Improving Parent-Teacher Communication

When teachers and parents work together towards the well being of their children in the school environment, the benefit to the children is enormous. Children experience faster adjustment to school, establish a more trusting relationship with the teacher, and derive a sense of safety and security which allows them to be more open as learners among other things.

Sometimes, though, it seems as though parents work directly AGAINST teachers rather than with them. This creates, at best, a frustrating situation and at worst a power struggle that works to the detriment of the child. As in all situations, there is good news and bad news. First, the bad news: You can't change the parents with whom you're working. But here's the good news. When you make a few minor changes in your communication techniques, it will, in all likelihood, change the parent too, making it easier to work together.

Let's look at an analogy that illustrates this. Imagine that you're dancing with a partner. He or she keeps stepping on your feet. You're an excellent dancer, so you know that your partner is at fault. After a while, it begins to get on your nerves that your feet are getting stepped on. And yet, you keep dancing. Imagine what would happen, however, if you changed the dance steps. Or better yet, if you ducked under your partner's arm and left the room. The dance would be significantly altered, or even ended. And your toes would stop being sore.

Many times we engage repetitively with another person - we use the same words, tone of voice, body language, yet we expect the other person to change even though we're staying the same. Let's look at an example: A dissatisfied parent approaches you day after day with nit-picky things. You keep explaining as nicely as possible that there are good reasons for what you're doing. It seems to appease the parent for the day, but the next day, she's back with a different complaint. What's going wrong? We'll see in a minute how to change this, but for now it's important to understand that you are dancing too - albeit nicely and politely - and your toes are getting sore from being stepped on.

So - let's begin by defining what most teachers want from parents - cooperation rather than opposition. Cooperation occurs when two people work together, are mutually supportive of one another, and have a common goal. In this case, the goal is the well being of the child. Cooperation is based upon good communication. And good communication involves two things: how you convey your meaning to another person, and how you interpret what the other person is trying to convey to you.

When we communicate with parents, we want to be aware of the three components of communication: our words, our tone of voice and our body language. Words only account for 7% of the meaning. Tone accounts for 38% and body language for 55% of communication. One of the reasons that communication via e-mail is so difficult is that the reader has to interpret the communication based only on the words. 93% of the communication is actually missing when we read another person's communication instead of meeting with the person face to face. Even a conversation by phone can go awry because we're only giving and receiving 45% of the communication. So clearly, one important component of successful communication involves meeting face to face with parents.

In that meeting, it's important to be aware of why some parents seem to go out of their way to make communicating and cooperating so difficult. I can sum it up in one word: fear. Parents are terrified. Terrified that they are doing something wrong that will ruin their child's life. Worried that you, as the teacher, will criticize or blame them. Afraid that there is something "wrong" with their child. This fear causes parents to immediately bring up a wall of defense. They may show their defensiveness in anger, in tears, in criticism of you, or maybe in the pounding of their own heart of which only they are aware.

In meeting with parents, it's critical that you remember that in most cases you have much more experience and training than they do. Parents are only as "old" as their oldest child. If a parent has a five-year-old, she's only a five-year-old parent. And most parents have no training - whereas teachers have been to school for many years to learn how children develop, what they need, and how they learn. Couple this with the fact that most parents look upon teachers as authority figures whom they hold in awe (remember that most of their experiences with teachers were when they were children themselves) and you have a recipe for anxiety.

This is not to criticize parents, but rather to empathize with them. It is the most difficult job in the world, and they're basically left on their own to learn from experience. Therefore, beginning with an attitude of understanding for your inexperienced partner in this intricate dance.

Obviously, then, an important aspect of communicating with parents successfully is to be aware of tone of voice and of body language...specifically facial expression.

There are at least 9 ways of inappropriately responding to what's being said. These are our 9 "communication blocks":

1) Commanding 6) Psychologizing

2) Advising 7) Sarcasm

3) Placating 8) Moralizing

4) Interrogating 9) Know-It-All

5) Distracting

But, how do we avoid responding with a communication block?

We do what is called ACTIVE LISTENING - the first part in an EMPATHETIC COMMUNICATION process.

What is ACTIVE LISTENING? Well, how do you know when someone is listening to you?

* good eye contact

* acknowledge

* nod their heads

* identify with your experiences

(without turning the story into their story)

* full attention

We can summerize these into 3 major elements:


1) Attention

2) Acknowledgment (verbal "yes", "uh-huh")

3) Empathy

a) listening and watching for the feelings

b) connecting the feelings to content

But what about empathy?

What does it mean to listen and watch for feelings?

Well, it means to look beyond the words and recognize what the body and tone of voice are communicating.


What are some typical feelings that you've seen parents have when they're being oppositional?

Now let's look at the 5 steps in the Empathetic Communication Process:

Empathetic Communication Process

1) Listen actively.

2) Listen for feelings.

3) Connect feelings to content.

4) Look for alternatives/ evaluate consequences.

5) Follow up.