas for the next steps, and share your recommendations. If you’re not entirely on the same page, find what you can agree on and look for ways to compromise. 

When you’ve formed a plan you both feel good about, write it down so you can easily refer back to it and send it to parents after the conversation. Again, use “we” language in your plan to emphasize that you will both do your parts to better the situation. 

An effective plan consists of the following elements:

  • A shared goal
      • Example: Stacey will find appropriate ways (i.e., use her words, ask for help, take a break, do a breathing exercise, etc.) to express her feelings when she’s upset.
  • Plan of action
      • Example: At school, we will remind Stacey, “hitting hurts –you need to be gentle with your hands”. If she continues hitting others, we will let Stacey know, “we are going to take a break from dramatic play until you are ready to be safe”.  You will follow the same steps at home when Stacey hits her family members. We will update each other regularly on Stacey’s progress. 
  • Follow-up details 
      • Example: We will connect again in one month to assess whether Stacey’s behavior has improved. If it hasn’t, we will meet again to discuss alternative solutions.

7. Check in after the conversation

After the conversation, follow up with a written message to share the agreed-upon plan. Remind parents that you want to keep the lines of communication open and that you’ll share progress updates regularly. If you find that your plan isn’t working or needs some adjustments, reach out to parents again to discuss what next steps to take together.

Last but certainly not least, remember to check in with yourself after a tough conversation too! Notice if you're having any physical reactions in your body, like your heart racing or whether you're holding your breath. 

Taking a few deep breaths, drinking a glass of water, or walking around the block can help you process any lingering feelings.

Manage difficult conversations with confidence

While the majority of your daily interactions with parents will be positive, issues will arise over the course of your career. Learning how to deal with difficult parent conversations is an important skill to have. With preparation and patience, you will be able to navigate these situations with confidence and find a solution that benefits all.

If you're looking for more ideas for how you can build strong communication with families from the beginning, check out our Communications Calendar for Welcoming New Families!

Communications Calendar for Welcoming New Families

Download our free family communications calendar! 


Brightwheel is the complete solution for early education providers, enabling you to streamline your center’s operations and build a stand-out reputation. Brightwheel connects the most critical aspects of running your center—including sign in and out, parent communications, tuition billing, and licensing and compliance—in one easy-to-use tool, along with providing best-in-class customer support and coaching. Brightwheel is trusted by thousands of early education centers and millions of parents. Learn more at mybrightwheel.com

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