“Can I have a word?”
These five little words have the power to fill a parent of primary-aged children with dread. Because it’s always bad news when spoken by a teacher at the end of the school day.
You see, the after-school chat with a parent is a favourite behaviour management tool among teachers at primary level. Unfortunately, it is a deeply flawed one.
It’s not just the awkwardness of the whole situation, though that makes for a bad start. If the whole playground of waiting parents can’t actually see you being singled out for a chat, it certainly feels like they can as you walk off, away from your car, and into the school building with the teacher.
It’s also that the end of the day is a difficult time to have a proper discussion about behaviour issues. Parents have often rushed from work to get to school on time, or are on their way to pick up siblings or attend after-school activities. This means that the opportunity to have a meaningful and constructive discussion about what is happening with your child is missed: you are simply too preoccupied and in urgent need of being elsewhere to really give the conversation your full attention.
This method of “calling out” a parent sets the wrong tone, too. I spoke to one parent who spent much of her son’s reception year at school cowering at the back of the playground at pick-up time, dreading the teacher walking towards her, which happened several times a week. Her son was often the last one let out, which she knew was a bad sign. After these pick-up time chats with the teacher, she would regularly walk home in tears. She was left feeling responsible for her son’s bad behaviour and wondering what she was doing wrong as a parent.
She’s not alone. Many other parents I spoke to felt that being singled out – especially repeatedly – would lead to their child being labelled as “the naughty one” and them marked as poor parents.
Other issues identified were that these chats were pointless, as the parents did not have time to digest the information or prepare a response, and that talking about behaviour with the child present wasn’t good for the child and meant that parents weren’t able to talk as candidly as they would otherwise.
However, we parents do understand that teachers need to talk to us. And we do appreciate those teachers who take the time to keep us informed about issues that arise at school. But what are the alternatives to the playground walk of shame? What’s the best way for teachers to reach out to parents when their children’s behaviour has become problematic?
One teacher told me that she stays well inside the classroom at pick-up time – but asks pupils to pass on a message to their parents if she needs to talk about behaviour. The parents of the students in her class appreciate this and find it less embarrassing, but it might make the child feel even worse for having to play the messenger.
Another teacher makes a point of using the chats to single out pupils for praise and report good behaviour, too, so that it’s less obviously “bad” behaviour that’s being highlighted at the end of the day.
But how can teachers avoid having that end-of-the-day chat at all?
Some teachers say that they prefer to talk to parents on the telephone, which means that the parents can usually talk out of earshot of their child. But this has its own drawbacks. Parents recall horror stories of receiving phone calls from the teacher during the working day, which meant that they weren’t able to give the teacher their full attention, and then spent the rest of their time in work worrying. It’s also unlikely that you would candidly discuss your child’s various misdemeanours in your silent, open-plan workplace.
A much better option, according to the parents, is actually often seen as a last resort by teachers: the humble letter.
Parents that I spoke to preferred this method of communication, be it emailed or sent traditionally through a book bag, as it gave them a buffer between receiving information and formulating a plan of action and writing a response. They check their email when they are ready to deal with email, and they are able to talk about things with their partner, or just consider their response more carefully before replying. It also prevents that initial defensive response dictating the conversation.
Might this method cause a delay in dealing with the issue? All the teachers I spoke to agreed that it was best to let parents know as soon as possible if there were legitimate concerns about their child’s behaviour. They felt that they wanted to get parents on their side and support them to improve things for the child. Yet the speedier methods do not necessarily elicit that supportive response.
Parents say that they tend to come away from these meetings (or phone calls) feeling guilty, or defensive and protective of their children – rather than supported and on the same side as the teacher. The letter may be a longer process but it will undoubtedly prove to be the most successful.
Of course, aside from the medium of delivery, it’s very important that the message itself is carefully thought through. Too often, parents reported a personal rebuttal and little empathy for context. Here are five key areas that parents believe teachers could improve upon when talking to them about behaviour.
Know that we are doing our best
It’s likely that we feel responsible and guilty when our child acts up – please reassure us that you are on our side and that you don’t think we’ve done something wrong. Be friendly, but also…
Be objective and informative
Just give us facts and clear information rather than opinion and emotion. Think dry government report, not EastEnders.
Explain what you’re doing about this behaviour
A huge part of talking to parents about behaviour is to work on a plan of action together. Involving parents in this will leave us feeling supported and empowered, rather than as though we are failing. If there is a system in place, talk us through it and ask for our input. Why not ask us for ideas?
Offer an email or phone-call alternative
Even if after-school meetings end up being your go-to for parent contact, if you can offer to put things in writing or follow up on the phone later, parents may be better able to communicate and help work together to improve behaviour.
Give some positive comments, too
Including positive feedback will help prevent us feeling overly defensive.
Fiona Hughes is a freelance writer based in Devon. She tweets @superfiona