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Parental engagement – How to build positive relationships with primary parents

Effective communication with pupils is one challenge, but mums and dads require a very different approach, says Steph Caswell. Here’s how you can nail it...

  • Parental engagement – How to build positive relationships with primary parents

Managing difficult conversations – the CALM approach

Conversations with parents can be challenging, particularly if they are angry or confrontational. If this happens, it’s best to have a few tricks up your sleeve.

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 and into the privacy of your classroom/meeting room.

A – Apologise
Apologise 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, but you want to open up the lines of communication.

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 but avoid interrupting the parent as they’re sharing their concerns, it’ll only rile them up even more. Let them speak without interruption.

M – Make an Action Plan
From investigating what happened or passing it on to someone more senior, an action plan is necessary. Arrange a follow-up meeting/phone call, as this will give you a deadline – make sure you stick to it.

If I were to ask you to think about the best relationships you have in your life, which ones immediately spring to mind?

Maybe it’s with a spouse or a sibling or a parent. Maybe it’s the ones you have with your best friends. No matter who it’s with, these relationships bring a smile to your face and a warmth to your heart when you think of them.

But what if we took things a step further? What if I asked you why that relationship is so positive, why it makes you so happy?

You’d probably tell me about experiences you’ve shared together or conversations you’ve had that made you laugh until your sides ached. You’d be able to tell me how that person makes you feel when you see or speak to them. And this is what makes these relationships so positive.

At the bottom of it, you see, underneath all the layers of laughter and special memories, positive relationships come down to a great level of communication. It enables them to work well. Without it, relationships fall apart.

So, it makes sense then that a good level of communication is going to help you build positive relationships with the parents you meet throughout your teaching career, too. But how can you go about it?

Daily habits

The easiest way to build great relationships with parents is to develop daily communication habits that you consistently keep – habits that aren’t arduous or difficult to maintain, but that can have the greatest impact for you and for the parents.

It all starts with opening the door in the morning or greeting your class in the playground.

Smile and have open, relaxed body language. Make eye contact with parents and with the children. Humans read a lot from the body language of others.

If you come out with your arms folded and an I-hate-Mondays look on your face, your approachability levels plummet and parents will begin to form opinions about you. It’s not their fault; they’re human. Have an awareness as to the tone of your voice, too.

When it comes to the end of the day, be visible. Expect parents to want a conversation, even if it’s just to check something simple.

If a parent asks to speak to you, welcome them into the classroom and give them your time and your undivided attention. If you can’t speak to them for long due to meetings, open your diary and actively show them you’re willing to make time on another day to get to the bottom of whatever the problem is.

Get into the habit of sharing positive feedback with parents. Don’t just ask to speak to them when things haven’t gone well for their child. Why not let them know when their child has done something to be extra proud of?

A quick phone call or chat after school can work wonders. It’s something most parents will cherish and will help to build your relationships with them.

If a situation has occurred where a child has made some poor behaviour choices, make sure you address it in a timely manner. Ask to speak to the parent but don’t make it obvious to the others.

It’s embarrassing and can make some parents become defensive. Keep things confidential and take the parent’s feelings into consideration, particularly if you have to speak to them regularly about their child’s behaviour.

Structured conversations

Part of our job as teachers is to sometimes have difficult conversations with parents about their children. Sometimes, these can be quite stressful for both the parents and the teacher.

In order to make these conversations as constructive as possible, there are certain things you need to try to do. Getting this right can really have a positive impact on your relationships and can boost your confidence, too.

An easy thing to remember is to structure the conversation in a way that keeps you in control as much as possible. Start by stating why you have asked the parents to speak to you on this particular occasion. If something sensitive needs to be shared, give the parents a prior warning that some parts of the conversation might be difficult to hear.

Present the facts as you know them. If it is something to do with their child’s behaviour choices, give them the information that is true. Not something that you think happened or hearsay from other children. If you have investigated the situation, explain that to them and tell them what you found out.

Give the parents time to respond. Listen to what they have to say. Listen with your whole body, maintaining open body language and eye contact. If they become upset or angry, realise that it’s just part of the process.

Apologising for how they feel can help to diffuse it to some degree, as it shows empathy. You’re not apologising for doing something wrong, just for how this situation has made them feel, regardless if you think their reaction is right or wrong.

Make notes and highlight any actions you have agreed to take – for example, seeking advice from a senior leader. Whatever actions you agree to do, you must do them. It never hurts to follow up with the parents after a few days either.

Finish the conversation by reading back through your actions and agreeing to a deadline for these – the sooner the better. It ensures that the situation can be resolved quickly and efficiently.


Keeping a consistent approach will ensure you maintain positive relationships with parents. It isn’t always easy though, so if a conversation becomes difficult to manage, ask a senior leader to step in and support you. Also seek advice and reassurance from your mentor.

Managing the expectations of parents is a skill and one that takes practice. Keep to your daily habits and your confidence and expertise will continue to grow.

Steph Caswell is an educational coach and author. Find her at strivecoachinganddevelopment.co.uk and follow her on Twitter at @stephcaswell_.

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