I was listening to an NPR recording on how companies correct their image and consumer trust after there is some sort of mistake or public controversy. It got me thinking about how much damage control we do in the school system and as School Counselors. The interviewee was talking about specific steps that they take with the public to get them back on “their side” and ultimately start to buy their products again. So I, always a fan of lists, decided to break down my usual process. This was particularly time-appropriate since today was especially trying with a few teachers, students, parents, and situations (I’m taking a half day tomorrow, so I should have known I would be paying for it).
Anywho, bitterness aside, I think this is the typical process I take when talking with upset parents (and sometimes teachers):
1. Make sure I start with a super pleasant and positive voice, even if I know the person on the other end is anxious, seething, and/or in manic mode.
2. Ask them to address their concerns. More specifically, I give them a chance to define the circumstances before I do. This helps to not start the conversation with possible defense.
3. Acknowledge their concerns and make sure they know I am concerned about the situation, understand their concerns, and am invested in the success of their child as well. I think this validation goes a looooong way, and also becomes part of every step (sometimes needing extra emphasis at different times). Just like we encourage with students, there is surely always other perspectives to consider and things that could have been handled differently on either side (even the side of the teacher who is amazing and dedicated, but at their wits-end with a challenging student nonetheless).
4. Address inconsistencies, but not the emotional side. I do think we should not take charisma to the point that we compromise the reality of the educational environment. As a parent myself, I know that I can sometimes be blind to specific- er- particulars about my kid that others might not appreciate as much as I do. So I am real about bringing out discrepancies, but I try to do it in a way that states facts or data, not what my personal judgements or the teacher’s emotional responses are on the situation.
5. This is a good time to reassure them of your understanding, and validate their concerns again. If you are on the phone, they better feel your smile through the line.
6. Now we start to brainstorm solutions. Truth be told, if the other party appears way off base, I have found that (excuse my frankness) humoring their claims seldom hurts. Example? When a student has crazy truancy issues, and the parent tells you it is because they have had a cold or get headaches. Riiiiight. Well, even if I know the student simply stays up all night and then whines until they can stay home, I entertain the idea (in counsely terms, I meet them where they are) and mention services reserved for students who are gravely ill (such as cancer treatments, scoliosis surgery, etc.) in which the student can get education at the home. Typically, when the parent knows their students is not quite there, they will balk and either throw the kid under the bus, or backtrack to accept more appropriate solutions.
7. At this point, the reassuring and validation returns, and I use student-centered angles to push solutions that I think are good ideas, or that teachers have urged.
8. I leave the final decision open-ended. I have found that if the solution is agreed-upon, offering other steps ends the call much more nicely. For example, you might resolve that the student will attend tutoring, change classes, or attend a P/T Conference- but you note that you will reconvene and if the circumstances have not changed, you will try an alternate intervention.
And then, everyone becomes best friends and makes Starbucks plans and lives happily ever after! Well, not really, but the hope is that, even if for that moment, the fire is out and the damage has been controlled.
If at some point you can find something to connect (e.g. you also have a child, you both work in high-stress environments, there are a million things to do before a holiday, you were an only child as well, etc.) it is a REALLY good idea to play on this and find a common ground outside of the situation.
I really do love working with parents. Even some of the tougher ones are really only trying to advocate for their child the best way they know how. When a relationship can be forged, there seems to be no better way to see success in a student, than when there is a united front. Sometimes it feels like putting a puzzle together, but when the pieces fit, I sleep so much better!