Middle School Math Teacher, Kelly Ann Ydrovo recently outlined her top 10 strategies for dealing with difficult family members and difficult situations. Check out her tips below to help you establish positive, constructive relationships with the family members of your students.
1.) Keep Your Cool
Yelling at each other will accomplish nothing. Advancements can only be made when there is dialogue and understanding. When dealing with a difficult family member, teachers must maintain their decorum and stay focused on the common goal of helping the student. It can be tough, but teachers must find a way to be able to reach the difficult family member in order to help the student. Try not to take their anger personally. Often, a family member is frustrated and is lashing out at the nearest person, you.
2.) Build Trust
One technique to build trust is to touch base. Family members want to hear the good things that are going on in a classroom rather than just hearing from the teacher when something goes wrong or when the student is in trouble. Sending a quick note or making a call shows the family member that you’re interested and invested in their child’s success. A positive email or call saying that the student did a great job on something or performed a random act of kindness can go a long way in building rapport with the family member. It shows that the teacher is looking at all the good things a child does and not strictly focused on the bad. These quick little notes take just a few minutes to write but they can set you up for a strong family relationship for the entire year.
3.) Reach Out to the Community
Reaching out to the community can build great rapport. Plus, it’s a win-win-win situation! Students win as they can showcase their skills and gain confidence from helping out others. The community wins as they see their young citizens showing concern for the community. The school wins as it can get great press and the community may look more favorably on the needs of the school. After all, the school is willing to help the community, so the community should in turn help the school.
4.) Show You Care
Family members want to see a teacher who truly cares about their children. As schedules come out only a few days prior to the start of school, meeting with the family members prior to the first day is often impossible. When I host a Back to School night, I greet family members at the door and provide a few light refreshments. While reviewing important information, I try to include some of the positive things the students are doing during the first few weeks of school. My presentations stress a caring environment that will allow students to learn in a fear-free zone. I encourage family members to contact me regarding their concerns – no matter how trivial. I also share some personal facts about myself like the ages of my children and some of the hobbies I do outside of school to help build a connection with family members. The fact that I have a child who is the same age as my students and can relate to what stresses and pressures that they are experiencing also helps.
5.) Establish Your Authority
Remember that you’re the leader of your classroom. One measure to present confidence and authority in a difficult situation is to look the person directly in the eye. By looking the person in the eye, it shows that you are interested in what is being said. It demonstrates that you’re concerned about the situation and are actively listening to acquire all of the information. Second, you are showing respect to the other person by giving them your undivided attention and communicating that what they say means a great deal to you. Third, “looking a person directly in the eye gives you an air of self-confidence and self-assurance.” (80) This perception can help diffuse a difficult situation. By displaying self-confidence, you can turn a lopsided conversation into one of equal cohorts who have a mutual objective of helping the student.
6.) Speak With a Low Voice
Family members often feel that they must “go to bat” for their child. In many cases, the family members feel that the child has been unfairly pointed out by the teacher and want this situation corrected. Too often, they ask too few questions to get the full story and make assumptions – often to the detriment of the teacher. They are out looking for justice before the teacher has had the opportunity to provide additional information or explain the situation. One technique that is helpful is for the teacher to lower their voice. Upset family members often talk at an elevated level and in an accusatory nature. It is quite common for the person on the receiving end of this conversation to become nervous. When one becomes nervous, coherent sentences are often lost. A person’s voice can become shaky and lack confidence. With the lowered volume, the shakiness in the voice will become less obvious. In addition, the decreased volume forces the other party to focus more closely on what is being said. Instead of focusing on their needs or concerns, the upset family member must channel additional energy to listen to what the other person is saying. Furthermore, the upset family member will start noticing how loud they are speaking and how this will not benefit the conversation.
7.) Realize That Everyone Makes Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes. Teachers have many responsibilities which means there are many opportunities for error. When a family member brings an error to light, the proper procedure for the school (teacher or administrator) is to be gracious and accepting of the information rather than defensive. Remember, someone pointing out a mistake isn’t a personal attack. If the family member is taking the time to bring attention to the matter, the school must be willing to put in the time to investigate. By acknowledging the possibility of an error and looking into it, the family member feels that the school cares enough to do the right thing. An investigation must be done in a timely manner and the results shared with the family member. If the teacher has made an error, it should be quickly rectified and an apology should be extended. Teachers aren’t infallible. They make mistakes and owning up to those mistakes shows strong personal character. After all, wouldn’t you want your students to do the same thing?
8.) Show Empathy
The words, “I am so sorry that happened” are highly effective. These six little words convey a great deal. First, it shows that you listened to what was said and are concerned about everyone’s well-being. In addition to acknowledging what happened, you are providing an opportunity to establish a rapport with the other party. The person has shown concern and would like to address the matter to alleviate or remedy it. Sometimes, the person just wants a shoulder to cry on. Other times, a wrong may have occurred and this person would like a remedy. Either way, you have put a priority on the person’s situation. By stating that you are sorry that the situation occurred, you can calm an irate family member down and provide an opportunity to have a calm conversation to obtain the details. This is a highly effective way to have a discussion and strengthen your relationships.
9.) Use and Show Concrete Examples
“I can’t believe that my Jimmy threw a paper ball at Sally.” Usually, I will overlook one transgression before a family member is notified (unless it’s a more severe situation). When I do contact the family member and he/she denies that the event is possible, I highlight the earlier instance that occurred in which the student was reprimanded. For example, Jimmy decided to paint his sneakers with whiteout during a group presentation. Jimmy was asked to stop and the incident was simply noted on a log. The next day, Jimmy did it again. This time the family member was contacted. She could not believe that he would do such a thing. I mentioned the earlier incident and how the behavior did not change. It was also noted that in his file was another incident the week prior with a different teacher. Highlighting these instances helped the family member see that perhaps little Jimmy is capable of doing “less than angelic things”.
10.) Set Up a Family Resources Area
It has been suggested that a room in the school be dedicated to families and equipped with a multitude of resources. This sounds like a wonderful idea and would be a fabulous thing to implement in my school. If it were possible to have a family room, it needs to be an inviting place. A soft color on the walls, comfortable chairs, and computer access would be necessary. Resources for the families should be grouped according to grade level and subject. Families can see what the scope of the curriculum is and view past projects on display. Future projects can be listed with the hope that familial expertise can be shared. I have seen family members come in and discuss their work experience and demonstrate how the current subject of study applies to real life. If there is something that a teacher would like family assistance with, there could be a board to post the “position”. If family members feel welcomed in the building, they’ll be more ready to work with the school to solve any situation involving their child.