5 Tips for Giving Bad News to Parents

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

Hi there, Teacher! I’m Toni, and my goal is to help teachers like you be more joyful in your career so you can have your ultimate impact on your little learners. One area of our career that’s not always the easiest is dealing with parents and families. They can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. Interacting with them is specifically hard when we have bad news or worries to share. Today, I’m going to help you through having hard conversations with parents to make this as easy as possible.

You can find the podcast version of this episode here:

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

It’s Not All Glitter and Confetti

Relationships with parents can have a direct impact on our joy as teachers. That’s why today I want to give you some advice on how to deal with these situations when there is bad news to deliver. You know, those times when you have tough things to say that you are afraid will have some negative effects. It happens to us all.

If you’re struggling with anxiety over delivering bad news to parents, you’re worried about their reaction, and you’re maybe even losing sleep over it, let’s talk about hard conversations with parents and families.

Past the halfway mark in the year, we sometimes have bad news to share with parents. Whether it’s a low score on an assessment or maybe retention of a grade level, it’s certainly not easy, but these are natural parts of our career and our dedication to our students.

Parents and families can actually be some of our best cheerleaders; more on that HERE. These hard conversations can even affect those relationships we’ve worked so hard to build. They’re important to us, and we work hard to communicate well with parents.

Even after all these years, these instances are still stressful to me to a certain extent. I do not like to have these conversations, but I’ve come to realize that they’re important to the success of my students. Their parents have to be involved and understand in order for my students to flourish and have the support they need. This is never going away, but there are some things you can do to make it easier on you AND maintain those great relationships. Here we go!

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

Tip #1: Never Give Bad News Through Text or Email

It’s hard to find time to have personal conversations with families, but when delivering bad news, it is absolutely irreplaceable. Do not ever try to have these conversations through email or text. I’ve made that mistake before.

Tone is EVERYTHING when it comes to delivering bad news. Have you ever read a text and totally misunderstood or mistook the intention of the person writing it? Or have you ever had that happen to you? You had no ill intent, but the person who read it took it wrong. Maybe they were having a bad day, or they feared you were having a bad tone with them, so that is what is what they heard when they read your message.

We cannot allow that to happen when dealing with these integral relationships with our parents. One badly received email can ruin what we have worked so hard to build. Your sincerity and love for their child is hard to express through text or email. They will not completely understand your tone unless you speak with them personally.

I truly believe these are best to be had face to face. I know the pandemic has made this extra hard, but a Google Meet or a Zoom call can do the trick. Hearing your voice, and ultimately seeing your face, will make the conversation and the tone much easier to decipher.

Just another note about text and email: when you’re giving bad news to parents, it’s a lot easier for them to be defensive and angry when they cannot see or hear you. Our emotions can get the best of us when we’re all alone and we’re kind of simmering in our own thoughts.

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

Tip #2: Approach These Conversations With Kindness

Bring your kindness and your calmest voice and demeanor to these conversations. It’s really hard to be angry with someone who is being exceptionally nice and kind to you.

One time about five years ago, a parent came in completely unannounced to meet with the principal and me about their child. I was completely thrown off guard. This parent was furious over something that really was just a misunderstanding, but right off the bat she began yelling at me. Her behavior was every extreme, but with my experience, I knew that any negative reaction to her or negativity in my voice would make the situation much worse.

So I used my skill of being really kind, calm, and uplifting to turn her tone around. Believe it or not, when we we left that meeting, she hugged me. After beginning with screaming, she ended with a hug and appreciation for the calmness I was able to show. It’s really hard to bully and be mean to someone who is not retaliating with that same behavior.

So when you go into these conversations, hold yourself. Take deep breaths, and remind yourself that the best thing you can do is to stay calm, kind, and thoughtful. Whoever is receiving the bad news is having a really hard time showing negativity to someone who is being super nice.

I will tell you the truth: that takes some practice. The more you work at it, the better you will get. Maybe a screaming parent will give you a hug at the end of your meeting someday as well.

