Educator's Guide: How to talk to parents about personal and family issues.

This guide is an attempt to help educators - teachers, administrators, special service staff, and others - to do something that very few of them do: talk to parents in an honest and straightforward way. Especially in this age of widespread social problems affecting children and families, primarily the disintegration of the functional family unit, teachers need to talk to parents about matters other than school grades and 'educational' suggestions.

The issues that are most relevant to student achievement in school are factors which originate outside of school, i.e., family factors which include the parent-child relationship and personal problems of parents. Although many educators agree that extra-school matters are crucial to student success, they spend very little time talking to parents about these matters.

In this guide, most of the emphasis will be on teacher-parent interaction, but the use of the word "teacher" can be applied, in most instances, to any interaction between any educator, e.g., administrator or specialist, and a parent.

Sources of Avoidance
There are many reasons that teachers give for not discussing personal issues with parents. They include, but are not limited to the following:
1. It's none of my business.
2. Parents will get angry.
3. I will be reported by parents to school authorities or sued for stepping over the line.
4. I will not be supported by administrators.
5. I don't know how to talk to parents about personal matters.
6. Talking to parents is the job of a psychologist or therapist.
7. I don't have enough time.

Whereas some of the above-listed reasons for avoidance of educator-parent honesty may be true in a particular instance, many times they are merely mythical notions held by educators who are timid or who have not been trained to prioritize this activity. In any case, the situation needs to change because student academic and personal success will not occur when unresolved family issues continue to distract, frighten, anger, and depress the student.

It is Our Business

Before educators can be successful at communicating with parents, they have to hold a firm belief that it IS their business to ask personal questions of parents. The parents have entrusted the educator with the job of educating their child. When the student is not successful, it is unproductive and unethical to avoid discussions which may result in positive changes for the student. It is a myth that most parents are unreceptive to such discussions, but even in those cases in which they are, it is still the job of the educator to bring up what he or she believes may be the underlying cause of a student's problem. Parental anger will either not occur or will, in most cases, subside when the educator explains his or her point of view. Ways of handling persistent anger will be dealt with later.

Individual versus Systemic Thinking

Another necessary component of successful educator-parent conferencing is a systemic or contextual viewpoint, as opposed to an individual or intrapsychic one. The majority of student problems that do not respond to one or two weeks of teacher initiatives in the classroom are not rooted primarily in individual, medical, neurological, or learning problems, but in systemic ones, primarily family dysfunction. Thus, family matters, though more difficult to discuss, should be the first topic for teacher-parent conferences about student problems, not, as is currently the case, the last or "the never." Although it is easier to talk about Attention Deficit Disorder, the most likely cause of attention problems, as well as all others, is parental confusion, parent-parent disagreements about parenting, or parent-school relationship difficulties. To be successful, the educator must be grounded in a systemic point of view.

Questioning Techniques for Effective Teacher-Parent Conferences

To be effective in communication with parents, it is important to have a style which is respectful, brief, direct, and interrogative. Teachers need to express their opinion briefly and end each interaction with a question about how the parents think or feel about what was said. The following is a list of guidelines, statements, and questions that teachers can use to bring personal problems and solutions to a head when teacher efforts are not working:

1. The first step in a successful teacher-parent conference is to introduce yourself by your first and last name, and elicit the same from the parents. Interaction with first names will be very helpful in establishing the honest, personal relationship that is the teacher's goal.

2. After commenting on some positives of the student, e.g., he's polite or she's inquisitive, the teacher should get to the point of the meeting, the problem. He/she should say,"I have a problem with (child's name). It is (name of the problem). Have you (the parents) had this problem before or are you having it now at home?"

If a child is behaving a certain way in school, he/she most likely is behaving similarly at home. There are exceptions to this, especially early in a child's school career, but eventually the behavior in both settings will usually be similar. Getting parents to agree that they have a similar problem will be helpful to the teacher because an explanation of the problem will be less necessary and parents will be less likely to blame the teacher.

If parents deny having a specific problem at home, teachers should see if they have other problems at home that would enable them to understand what the teacher is facing. If parents deny any problem at home, it could be that parents are sincere and do not have any, or that the child does not behave at home as he/she does in school. In any case, in this phase of the interview, the teacher must get the parents to trust his or her statements regarding the problematic nature of the child's behavior in school. If this does not happen, the teacher needs to get the assistance of another educator to accomplish the crucial task of engaging the trust of parents in the accuracy of teacher reports.

The next goal of the interview is to ascertain and, if necessary, influence the parents' level of motivation for solving the child's problem. They have, hopefully, at this stage admitted that there is such a problem. Now it remains for them to be motivated to solve it. For this to occur they must agree that it is serious, i.e., worth solving. The teacher can say: "I think this problem is serious and worth immediate attention. Do you agree?"

Most parents will agree that the problem needs immediate attention. Those who do not agree need to be convinced through various arguments, like: "I've seen this problem before. It only gets worse. What do you think?'

Those who persist in denying the importance of the problem can be told: "OK. Apparently there is nothing else to discuss at this point. But I want to make it clear that I have no other methods for dealing with this problem. I will do my best to put up with it, but I do not expect (child's name) to improve. Please feel welcome to call me on this matter. I will certainly call you in a couple of weeks if there is no improvement."

Parents who reach this stage of conflict with a teacher may request that the child be removed from the teacher's class. The principal should take the same approach as the teacher, assuming that he or she supports the teacher, and state that the child will most probably not do better elsewhere. The principal does not support the teacher, an intra-school problem exists which must be dealt with before addressing issues with the parent.

4. In the next stage of the interview, the teacher needs to establish the meaning or cause of the child's problem, i.e., its etiology. Most likely, the cause or meaning will be mainly outside the school. The teacher should say:"I have tried everything I know how to do to motivate your child. I think your child is very capable, and I do not believe his/her problem is an ability problem. Do you know the meaning or cause of the problem?"

