Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk to a Student’s Parent in Crucial Moments

Dear David,

I am a school principal and recently we had an incident where a student injured another student. I will be meeting with the father of the injured child, who is very angry. He feels the school has failed to protect his daughter in the past and this exacerbates the situation. While the school does bear some responsibility, the student has also been difficult to manage. In hindsight, the school possibly could have handled this student better. She seems to be at the center of a number of school issues and, when addressed, the family makes her the victim. What can I do?

Signed,
Perplexed Principal

Dear Perplexed,

I believe that you and other educators have one of the toughest and most important jobs in our society. You live at the frontline of many of our toughest social problems, and we count on you to deal with many of them—as well as to educate our precious children.

Today, you face a tough and sad situation. A student has been injured, her parents are angry, and it’s complicated by the student’s own behaviors. I will outline some actions you can take to begin to mend the situation, but the first step is for you and your school to own your role in this problem.

As principal, you need to come to terms with what has happened in the past, attempt to repair the relationship with the student and her parents, and create a future in which this student and all students are safe and successful. It’s a tall order.

Acknowledge the Past. We teach a skill that goes by the acronym CPR—for Content, Pattern, and Relationship. It highlights the different aspects of a complicated problem. Let’s try it with yours:

  • Content: An individual incident. Here, it’s the recent incident in which the student was injured.
  • Pattern: A recurring issue. In your case, it’s the school’s history of failing to protect this student. A second pattern to check for is across other students. This may not be the only student who has been injured.
  • Relationship: The impact the incident or pattern has had on the overall relationship. For you, it’s how the pattern has undermined the parent’s trust in your motives, your competency, your respect for him and his daughter, etc. A second relationship issue to check for is amongst other students and parents. You may have lost the trust of a whole group or category of parents.

You will need to take responsibility for each aspect of this problem. Given the incident and the pattern of incidents, it makes perfect sense for the father (or group of parents) to have lost faith in you and your school. He is not being unreasonable.

Repair the Relationship. It will be hard to plan for the future, unless you can build some trust. An apology is a good place to start, though it may not be enough. Here are the elements I look for in an apology:

  • Admit to your past failures. Keeping children safe is fundamental to your job, and you failed—more than once. Don’t get caught up in apportioning blame. Even if you think the school is only 20% responsible, say that you are sorry for your part.
  • Apologize unequivocally. Focus on your actions, not the father’s reactions. Don’t say “I’m sorry you feel this way.” Say “I’m sorry I failed to protect your daughter.” Avoid any qualifications or buts. Don’t say “I’m sorry, but your daughter is . . . ” Say “I’m sorry. I take full responsibility. I let you down.”
  • Pledge to fix the situation. Promise to create the kind of safe, nurturing, and supportive learning environment all of us want for our children.
  • Back up your words with actions. These actions are intended to mend the wound in the relationship. If you think of these actions as a bandage, they will have to be at least as large as the wound in order to work. This means going above and beyond what would normally be expected in a relationship. We think of it as making a sacrifice. Below are a few examples:
    • Ego Sacrifice: Admit your failings in public. Admit that you have violated your own sense of values and accept the consequences.
    • Time Sacrifice: Demolish your calendar with all of its plans and to-dos and rebuild it around solving this problem.
    • Priority Sacrifice: Push aside several of your cherished priorities and move this one to the top.
    • Dollar Sacrifice: Reallocate budgets away from your current priorities and toward this one.
  • Don’t assume your apology will be enough. Don’t use the apology to silence the other person, as in “I’ve already apologized for that. You need to move on!” The hurt party has no obligation to accept your apology.

Establish Mutual Purpose. Involve the father (or group of parents) by having him identify his aspirations and fears for his daughter. Use this process to demonstrate that you agree with these aspirations and fears. Use them as common ground on which to build a plan for the future.

Expand this Purpose. As a principal you have multiple stakeholders and many responsibilities. You can’t allow a single student and parent to overwhelm all your other priorities. Instead, use this single relationship to see what every student and parent wants from you and your school. Establish goals that set standards in these areas of mutual purpose, for example: safety, academic achievement, connection, and support.

Identify Crucial Moments. Identify the times, places, people, and circumstances when these goals are at risk. Involve a team of administrators, teachers, parents, and students in this process. Make sure this specific student and parent are involved either directly or through frequent outreach. Examples of these crucial moments might include:

  • Normal teasing begins to turn mean.
  • A student shows a pattern of disrespect.
  • A teacher is struggling to control a class.

Create and Implement Solutions. Determine best practices for handling each crucial moment. Use training, coaching, and mentoring to make sure these solutions are put into practice.

I hope these ideas help. I would love to hear from you educators and parents who have faced similar problems. What have you seen that works?

Best of luck,
David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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4 thoughts on “How to Talk to a Student’s Parent in Crucial Moments”

  1. As I read your article it brought back a lot of school challenges I had with my son in public schools. You finally started on the right path toward the end when you advised to identify crucial moments. Teenagers will push the limits and that means they tend not to know when teasing turns mean. They push, and push, and push until they can get someone to react. what they don’t understand is that many introverted children their own age will hold it inside until it lashes out- then the lasher, not the instigator gets punished. The full picture needs to be understood and watched by teachers and administrators, and stopped BEFORE it gets mean.

    1. You are absolutely right, Ralph. My tormentors were serious about damaging me, and the one time I finally warned the little twerp twice that if she kept it up I would have to hit her and actually had to hit her (very, very weakly and half-heartedly), you would think the heavens had fallen. Defending themselves was particularly frowned upon for girls.

      They were going to punish me and not her, but my parents insisted that she also get punished. Funny thing — after that the overt torment ceased. I wish I had done it years before.

  2. “•Normal teasing begins to turn mean.” It seems to me that most teasing, with some exceptions from those with close and positive relationships, is mean right out of the box. It seems to me that our society expects and allows people to be mean to each other, often justified by labeling it as normal. People will say “It’s just business.” and then do the mean thing that is seen to be to their advantage. I think our society needs to further promote win-win relationships.

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