Working in early education is incredibly rewarding, but it doesn’t come without challenges too. Sometimes, sensitive issues arise that require difficult conversations with parents and families. These conversations can feel uncomfortable to navigate, especially because you and your staff have worked 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 and trust, problem-solving, and stronger partnership between you and the families you serve.
What types of conversations warrant in-person meetings?
Not all issues that come up 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 adequate 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 not sure if their financial situation has changed, a video call or an in-person meeting might provide a better opportunity for connection, back-and-forth dialogue, and finding a solution that works for everyone.
In general, if the topic at hand is sensitive enough where body language and tone of voice will make a difference in how the message is interpreted, 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 as well. Most importantly, trust your instincts—you’ve worked hard to build trust with families and know them best!
Prepare for the conversation
For more sensitive conversations with parents, prepare beforehand so you have all the information you need and can stay focused and engaged during the discussion itself. Start by 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, prepare a log of the student’s milestones and detailed observations that you can reference throughout the conversation. Parents will be more likely to listen and understand when you share real examples instead of opinions that aren’t backed by observations.
It’s also helpful to anticipate the questions parents will most likely ask during the discussion. If you were in their position, what would you be most curious about? 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, and gather any resources that might be helpful to share with parents as well, such as a milestone checklist they can reference at home.
Many childcare providers have also found it useful to create a simple meeting agenda to share with parents ahead of time or at the beginning of the conversation. By laying out exactly what you hope to cover during your time together, you’ll remind parents that your goal is to problem-solve and work together to find a solution.
Ask for the parent’s perspective and listen with empathy
During difficult conversations, it’s incredibly important to gain a deeper understanding of where parents are coming from. Start the conversation by asking open-ended questions to learn about their perspective, such as “What do you notice about Jason’s surroundings when he behaves this way?” or “What concerns you most about this type of behavior?”
It’s also helpful to repeat the parent’s main points so they know you’re tracking along. This will also allow you to proactively prevent miscommunications and misunderstandings throughout the discussion. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you’re confused about why Jason throws tantrums once he gets home from preschool when he never behaved like this before. Am I understanding 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 towards 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!
Communicate how much you care about their child
While it’s obvious to you how much you care about your students, parents may need an extra reminder—especially during a hard conversation when emotions are running high! Share 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 student’s strengths as well. This will help keep the conversation positive and remind parents of everything that’s going well too, not just what’s challenging.
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 as well. This will allow you to catch any misunderstandings before moving forward.
You’re now ready to create a solution plan together. Ask parents if they have ideas for next steps and share your recommendations as well. If you’re not completely 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 stop hitting her classmates when she’s angry or doesn’t get her way.
- Next steps needed
- Example: At school, we will stop Stacey when we see her hitting others, explain why the behavior is inappropriate, and ask her to use her words instead of her fists when she’s upset. If she continues to hit others, we will take away her playground privileges for the day. At home, we will follow the same steps 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.
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 on a regular basis. 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 if your heart is racing or if you've been holding your breath. Checking in on yourself and taking a few deep breaths, drinking a glass of water, or walking around the block can really help you recenter instead of bringing any lingering feelings into the rest of your day.
At brightwheel, we know you work extremely hard to ensure all your families feel heard and cared for. We hope you were able to find some new ways to navigate tricky conversations with parents through this article. Thank you for everything that you do!
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 www.mybrightwheel.com.