If parents have ideas, the teacher should listen and discuss. If they don't, the teacher should say: "Would you be willing to discuss with me some possible situations outside of school that might be contributing to your child's problem?"

Most parents will, again, be cooperative with this approach. They will give the teacher some information to work with, e.g., a recent geographical move, a sickness in the family, sibling rivalry, or some other issue.

In many cases, the most likely meaning of the students problem is parent-parent conflict over parenting or marital stress. The teacher can get access to this material by asking the question: "Do the two of you agree 100% on how to handle (the child's problem)?"

Most parents, with a little teacher persistence, will admit they disagree. No two people totally agree on anything. Those who initially deny any disagreement may eventually admit that they do disagree, or the issue can be deferred to another stage of the interview. When disagreement is admitted, the teacher should ask: "So your child is getting different messages from both of you. Which one of you should he/she obey?"

The teacher here should be trying to elicit from the parents an understanding of the contribution of their parenting disagreement to their child's school or home problem. If they can acknowledge that this issue is important, then they can agree to work on coming up with a joint message. Teachers should also probe for marital problems and should handle any admission of such problems by saying: "Do you see how these problems may be affecting your child's school or home behavior?"

If they agree to this suggestion, the teacher can ask: "Are you solving these problems or getting help? Is the help working?"

The point of this discussion is to get the parents to agree on the diagnosis or meaning of the problem and, in most cases, to understand that the problem has more to do with home issues than with school.

5. In the next phase of the interview the goal is to establish a solution to the problem. There are many components to the solution, but a major one will usually be helping the parents to agree on a course of action. In the case of parental confusion, the teacher can work with the parents on an understanding of the effects on children of the parent behaviors of protection and control, using J.B. O'Callaghan's "Universe of Parent-Child Interaction" and related analyses in Chapters 5 and 6 of O'Callaghan's School-Based Collaboration with Families: Constructing Family School-Agency Partnerships That Work (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers1993). These chapters are also available to educators as separate sections within the overall parent-teacher communication packet. Before discussing solutions, however, the teacher should ask the parents, "Now that we have identified the meaning of the problem, do you have a solution to it?'

If the parents have possible solutions, the teacher should listen and discuss. If they don't, the teacher should say: "Would you be willing to discuss possible solutions, including ways in which you might re-structure your parenting approach at home?"

Most parents will say yes to this request. Teachers can hopefully conduct some of this discussion by themselves. Other parts can be done jointly with the school mental health specialist, administrator, or other relevant party, e.g., an ecosystemic consultant from outside the school. Those unwilling to discuss solutions, especially those that inolve family or marital dynamics, can be told: "I really think we need a solution to this problem, and I don't have one. I will be calling you again if nothing changes, and I hope you will do the same."

For those parents who are willing to look at family-based solutions, the teacher or other specialist, including a school consultant or private family therapist, can continue to help the family to re-structure their family situation until the problem is solved. Teacher-parent communication should be a constant component of any and all ongoing attempts to solve the child's problem.

The School Decision Chart

The School Decision Chart depicts the various stages of teacher-parent and educator-parent interaction within O'Callaghan's School-Based Collaboration with Families model. Each stage in this chart should take no more than 1 - 2 weeks. Solutions are the goal. The present guide stresses interactions and behavior of teachers at Step 2 of this chart. Further steps are available to teachers who cannot solve child problems at Steps 1 or 2. The goal is to return the child's school behavior to the domain of the teacher-parent-child triad.

When Collaboration Fails or Breaks Down

Some comments have already been made regarding the failure of teacher or other educator efforts to work with parents on personal, family, or marital issues. One approach is continued perseverance. Another is involving special service school staff. Another is enlisting an outside systems consultant to work with school staff in Steps 5 or 6 of the School Decision Chart. Hopefully, assemblage of all relevant players in a specific situation in the Collaborative Team Intervention (Step 6) would finally accomplish an agreement among all parties regarding the meaning and solution of a child's problem. If not, the school can wait for a more opportune time for further overtures toward parents, or, in the event of serious problems, can "go to war", or take steps to protect the rest of the students, families, and teachers from the destructive impact of family-based "child terrorism." This would take the form of special education placements in or out of the school, or in extreme cases, child expulsion from the school. Local police and judicial personnel may be needed at this stage. The position of the teacher and other school personnel should be an unwillingness to accept abuse by parents who send a dysfunctional child to school and who simultaneously refuse to accept responsibility for this child.

Some pathological parents may be willing to cause great inconvenience, hardship, and cost to school staff and budgets, but a persistent resolve by schools will usually result in parent willingness to work with the school. In those cases in which parents continue to be uncooperative with school efforts - and in which they insist on unreasonable or irrelevant measures or programs for their child - the school should resist the parents as long as is practically or financially possible. There is a significant morale payoff for school staff through this course of action.

Administrative Support

The guidelines for teachers presented here are only relevant to situations in which teachers have the full support of school principals, directors, and superintendents. When administrative support is not available, teachers and other educators should begin a grassroots movement to secure that support.

When Teachers/Educators are the Problem

There are circumstances when a child's school problem is not rooted mainly in family dynamics but in teacher or school dynamics. In all instances of child/student problems, school administrators must first make sure their own house is in order before looking for causes outside. When school staff are dysfunctional, methods similar to those described herein may be used by school administrators in dealing with dysfunctional teachers and other school situations.

For appointments and scheduled consultations, please contact Dr. J. Brien O'Callaghan at or write to him at J. Brien O'Callaghan, Ph.D., 246 Federal Road, C-32, Brookfield, CT 06804