Parent Meetings: Bypassing the Dance of Blame

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Do you dread parent meetings—or find that they don't yield the results you wish they did?

At their worst, such meetings (especially when they focus on a problem) are packed with defensiveness, frustration, guilt, and fear for parents, teachers, and students. All parties want to "get it over with." But by sharpening your facilitation skills, you can keep a parent meeting from degenerating into a dance of blame. Here's how:

Build relationships with parents throughout the school year.
I remember this nugget from a workshop: "Students don't care what you know, until they know you care." The same is true for our relationships with parents, too.

Make a short phone call to each parent before there is bad behavior or low grades to report. I introduce myself, invite them to an upcoming event, and mention something positive I've noticed about their child. Not a profound realization—just something to show I am getting to know the child as an individual.

Call again, as often as is practical for you. My school's structure and schedule now makes it possible for me to call monthly—but this is a new luxury. A checklist helps, but I don't go down the list methodically. Instead, I try to notice good things that my students are doing: helping others; giving a thoughtful response to a problem; or offering an insightful question.

Call when problems emerge—not after they're fully developed. I never want the first problem-initiated call to be about something terrible. Instead, I make a quick call when the problem is small and the issue is resolved for the time being. I focus on the resolution—not the behavior. I praise how the student took responsibility and is working to remedy the situation. If the problem persists or worsens, then the parents know what we’ve been doing to work on it.

Schedule meetings for a time when other teachers can be present.
Most parents are more likely to think that it is worth taking time off work if they can meet with more than one of their child's teachers. And it is common for an issue to be affecting a student's performance in multiple classes. My school's structure and schedule makes it easy to arrange meetings with a student's other teachers during the school day. But even before our schedule changed, I often collaborated with other teachers to propose a time when we could meet with the parent(s) together.

Start by accentuating the positive.
I like to begin by having everyone in the room share one or two of the student's strengths. Because everyone enters the conversation with a positive insight about the student, it's difficult for the meeting to slip into the shame/blame mindset. There are no conflicting alliances: We are all on the student's side, helping him or her to succeed. This exercise also helps everyone to recognize the skills and assets that the student already has.

Define what success will look like—and be realistic.
In parent meetings, I do not dwell on the negative. Instead, I mobilize the group to develop a road map to support a student's success (not just the absence of a problem).

After talking about the student's assets and strengths, I pose this question to the group: "Imagine it's June, and we are talking about how well the year has gone for Sarah. When everything is going well for Sarah at school, what will that look like?"

Responses may lie within some well-worn paths: good attendance, improved grades, fewer discipline issues, etc. However, I encourage the group to talk specifically about what these criteria for success really look like.

Why do I need to push for what's realistic? Students (who want such meetings to end as soon as possible) often say what they believe to be the right words. And parents (especially those who want their child's teachers to think well of them) will set overly ambitious, near-perfect goals for their child.

It's easy to say, "No more discipline problems." How realistic is that? I think it is better to talk about how we are all going to deal with the future issues so that they won't become the kinds of big problems that prompted the current meeting.

Likewise, it is easy for the child to say, "I'm going to start doing my homework." If it were this simple, the child would already be doing it. Rather, a realistic goal might be something like, "When everything is going well, Carlos will be taking the 4:30 bus home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, after he has spent an hour in the tutoring center."

Together, draw the map for success.
Next, I pose this question: "How are we going to reach our goal, starting from where we are now?"

Here's where the meeting could slip into the "blame game" pattern in which each party talks about what the other parties need to do. Instead, each person at the meeting needs to offer what he or she is willing to do (or change) to help the student achieve success.

My colleagues and I explain what we are willing to offer: extra credit or a modified grading plan to allow the student to improve their grades; a secret warning system to help correct the student behavior without embarrassing her in front of the class; a time when we will be available for tutoring.

Students need to offer what they will do differently: go to tutoring; help create the behavior modification technique that the teacher will use in the future; and commit to doing extra credit. Parents do likewise, promising to talk with their child about school, help with homework, or email the teacher for status updates.

Follow through.
Follow-through (which I emphasize throughout the meeting) is where the rubber of our plans and commitments meets the road of reality. We must be mindful about what we are willing to commit to doing or changing during the meeting—if we don't have follow-though, we will see no change. If I said at the meeting that I would stay late every Tuesday, then I need to make arrangements to do that.

Follow up.
The meeting attendees must stay in touch. For my colleagues and me, a shared prep period helps—and we see the student in class each day. I use email to provide periodic updates to parents after a meeting. I copy my colleagues, so that anyone can then comment, replying to the whole group.

Make adjustments.
In the end, the only follow-through I can control is my own. If the student, parent, or another teacher isn't following through, then I need to make adjustments to the plan.

I do not berate or lecture anyone who is not following through. I believe this serves no purpose. Usually, the person who isn't following through made commitments that were too ambitious, or needs to recommit. We work together to figure out the best adjustments for the situation.

Celebrate success.
In June, I contact my student and his or her parents and we talk about how close we came to achieving the goals we set at the original meeting. We discuss the actions and adjustments we made to our road-map to get to where we are now, as well as how this plan for success can help the student start the next year on the right foot. I remind the student and parents that I will still be at the school (and will still care about them) next September.

And in the end, a meeting that I originally called because of a serious problem (a meeting that could have been a "dance of blame") can lead to great things. When all goes well, I have the privilege to take part in a multi-year relationship with a family—and, on graduation day, my eyes fill with tears of pride.

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