George Lucas Educational Foundation

Building Empathetic Relationships with the Parents of Your Most Challenging Student

Building Empathetic Relationships with the Parents of Your Most Challenging Student

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Parent-teacher conference

Teacher relationships with parents can be tense: we educate other people’s children, and miscommunication, lack of understanding and empathy, and misaligned values can all contribute to relational challenges. However, it is one of our most important roles as educators to engage empathetically with even the most challenging family relationships. We do our best work for students when we educate the whole child, and the whole child includes that child’s parents, family or caregivers. Just as with our students, authentic and caring relationships are the foundation to a safe and caring school environment.

All these this is especially true with the parents or caregivers of our most challenging students. Sometimes when we are frustrated with students’ behavior, it can be easy to blame a student’s home life, be exasperated that family expectations are different than those in school, or feel that parents “just don’t care.” It’s a fact that challenges at home often translate into challenges at school, but that fact sets our work in motion rather than halting it. To make change, we must partner with families and caregivers. With the parents of the students who challenge us the most, we must in turn challenge ourselves to reach for empathy and curiosity instead of blame.

Here are a few ways to spark connection and empathy with the parents of your most challenging student.

“What is amazing about your child?”

This is especially important to ask if you are feeling frustrated or hopeless about a student’s progress on a regular basis. Challenge yourself to really listen to families about the special and amazing things about their children, even (and especially!) the things that have nothing to do with academics. These interests, strengths and passions might be the key to your own development of positive relationship with that student. 

What happens if a parent shrugs or sighs and says, "nothing, nothing is amazing about my child"? You'll find this to be a pretty rare response, and if you hear it, use it as a clue that the parent in question likely needs more support and may be feeling equally frustrated, burned out or overwhelmed. If you notice yourself feeling judgemental of a parent's commentary about their child, ask more questions: be curious and dig in about how the caregiver may be feeling and what context might surround this, rather than making assumptions. 

“What has school been like for your child in the years before this? What was school like for you?”

When my student has a parent who seems disengaged, angry or fearful in our interactions, it’s a clue to me that something feels not okay about our interactions. Sometimes this is about me - I may be communicating in a way that doesnt work for that family - but sometimes it can be about what “school” means for that person, family, or culture. Maybe my student’s mom had a really negative experience with a teacher and doesn’t trust me to do something different for her child. Maybe my student’s sibling is struggling and the family isn’t getting the support they need from the district. Or maybe my student’s family doesn’t trust institutions in general, and schools specifically.

I need to own not only my own actions but my role as a representative of the institution of school and find ways to build bridges and rewrite negative scripts. Hearing a history of my student’s and their family’s experience of school might shed some light on where we can start.

“How can I help?”

As a teacher, it isn’t your role to solve all of your students’ family’s challenges, but as human beings, we can be in service to one another by offering caring outreach. If my student is struggling because she’s hungry every morning, it may not be my role to solve her family’s food insecurity, but it is absolutely my role to make a connection between that family and a local food shelf, social service agency, or the school counselor. An extra phone call or email may only take a few minutes out of my day, but may make a world of difference as a gesture of care.

Additionally, we must model vulnerability and be willing to really hear if what a parent needs is for us to change our classroom practice. When we communicate that it’s okay to question our methods, collaborate on our practices, and problem-solve together, we invite further conversation. If we shut down suggestions by saying, “I’m the teacher and I know best” - either through our words or our actions - then we are very clearly communicating that we don’t actually want parent involvement. Instead, we can at minimum test out strategies or approaches parents offer. Sometimes, these end up being some of the best classroom experiences!

“I care about your child and I care about you. I won’t give up on you or your child.”

Make sure students, families, and caregivers know without a doubt that you care and that you won’t give up. Even when you don’t have a solution to a challenge, say “I don’t know, but I want to work together to figure it out.” This is especially important in moments of conflict and tension.

During a tense phone call with a student’s parent, I reminded myself to slow down, take a deep breath, and say out loud to her: “It might not feel like it while we’re having this conversation, but I really care about your daughter and think she’s funny, brilliant and so capable. I have hope that she will persevere, and that we can work on it together.” That moment shifted the tone of our conversation and our relationship. We reminded one another why we were there, and in service of the student as a whole child, we moved forward together.

The Big Picture

Relationships with our students’ parents, families and caregivers aren’t easy because human relationships aren’t easy. If you read these questions and immediately think, “those parents can’t…” or “those parents won’t…,” challenge yourself to increase your compassion and remind yourself that building trust takes time. When we approach with an empathetic stance, we can move more effectively toward caring and reciprocal relationships that benefit the students we teach.


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Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Great article, Alex and much needed discourse on teachers giving the benefit of the doubt to parents and setting up healthy and empathetic relationships between teacher and parent. I will add that I think it is also important to understand cultural components of parent/teacher exchanges and to be mindful that not everyone comes from American cultural backgrounds.

KRScienceLady's picture

The importance of relationships between students, parents and teachers cannot be stressed enough. Letting parents know right up front that we are advocates for their children will make a huge difference. Will we always agree? No but if a good relationship has been developed and nurtured, then we all are better equipped to handle the difficult conversations. I am there in service of their child and that MUST always come first. If parents know and believe that , great things can happen when this triad works together!

Teachnmom's picture

As a parent, I cannot tell you how many times teachers have blamed me or our home life for my child's challenging behaviors. It is so demeaning! And disrespectful of both my child and myself. If there is one thing I wish teachers would understand, it is that my child's challenges in school reflect real struggles on her part -- she is not trying to make life difficult for her teachers or other students. And I am not being naive when I ask that teachers consider her gifts and not just her challenges, in trying to figure out the best ways to help her. To have a teacher tell me that it's my fault for not somehow "fixing" my child completely dismisses the enormous amounts of time, energy, patience, and compassion that parenting her requires -- not to mention the sadness, fear, and exhaustion that we all feel when she is struggling. The rare teachers who have worked with our family from a place of genuine caring, and who have not given up on my child's potential for success, have been a gift; not surprisingly, they have also found that my child was less challenging in their class! I am an educator, too: I know all the pressures teachers face. But taking the time to find out the realities of a family's life with a challenging child can yield enormous benefits and will never be wasted effort.

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Thank you for that perspective, teachnmom. I think you have a great perspective as both a teacher and a mom. I would love to hear your perspective as to how to best communicate with parents as well? What is an example of the best conversation you have had about challenging behaviors with a teacher?

DanHawkins11's picture
DanHawkins11
Second Career Teacher with 10+ years teaching, 30 years in business.

On a related point about meetings with parents, I have found that some, not all, administrators have "compromise" as their goal if they are included in the discussion. For example, they might try to mediate by asking the teacher to "give a little" to make the parent feel better. It's as if the administrator wants the parent to be pacified more than he or she wants what's best for the student. As a caring teacher with high standards and a good track record, I feel "thrown under the bus" by the administrator when this happens. I also have a lower regard for the administrator who placed his or her own comfort above what is right.

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