As an educator, you know the importance of collaborative partnerships with families. But when it comes time to talk about a concern you have about a student, it can be hard to know how to start. How do you say it? There are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be clear.
- Be specific.
- Share information and examples.
- Ask questions.
- Listen, and respond with follow-up questions.
Remember that these conversations can be equally difficult for families. While it may be the first time you’re bringing up a challenging behavior or an academic concern, it may not be the first time a parent or caregiver has heard about it.
Family members may feel blamed or expected to fix it. They may have had past experiences with schools that led to mistrust. And some families may have different cultural expectations about school-family partnerships.
There is no one right way to engage with families. But there are some ways to make the conversation as collaborative and productive as possible. Below is a guide for how to have these conversations with families.
Ask to meet or talk
Whether by phone call, email, or other message, start by introducing yourself. Ask if you are reaching out to the right person. (Make sure to double-check that you’re using the correct name. Students don’t always share a last name with their parents or caregivers.) For example, “Hi, this is Ms. Morgan, Layla’s teacher. Are you [name]?” Then, use sentence starters like:
- [Student] is fine. I was hoping for a few minutes of your time.
- This isn’t an emergency. I was wondering if you have some time to talk about some challenges I’ve observed lately.
- Do you have a few minutes to talk now? Or can you suggest a better time when we can talk?
Start the conversation
How you start a conversation sets the tone for everything else to follow. That’s why it’s key to begin in a calm, respectful, reassuring way.
- Thanks for talking with me.
- I’d like to share something I observed during [subject/time period] to get your take on it.
- I’m reaching out to ask for your help so I can better understand some challenges I’ve observed [student] having with….
As you describe what you’ve noticed, provide context, be direct, and share specific examples of the behavioral or academic struggles you’ve observed. Explain any steps you’ve already taken to try to address the concern. Use sentence starters like:
- Today during [subject/time period], I noticed that [student] really struggled with [behavior/skill]. In the moment, we handled it by….
- Recently, I’ve noticed that in class, [student] is [describe concern]. I’ve been trying some strategies to provide extra support. They include [describe specific strategies you have used and the outcome].
- I’ve observed a change in [student]’s behavior/progress/motivation/ability in the past [time frame]. They were [describe what was going well] and now they are [describe the change].
The parent or caregiver may have noticed something similar — or different — at home. Take the time to ask for their input. When you do, you’ll invite family members to have an equal voice in the conversation. Because they know their child best, their observations are very useful. Continue the conversation with questions like:
- Is this something you’ve noticed at home, too?
- Have you and your child talked about this? Are you comfortable sharing with me how [student] described the situation?
- Is there anything else you’ve observed at home that you think may be related?
- Has [student] had this challenge in the past? Can you share what has helped?
Ask for help
Ask for the family’s help in an open-ended way that doesn’t impose your viewpoint. Make it clear you’re not blaming them or asking them for a “fix.” Keep the focus on finding solutions together. Use conversation starters like:
- What are your thoughts on the situation?
- Are there things you do at home that might work at school?
- Are there things that you know won’t go over well that I should avoid?
- Is there a teacher who knows/works well with your child that you’d suggest I talk to?
Finish the conversation
Be clear about next steps as you end the conversation. This is especially important if you’ll be meeting in person or asking other staff members for advice.
Leave the door open for more communication and close out the conversation honestly. For example, don’t say “This has been a great conversation” if it didn’t go as well as you had hoped. Instead, say something like “I know this was tough to talk about. I appreciate your input.” Use sentence starters like:
- Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. As we discussed, I’m going to [confirm next steps you agreed on].
- I’m glad we’re able to work together to support [student]. So, at home, you’ll [summarize discussed strategies] and at school, I’m going to [summarize].
- I feel like this was a good start. I’ll speak with [any additional staff], and we’ll set up a time to continue this conversation.
- Thank you for your time. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you think of anything else.
These respectful conversations are just one way you can establish trust with families. Learn about other ways to break down communication barriers between teachers and families.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Rayma Griffin, MA, MEd has spent 40 years working with children with learning and thinking differences in the classroom and as an administrator.