When a student’s results have been steadily sliding for the past term and you’re tearing your hair out trying to get them back on track, it seems a good time to call in the parents and update them on the situation.
But then it backfires. Instead of solemnly vowing to set their child straight at home, or desperately asking what can be done to help them improve, they look at you with the piercing gaze of a parent scorned.
“What exactly are you trying to say about my child?”
There’s an art to tricky conversations about student progress, and it’s one that teachers have to learn if we want to work with parents instead of alienating them.
Here’s what you can do before, during, and after any challenging parent conversation to stay on the same team.
Before the conference
Plan a specific time and place to meet with the parent. The discussion should never be impromptu. Don’t feel compelled to launch into a discussion on the spot because a parent has you on the phone, or they’ve just happened to stop by your room at the end of the day.
Politely bow out by saying, “I’d really like to discuss [the student’s] progress when we’ve got time to go into depth and I’ve got some resources to offer you. Is there a time that we can schedule?”
Scheduling a designated time gives you the opportunity to prepare adequately for the conversation beforehand.
You’ll want to have reporting data on hand so that you can provide concrete examples of the student’s performance, not to mention some solutions and strategies that you can suggest to the parent.
You’ll also want to consider how to have the discussion:
Face to face is ideal if you have the time. It allows for total transparency and reduces the risk of miscommunication. Just make sure that you set a clear closing time for the meeting so that things remain structured, productive and less likely to consume unnecessary amounts of time.
Phone conversations can work well if an in-person meeting isn’t possible. Once again, just ensure that you set a clear timeframe for the discussion.
Email might be all that is needed, if there is a very clear issue that needs addressing and an even clearer solution that you can suggest in the space of a single message. Just remember that the same strategies for positive and empathetic communication still apply.
During the conference
In any discussion of student progress, the goal is for parents to leave feeling fully informed of their child’s progress, and confident that (a) you’ve got clear strategies to help their child improve, and (b) they can do their bit to help at home. Here’s how you make this happen:
Keep it positive
Starting the discussion with what the student has done well sets a positive tone from the outset. Commend the student’s initiative in asking for help, taking extra effort or being transparent about their difficulties. Even if they haven’t been the most engaged student, you can still acknowledge the positive personal qualities they bring to the classroom.
Keep circling back to these positive observations throughout the discussion and parents will be less likely to interpret your words as criticism. They’ll understand you value their child regardless of their performance.
Similarly, frame your solutions to highlight the positive outcome by using “if” statements. For example, substitute “he needs to do x, y, z” with “if he does x, y, z I have every confidence that we’ll see a big difference in the quality of his work”.
Don’t get personal
We must check our feelings at the door when we enter conversations with a parent. Even though the same actions which have led to their poor performance have also tested your patience, bringing this frustration into the conversation won’t get parents onside.
Focus on student performance and conduct alone without delving into how it makes you feel. Work samples and assessment results are great talking points that keep the tone objective and professional.
If poor conduct or effort is something that needs to be addressed, frame your comments so that they focus on what the student is doing as opposed to what they are. For example, they’re not “too talkative”, but they’re “choosing to talk at inappropriate times in class”. The claim that a child is simply “naughty” might be better translated to “they’re not following my instructions”.
Make it about their choices, not who they are.
Remember that for parents in this situation, their child’s progress is a personal matter to begin with. That’s why it’s doubly important for you to set a professional tone right from the outset.
Always provide a course of action that parents and their children can take to see improvement. You might decide on a course of action together during the meeting, or you might have strategies and resources ready to suggest.
Whatever the outcome, ensure that the solutions you provide are clear and achievable. For example:
- Attempting a set number of practice activities each day
- Revisiting a past piece of work and redoing certain sections for teacher feedback
- Scheduling a teacher ‘check-in’ at the end of each lesson
- Using an EdTech program with specific targets for points or achievement.
Be sure to give parents a role to play so they can be included and feel some control. It might be having a conversation with their child about their approach to classwork, reminding them of homework activities or assignments, or helping them access digital resources to support their learning.
If it all goes downhill …
End the meeting if you sense that it is getting heated or going nowhere. Sometimes, personal circumstances and factors beyond our control mean that parents aren’t well placed to take our advice without getting defensive or accusatory. In these cases, keep calm and end things on a professional note by saying, “I think this conversation could be better served if we reschedule for a different time.”
After the conference
Make sure you follow up with parents in the weeks after a progress meeting. Get their perspective on how their child is progressing with the new strategies in place and notify them of any changes that you notice in the classroom. Keeping up regular communication goes a long way toward creating a productive parent–teacher partnership that can benefit student learning in the long term.
Empathy is everything
Remember that while we go out of our way to keep parent communication strictly professional, these discussions will always be close to the heart for parents who are worried about their child’s future. Given this, the best thing we can do is to show empathy with parents and send the message that we only want the best for their children. If we put this before anything else, we can win their support as well as their trust.
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