Family Engagement

Framing Difficult Feedback for Parents

A strategy teachers can use to turn parents into partners when discussing difficult situations involving their kids.

January 11, 2018

As educational partners, teachers and parents (or guardians) share responsibility for the success of children. Keeping open lines of communication is essential to maintaining a relationship of transparency and trust. Parents expect and deserve honest feedback about their children’s progress. 

But when situations call for difficult conversations, teachers can become apprehensive. Will hearing negative feedback about their kids make parents defensive or supportive? Point fingers or lend a hand? Brain research shows that negative feedback floods neural pathways with cortisol, the stress-inducing hormone, and triggers our threat awareness. How can teachers give parents the information they need to know but might not want to hear?

A standard approach is the praise sandwich or feedback sandwich, which attempts to sidestep blame, conflict, and hurt feelings by surrounding negative feedback with positive statements. After opening with praise (“Johnny is so energetic”), the teacher brings up a specific critique (“With all that energy, he can become quite disruptive in class”), and closes on a positive note (“But he adds so much to our learning community”). 

While this tactic remains popular, it’s not always effective: Since people tend to remember the first and last things they hear, they focus on the praise at the ends and not the critique in the middle. The sandwich delivery softens the message and doesn’t necessarily drive it home.

A Different Approach to Difficult Feedback

An alternative might look more like a bundle. Rather than buffering negative feedback with praise, teachers can offer direct feedback that comprises specific observations and value statements:

  • Context: Where and when is the behavior happening?
  • Observations: What has happened?
  • Emotions: What feelings does this cause?
  • Value: Why does this matter?
  • Input: What can be done to achieve success?

First, teachers establish a feedback context by naming the time and place the problem is happening. Next, they provide specific and objective observations about the problem in action. From there, they describe the impact of the problem on the emotions of others and its value to the group as a whole. Finally, they seek active input from the parents on how a positive and productive solution can be reached.

In the case of the excitable but disruptive Johnny, here’s an example of how the teacher can give his parents more productive feedback using the bundle approach:

“Mr. and Mrs. Jones, I want to mention some concerns I have about the way Johnny is behaving during class [context]. In the past two weeks, he’s been calling out frequently during small-group instruction. He also riles up his classmates during transitions [observations]. As his teacher, I’m concerned that Johnny is falling behind in his class work and frustrating his friends [emotions], which is detrimental to the learning environment we’re trying to create [value]. Can you offer any ideas about why this is happening and how we can help Johnny improve [input]?

Approaching Parents as Partners

The teacher clearly defines the feedback context (small-group instruction and transitions), provides specific and targeted examples of the problem (calling out, causing distraction), expresses in personal terms what this means to her (“As his teacher, I’m concerned…”), gives a basis for her claims by tracing the behavior’s impact on others (degraded learning environment), and seeks advice from the receiver on how best to resolve the conflict (“Can you offer any ideas?”). The teacher approaches Johnny’s parents as partners, not combatants, and uses matter-of-fact, nonaggressive language to win their support and find a solution.

This strategy also defuses the uncomfortable tension that surrounds difficult conversations. Both sides have a chance to state observations, offer input, explore solutions, and later reflect on progress made. In my experience, parents find it refreshing and more productive when they have a chance to speak honestly and openly with teachers who clearly place a high value on their input and support. These encounters can play out in one of two ways: (1) Refuse/Regret, or (2) Reflect/Repair. In the first outcome, negative feedback is framed by denial, blame, and helplessness. Both sides levy charges, trade accusations, reject accountability, and later regret the damage done. But in the second outcome, negative feedback is fueled by acceptance, contribution, and action. Both sides have a chance to state observations, offer input, explore solutions, and later reflect on progress made.

As I describe in my book, The Feedback Fix, this approach looks past who people are and focuses on who they are becoming. It dumps the past tense of traditional feedback and embraces the future-leaning language of “feedforward.” 

Most importantly, bundling feedback this way moves the focus from blame to contribution by actively seeking the parents’ input on how to improve. It allows teachers and parents to hold honest and open conversation as true partners, and promotes positive problem solving that has a real shot at success. Parents will be grateful for the candor. Teachers will be gratified by the consequences. Getting there requires a simple tweak, but the results can be quite significant.

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