Like any role where caring and responsibility are central to what you do, difficult conversations are bound to come up now and again. No one enjoys having to have a hard conversation, but there are ways you can make these situations less intimidating for you and easier on the parents and carers you’re meeting with.
To find out how, we’ve collected some top tips for addressing those tricky topics with parents and carers.
“Create trusting and transparent relationships from the start” might not be great advice if you’re dreading a conversation you have to have tomorrow, but it’s certainly worthwhile in the long term. What’s more, there’s plenty of advice for how to build those strong, collaborative partnerships with parents and carers from the start:
The idea is, that the better the foundations you lay for a positive and open relationship with parents and carers from the start, the easier it will be when it comes to having those harder conversations.
If you already have a positive relationship with the parents and carers you need to have a difficult conversation with, you’ll probably know how best they like to communicate.
For some people, an in-person meeting might feel too confrontational compared to a less formal phone call. However, for others, having a pending phone call booked into their calendar can feel too anxiety-inducing and they’d rather just talk about whatever needs to be discussed right away.
If you’re not sure, it doesn’t hurt to ask - you could even include a section in your welcome induction packs about how parents prefer to talk about more serious or sensitive matters. For example,
“In an emergency or if your child has an accident, we will always try to contact you immediately, usually by phone. However, if we need to discuss a serious or sensitive issue, such as regarding your child’s behaviour or development, how would you prefer this was done?”
However you decide to arrange the conversation, be sure to be mindful of the child at the centre. Do not talk about the child over their head or in front of their peers.
“When children are here, this is their space. I could think of nothing worse at the end of a lovely day at nursery, standing next to the legs of your parent and key person while they discuss how you went to the toilet.”
You may have heard the expression, “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” You’ll gain nothing by putting off a hard conversation until later - you’ll still have to have it and you’ll spend the whole day fretting about it.
Having time to prepare what you’d like to say isn’t necessarily a bad thing - you just have to be honest with yourself about how you are actually using that time - preparing, or procrastinating?
What’s most important is that you empathise with the individual parent or carer you need to talk to and decide on an appropriate, timely way to tackle the issue:
In a caring relationship, like those you have with the children and families, there’s no point pretending you can be completely objective. You’re not a robot and they’re unique individuals. In fact, knowing the family’s context and history, as well as their child, can help you deal with sensitive issues in a way that’s tailored to that family and child’s needs.
That being said, when addressing a potentially sensitive issue, it can help to lean on concrete facts so that the message you’re trying to get across is clear. If you and a parent are in disagreement about certain events or issues, you may wish to offer evidence for what you’re saying - just be mindful that you present it as neutral information and not as a way to say “I told you so.”
Similarly, clouding what you’re trying to address with flowery language can just be confusing. You don’t need to be brutal in your delivery, but if you’re concerned about a child needing extra learning support for example, you need to be direct in delivering the facts about it, so the parents and carers clearly understand.
Allowing the facts to guide the conversation, as gently and honestly as possible, allows you to explain what’s going on in a judgement-free way, hopefully preventing parents and carers from becoming defensive or feeling attacked.
If we take a moment to step back from how challenging some conversations can be, we can focus on the point of bringing in parents and carers to the conversation at all - so you can work together for the child.
You’re not having a conversion only to report something going on, but to find a solution together. Parents are not on trial or coming in to ‘answer for’ what’s going on with their child.
Ensure that you come from a place of curiosity, a genuine desire for collaboration, and humility. Respect parents’ ideas and feedback too. And be curious - knowing what parents’ and carers’ wishes are for their child is extremely important in regards to working on an action plan together.
For example, if you’re planning a meeting where you will address a possible educational or developmental support need with a parent, don’t come with a fully typed-out list of interventions. This is not collaborative and certainly won’t help the parents or carers to feel like an equal partner. Ensure that the plans or agreements you make on the back of the conversation are contributed to and agreed on, as far as possible, by everyone.
So what might all of this look like in practice? Let’s look at the case study below.
Florence is a four-year-old in your preschool. Her parents are currently going through a break-up and she is living with her mother in a new flat, as they had to downsize. She sees her dad every other weekend but her mother has shared that they are beginning a court case about long-term custody agreements. Dad has not been to drop-off or collect Florence since the break-up but there has been no change to his permission to do this.
What’s happening now?
There have been several incidents recently where Florence has pushed or hit other children and is finding it very hard to share resources with her peers. Florence is quicker to become sad, frustrated, or angry and most recently, threw a chair. Although each incident was explained to her mother individually, Florence’s behaviour seems to be continuing and escalating, and Florence is clearly struggling emotionally.
Knowing the facts about Florence and her family can help you support them, and guide you through addressing the issue with Florence’s parents in a sensitive and considerate way.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.