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10 Ways for SLTs to Tackle Difficult Conversations with Parents

We’re providing an educational service, and therefore we will receive feedback from our ‘customers’ from time to time. How you deal with that feedback is what matters most

  • 10 Ways for SLTs to Tackle Difficult Conversations with Parents

I’d never met an addict before, not in ‘real life’ anyway. I’d never experienced the restlessness, the ghostly pallor, the faraway, yet agitated look in their eyes. The vulnerability.

Yet here I was, sitting opposite one, trying to have a conversation. A conversation that filled them with such a range of emotions that it took my breath away. Anger, sadness and disbelief all rolled in to one.

But not only had I never met an addict before, I’d obviously then never had to talk to one about their child – a child that was undeniably loved, yet would forever be competing for affection against substance abuse and addiction.

Unfortunately, home life had begun to take its toll on the child’s behaviour and emotional state of mind. It was now down to the headteacher and me to explain this to the parent. No easy task, I think you’ll agree.

It didn’t go well.

Sadly it had a bigger impact on me than I could have expected and I still struggle to reflect on it to this day. Yet, reflect on it I must because that’s how we learn, improve and grow as leaders.

As a member of the SLT, you’ll have difficult conversations with parents too. Hopefully none that will leave such a lasting impression, but you won’t be able to avoid this tricky task.

So what did I learn that can help you manage these conversations effectively?

1. Listen

No, I mean really listen. If a parent has come to you with a complaint, let them speak without interruptions from you. Ask them if you can make notes in the meeting if that will help you pick out the finer details or remind you of things you’d like to ask about.

2. Have empathy

I don’t think I truly understood parents until I became one. I think it made me a better teacher and a better leader, but that’s just a personal reflection. Put yourself in their shoes and do your best to understand why they feel the way they do.

3. Apologise for how they feel

You’re not accepting responsibility or blame, you’re simply acknowledging how they feel. It goes a long way to calm the situation down.

4. Investigate

If they’re complaining about a member of staff or another child’s behaviour, you’ll need time to find out more. There are always two sides to every story and it’s imperative that you obtain these.

5. Reassure them

A parent wants to leave your office feeling listened to and reassured. Give them the confidence that you’ll sort this out (no matter how much you’ve got on your plate) and that you’ve heard what they have to say.

6. Set clear actions

Talk through the next steps of the complaint with the parent. Explain what you’re going to do and check they’re satisfied. These are the points that you can then cover when investigating further and what you can feed back on when you follow up.

7. Talk to another member of SLT

Particularly those with more experience. If it’s a complex situation, make sure that the head/deputy is aware in case the parent wants to take things further.

8. Be professional

When investigating and talking to members of staff about a complaint, don’t be tempted to complain about the complaint! Firstly, you don’t know who’s listening and secondly, you need remain impartial.

9. Follow up promptly

At the end of the initial meeting with the parent, give them a time frame for a follow up appointment. Be realistic with your time, but make it as soon as possible. Nothing annoys a parent more than a lack of communication. Try to include a phone call a week or so after you’ve fed back to them too, to check things are still going smoothly.

10. Speak up

If the conversation has been difficult and you feel that you’re struggling as a result, speak up so that you can get the help and support you need. Don’t underestimate how difficult conversations can make you feel and be aware of your emotions.

I once listened to a speaker at a conference who said something that stuck with me during my time as a deputy – “Parents are a school’s customers”.

Now, you may disagree with this, but it’s not hard to see why this could be a theory. We’re providing an educational service and therefore we will receive feedback from our ‘customers’ from time to time. It’s how you deal with that feedback that matters most.

Steph Caswell is an educational consultant and writer. She is the author of three books for NQTs and a regular contributor to Teach Primary magazine.
You can connect with Steph on Twitter at @stephcaswell_.

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