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Having Difficult Conversations With Families: A Teacher’s Guide

By Amanda Morin

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

You know the importance of collaborative partnerships with families. But let’s face it: When it comes time to talk about a challenging issue, it can be hard to know how to start. You may feel downright uncomfortable about sharing your concerns.

Remember that these conversations can be equally as 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 have a difficult conversation. But there are some ways to make the conversation as comfortable and productive as possible. Below is a guide for how to make an initial phone call about a concern and some sentence starters you can try. 

Starting the Conversation  

How you start a conversation sets the tone for everything else to follow. That’s why it’s key to begin a phone call in a calm, respectful, reassuring way. 

Start with a sentence that introduces yourself and asks if you are speaking with 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. Am I speaking with [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 with me. 

  • Is this a good time to talk? 

  • Do you have a few minutes to chat right now?

  • I don’t think this is going to take long, but let me know if you’d prefer to meet in person.  

Sharing Specific Concerns   

As you describe your concern, provide context, be direct, and share specific facts. Try to set aside your own feelings about the student’s behavior or academic struggles. Share relevant examples of what you’re seeing. Explain any steps you’ve already taken to try to address the concern. Use sentence starters like:

  • I’d like to share something that happened during [subject/time period] today to get your take on it and how we might address it.  

  • Today during [subject/time period], [student] really struggled with [behavior/skill]. In the moment, we handled it by… 

  • I’m reaching out to ask for your help with better understanding [student]’s challenges with…

  • 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 seen 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].

Building Trust    

Families have their own perspectives about what’s happening with their child. Take the time to ask for their input. When you do, you’ll invite family members to have an equal voice in the conversation and to respond with dignity. Because they know their child best, their knowledge and advice can be very useful.

Ask for the family’s perspective in an open-ended way that doesn’t impose your viewpoint. Make it clear you’re neither blaming them nor asking for them to come up with the solution all on their own. Keep the focus on finding solutions together. Below are some questions you can ask. Choose one or two from the list to start. 

  • What are your thoughts on the situation?

  • Is this something you’ve noticed at home, too?

  • Has your child mentioned any of this to you? Would you share with me how [student] described the situation?   

  • Is there anything else you’ve noticed at home that may be related to this concern?

  • Has [student] had difficulty in this area in the past? Can you share what has helped?

  • 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 speak with?

Moving Forward 

To end the conversation, be clear about what you plan to do next. 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/thoughts/honesty.” 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 had a chance to connect and talk this over. My next steps in supporting [student] are going to be…

  • 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. Here are other ways you can build strong relationships:

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