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How to Manage a Challenging Parent – The CALM Approach

Fight? Flight? Freeze? Don't panic, Steph Caswell has some practical advice to help you through encounters with angry parents

  • How to Manage a Challenging Parent – The CALM Approach

You can hear her before you can see her.

Other parents are parting like the Red Sea and she’s coming for you like a bull at Pamplona. You panic and check you’re not wearing anything red. Her small child is trotting close behind; even they’re worried for you.

You have two options: you run away or you stand your ground. Sprinting in the opposite direction is such a temptation, but suddenly you remember that you’re the teacher and running away from a parent would be frowned upon. Facing her is all that lies ahead.

“I want to talk to you,” she says, her eyes wide and her breathing loud. You feel the collaborative gaze of all the other parents land on you, hungry for the entertainment that’s about to unfold. “I’m not happy.”

Beads of sweat begin to trickle down your spine and you try to remain composed. You’re not a fan of confrontation but this parent seems like an expert. Surely there’s a way of dealing with a challenging parent like this one?

Well luckily for you, there is. It’s called the CALM approach and it will get you out of tricky conversations with ease.

C – Clear the Area

Some parents like an open forum to air their unhappiness. However most like things to be done privately, even if they’re voicing their opinions loudly at the start.

Get the situation under control by moving the two of you away from nosy bystanders and into the privacy of your classroom/meeting room. Conversations take place much more successfully in these environments.

Let the parent know that you’re keen to sort out the problem, but will only do it if the conversation is moved inside/somewhere quiet.

A – Apologise

Apologising can diffuse a situation extremely quickly, but let’s be clear about the apology you’re giving. You are apologising for how the parent is feeling at this moment in time. You’re not suggesting that you have something to be sorry about – you don’t even know what the complaint is yet!

By starting the conversation off with an apology for how they’re feeling, you’ll see that the mood often changes and the parent becomes calmer. Reassure them that you’re here to help find out more about the issue at hand and that you’re keen to get it resolved.

If you are in the ‘wrong’, apologising is the right way to go. It shows that you respect the child and can take ownership of your actions. Don’t let personal pride get in the way.

L – Listen

Listening is the key to success in any conversation with a parent, but so few of us do it effectively. It can be hard to hear someone accusing you of something or suggesting that you’re to blame for a situation that has occurred, but you must listen.

If you keep interrupting the parent as they’re sharing their concerns, it’ll only rile them up even more. Let them speak without interruption. Ask them if they’re happy for you to take notes.

When they’ve finished, look back over your notes and address anything that you can be resolved right away or have further questions about.

M – Make Promises

A bit like apologising, this needs to be done carefully. The promises that you make during/at the end of the meeting are about following this up further, investigating what happened or passing it on to someone more senior.

Arrange a follow-up meeting/phone-call, as this will give you a deadline.

Once you’ve agreed the actions from the meeting, you have to complete them. If you get it sorted quickly and efficiently, the parent will be much happier and you can put the situation behind you. Why not follow things up in another week or so, if appropriate, to see if things are still running smoothly?

The CALM approach can turn the trickiest, most challenging conversations into ones that you can handle with confidence. If you handle them consistently well, you’ll have a good reputation among the parents for being a teacher they can talk to and someone who can sort out problems.

Just keep a smile on that face, be approachable and, most importantly, wear red whenever you feel like it. You’ve got this.

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 @thebumpywriter and find her at thingsthatgobumpwhenyouwrite.com.

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