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7 Tips for Teachers on Dealing with Difficult Parents

Apr 1, 2018

by Suzanne Capek Tingley, Veteran Educator, M.A. Degree

There are many great ways to wrap up the school year, but dealing with difficult parents isn't one of them.

Most of your students will finish up the year and move on to the next grade. If you hear from their parents at all, it might be a thank-you card. And, if you're lucky, it might even include a gift card to a local restaurant. But some parents may not feel so kindly toward their child's teacher as the year winds down. Perhaps their child failed a final exam and needs to go to summer school, or maybe their child struggled throughout the year and you recommended testing to determine if they have a learning disability. Or, maybe their child missed a lot of instruction, and you think they need to repeat the year.

Whatever the issue, you're probably not looking forward to dealing with difficult parents at this point. But there are plenty of ways to defuse the situation, keep your cool, and even help parents come to an understanding about their child's progress.

1. No Surprises

This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind throughout the year: Make sure you keep parents apprised of any issues. If you think a student has learning problems and should be tested, don't wait until the entire year has passed before suggesting it. You can often avoid problems at the end of the year if parents have already been made aware of your concerns.

But even for teachers who've done a great job of keeping parents on board, some parents will "forget" that they've been informed of any problems at the end of the year. In these cases, it's important to keep a record of emails, phone calls, or other conversations you've had regarding the student's issues throughout the year.

2. Meet Face-to-Face with Parents

Invite them in to meet with you rather than trying to resolve a problem over the phone or email. That way, you can show them samples of their child's work or records of attendance. You can also share evidence of the times you discussed the issue with them. In the end, it's usually easier for angry parents to say unpleasant things electronically than in person.

Further reading: Mastering the Parent-Teacher Meeting

3. Alert Your Principal or Department Chair to the Situation

If the parents have already called to complain, the principal may want to sit in on the meeting. If not, she may want to be available if the issue can't be resolved between you and the parents.

4. Listen and Ask Questions

Shake hands with the parents who come to meet with you and ask them to explain what they're unhappy about. Wait until they finish, and don't interrupt unless you're asking for clarification.

5. Try to Find Things You Agree On

Make sure parents understand that, as the child's teacher, you'd like to see him do better, too. Be clear that your role is not to punish the child at the end of the year for not studying, not handing in work, or being absent. Your role is to figure out how to make their child more successful in the future.

6. Don't Allow Yourself to Be Pressured

A few parents may ask a teacher to change a grade or move their child forward even if he or she hasn't fulfilled the requirements. You, of course, have to adhere to your professional ethics—and you don't want the reputation of someone who can be manipulated by parents. If they want to, parents always have the option to escalate the problem to the principal.

Further reading: Positive Parent-Teacher Communication

7. Know When the Conversation Is Over

In my experience, once most difficult parents have expressed their unhappiness or anger, you can all can move on to find a workable solution together. Unfortunately, this is not the case with all parents. It's fine for parents to be angry, but it isn't OK for them to be abusive. If that happens and it's clear you're not going to agree, it's time to bring the conversation to a close. They may decide to take their complaint to the principal, and that's fine. That's how the system works.

During your career, you'll have many meetings with parents. Most of them will be easy, gratifying, and pleasant—but a handful won't be. Knowing how to deal with difficult parents should be part of every teacher's skill set, so you can keep your cool while working to find a resolution that's in the student's best interests.

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