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How to Talk to Parents About their Child’s Bad Behaviour

If you have to share the details of a child’s bad day at school with his or her parents, tailor your words and approach carefully, advises Debby Elley…

  • How to Talk to Parents About their Child’s Bad Behaviour

No one likes bad news, but sometimes it’s important that a parent knows all hasn’t been well at school today. On good days, you can hardly wait for a parent to show up so that you can share that fabulous breakthrough – bring it on, you’ve struck gold!

Then there are the not so good days. You can’t exactly lie, but you’re not looking forward to passing on this unwelcome information about their child that that a parent needs to hear.

Truth is, you’re probably going to need a glass of wine to recover from it later. Still, the child’s carer will know exactly how it is. They’ll sympathise, right?

Well no, they won’t. They’re far too involved to sympathise, but quite a few parents and carers will empathise, to the point where they’ll absorb the news and actually take the blame for it themselves.

If the news is broken badly, what they’ll actually hear (whether you say it or not) is ‘This is all your fault.’ The response will depend on the parent, but it can range from defensive to depressed, which is the last thing you want. Not exactly constructive, is it?

Other parents – perhaps those who are at tipping point and beyond – will simply block out the information as unwanted and coming from ‘your corner’. They get this quite enough at home, so why would they want to hear it from you as well?

Information exchange

Any communication is a contract in which information is exchanged, so before making that exchange, it’s worth asking yourself how you want that information to be received by the other person.

For instance, if you’re about to say ‘He’s been a bit aggressive today’, are you warning of a difficult evening ahead, or are you suggesting that help is needed in tackling some tricky behaviour? What do you hope the parent will gain from the exchange?

Ask yourself what you hope to gain from the parent. Some parents might respond by bracing themselves for what could be a difficult evening, while others – especially those who haven’t experienced autism for long – may well go home feeling upset that even a teacher seems to have ‘given up’ on their kid.

Of course, you haven’t given up on the child at all. But when you say ‘We haven’t had a good day’ with nothing to support that information, that’s how it can feel.

The trouble with passing on bad news without backup is that there’s nothing a parent can actually do with the information they’ve received. They can’t tell their child off, because it’s too late after the event. It may simply have the effect of making them feel downcast, all because of one lousy sentence communicated badly.

Openness and honesty

At this point, a member of school staff might protest, ‘That’s all very well, but I’m in a hurry when the parent comes along; I haven’t got time to think about tact, diplomacy, strategies and so on.’

Well, if you haven’t got any time at all, don’t say it. Write your comment down in the child’s record book, email it to the parent or invite them in for a catch up.

When broaching the topic, keep your information neutral. Use words that focus on how the child was feeling and why, then talk about how that was translated into behaviour.

To use an example involving my own son: “Alec was upset and angry today, because we had to leave the park and he didn’t want to.” Show the parent that you’ve understood and acknowledged the child’s feelings, even if they were expressed in a less than perfect way.

This will give them confidence that you’ve acknowledged the child’s distress, rather than purely seeking to punish them. Then go on to explain how you tackled the situation and whether you thought the strategy was successful or not.

For instance, if your response was successful, say “We found it really helps if…” If it wasn’t, “We don’t think this approach really worked this time, and we want to try some different strategies. Do you have any suggestions for how you tackle this at home? Would you like to have a chat about it?”

If you need more information and support from the parent to get to the bottom of something, then ask for it. Contrary to popular belief, parents don’t expect teachers to have all the answers.

What we do appreciate is openness and honesty, and being asked for our views as the experts in our own children. Confident teachers will appreciate that it isn’t a sign of weakness to ask for a parent’s view – if anything, it’s quite the opposite.

Be specific

It helps to make specific requests, rather than throwing negative information into the air and hoping it’ll land in the right way. Central to this approach is making it clear that you’re in this together and expecting teamwork.

By talking about a difficult ‘situation’, rather than difficult ‘behaviour’, you take the emotion and worry out of the exchange and allow a parent the perspective they need in order to see clearly.

Your news then becomes practical and useful, rather than just baggage. You’re either going to work together to tackle something, or you’ve got a great idea that they’d do well to use themselves, which is ultimately the point of the information you’re looking to convey.

When reporting bad news, there’s also the risk that a parent will interpret it as you being at the end of your tether, or not liking their child. Believe me when I say that even the faintest hint of this is all it takes.

If the news isn’t good, there’s no need to bash them around the head to get it across. We’re finely attuned to reading between the lines, so ‘Not the best day for Alec,’ is far better than a judgemental phrase such as ‘Alec attacked another student,’ or ‘We’ve been disappointed with Alec’s behaviour today.’ He didn’t ‘lash out’ (highly emotive). He ‘felt angry’.

The very worst way to broach a difficult subject – and you’d be surprised at how often it’s used – is with the phrase ‘There was an incident at lunchtime.’ Call the police! Cordon off the area! Teachers are used to logging incidents, so this kind of phrase trips off the tongue quite easily. For most parents, it’s a word formulation they’re only ever likely to hear on the 10 O’clock News.

My son’s school is great at broaching bad news. One of the nicest things his teacher says is ‘We’re trying to help Alec so that he has some control when he feels angry’.

Because that’s what we’re all really trying to do, isn’t it? An out of control child doesn’t want to feel this way. They simply don’t have a better strategy for coping with their feelings. The school’s job is to help such pupils find better ways of doing that than through physical means.

You don’t have to hide bad news from a parent. But broaching it sensitively will be your best route to finding a good solution.

Debby Elley is the co-editor of AuKids – an award-winning positive parenting magazine for children with autism. She has 14-year-old twin boys on the spectrum, one in mainstream provision and one in a specialist setting. Her book, 15 Things They Forgot to Tell You About Autism, is available now, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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