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

Tip #3: Initiate This Conversation by Sharing Your Love for Their Child

Worst case scenario, you’re talking about a child that is completely torturous in the classroom, and you have to muster up some love for them. More than likely, you can find some positive points to share about every student in your classroom.

Start off this hard conversation with some warm sentiment about that child. Engage that parent or family member in some talk about the wonderful aspects that you see in that little one.

For example, I may be meeting about a child that is struggling in a certain area, maybe sight words. I could start the conversation by saying to that parent, “You know, Mackenzie is so sweet. She really wants to help me and other students get things done around the room. I just love that about her. Is she like that at home?”

So this engages that parent in discussing their child and really recognizing that you see their strengths. This sets the tone for this hard conversation, because they’re first going to understand that you love and have recognized these things in their child. So you are actually qualified to recognize their weaknesses or whatever the problem area is in the classroom.

This opens up a bond between you and that parent. It’s a unified love of their child. All parents dream about having a teacher that truly cares for their child. And for you to notice those good things will help them to understand why you notice the bad things.

So if you’re not very good at noticing those strengths, before your meeting, I would take a minute to sit down and intentionally make a list of the things you can talk about. This does not have to be related to the problem.

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

Tip #4: Always Back Up Bad News With Data

You need to have proof to share that backs up what you are telling them. This can be your assessment data or records you’ve kept regarding their behavior. You don’t want to show up to this meeting with only your thoughts and worries.

Having something in your hand that really demonstrates why you are concerned will be another reassurance to this family member that this conversation is one that we had to have. This is a real problem that we need to address.

So if I’m meeting with Mackenzie’s parents about her sight word problem, I would bring assessments that show how she’s performed up to that point. This is just a great resource to have that will help show leery parents that yes, indeed, what she’s saying is true. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an era where parents are completely trusting of our knowledge. But data does not lie, so have it handy to back up your concerns.

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

Tip #5: Have a Plan to Improve the Situation

Bad news is easier to take when you see hope at the end. Unfortunately, my daddy passed away in 2020 with cancer. When they delivered the bad news to him that he had cancer in his lung and possibly other parts of his body, he was crushed. But the doctor followed up that bad news with a plan of action to help him heal and hopefully be cured of that disease. He reassured my daddy that he would do everything in his power to help him get better.

Cancer is not nearly as easy as a sight word ID problem, but families will receive this bad news easier if you follow it up with a plan to help their child improve. Reassure them that you will do everything you can to help them. I would make a list of these things in advance. You can even give this list to parents to show them that you’ve really thought this through, and you are willing and knowledgeable enough to help.

I also recommend offering up ways you can work together to improve the problem. When we partner with parents and bring them on our team, it’s no longer just our issue. It’s a problem we can work to solve together. It makes them feel ownership of this issue, and therefore it’s going to be harder for them to blame you in the end if their child does not reach their goals or improve in whatever area you are discussing.

Say things like this. “I really would appreciate your help in this area. If you can help me by making sure Mackenzie practices her sight words every night, I think she will show a lot of improvement, and together we can help her reach her goal.”

This kind of language brings that family on board. They are suddenly also accountable for this issue and feel involved. Having a sense of responsibility will help this hard to have conversation go a lot easier.

bad news, hard conversations, relationships, how to give parents bad news, teacher, teaching, primary, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, Teacher Toni

You Can Do It!

I hope these tips have given you some confidence in facing these hard conversations. They are just part of our career, so we need to go into it strategically. That way these hard conversations don’t whittle us down and cause us to not love this profession as much as we do. Being joyful in the classroom really is hard work. When we put in the effort, we can truly have that deep impact on our students.

That’s why I’m working on Joyful Teacher Academy. This is a professional development aimed at helping teachers be more joyful in the classroom using actionable strategies to help achieve just that. If you’re interested, sign up for updates.

It will be full of actionable tips and tricks like today’s episode. My goal is that teachers like you, who are passionate, will stay in the classroom. Our students need you! You’re raising the future of our world, and you’re doing an incredible job at it.

If you’d like the support of a whole community who can relate to what you’re going through, come say hi on Facebook. We’d love to have you!

Go make a difference, teacher friend!

XOXOXO

Toni

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