Dealing with Challenging Parent Situations

Unhappy.  Furious.  Angry.  Frustrated.  Confused.

There are so many jobs that dealing with unhappy customers is one of the most challenging things people have to do.  It’s really no different in education.  When I talk to my colleagues and peers in this profession, those interactions can sometimes be the hardest part of our job.


Over the past 19 years, as a teacher, coach, and principal, I’ve had just about every experience imaginable with parents.  I’ve had to try to make a situation right when we had been in the wrong.  Other times, I felt like we had done everything we needed to and I disagree strongly with the thinking the parent.  Sometimes, I’ve handled myself appropriately and dealt with the situation the very best I could.  Other times, my emotions and passion got the best of me and I’ve said or done things I wanted to take back.  All of those experiences have helped me develop a process that I now go to when challenging parent situations arise.

Over the past few years as a principal, this has been extremely helpful and allowed me to find a positive resolution in just about every challenging situation.

1. Initial response — quick but brief

This one is really situation dependent as the problem can be brought to you in various ways.  Let’s play out the scenario where you get an email or phone call.  If you are sent something via email that speaks to a potential issue, answer it immediately whether it’s late at night, weekend, whenever.  Same for a phone call.  Make an initial contact quickly. First, thank them for contacting you and let them know you take the situation seriously. By thanking them, you set the tone that you are accessible, here to help, not getting defensive and a problem solver.  By letting them know it’s important to you, they know the issue has your attention.  Tell them you need to gather information and give them a timeline in which you will respond.  Buy time so you can gather information, think, consult others, and process.  A quick response, but brief.

2. Be prepared

Prior to contacting the parent back, write down a summary of all of your notes and have them in front of you.  How you contact them really depends on the parent and your comfort level.  The method of communication depends on the parent.  It truly can be better to do some via email, depending on how you and/or the parent may handle the situation in person.  I always default to person, then phone, followed by email, but that can depend on the parent.

3. Shut up  

Even though you are prepared, start the conversation with questions such as, “can you tell me a little more about” or “what else have you found since we first spoke?”  Don’t go into the details of your investigation at this time.  Save it.  Things may have changed since the initial contact.  Find out what is really still at the top of their list and allow them a chance to talk.  Just listen and take notes.  A parent feeling heard is half of the battle.

4. Ask questions

As you take notes, think about follow-up questions that will allow you to dig through the layers of the situation.  If it’s in person, taking notes also shows your level of focus and attention for the issue.  Sometimes, the parent has a lot on their heart/mind and by asking a few questions, you can peel back the layers and get down to the core of the issue.  By listening, taking notes, and asking questions, you have likely changed how their challenging disputes have been handled in the past and that puts them into a more positive mindset.  That will pay off once you get to step 5.

5. It’s time to act

Start by paraphrasing their thinking and summarizing what seems to be their biggest issue(s).  Then, share the facts you’ve gathered.  Use the actual words from students, parents or teachers.  State the exact words and components that are clear and not able to be disputed.  When that has been agreed upon, share your thinking in a professional and non-judgemental way.  I often will share that I have put a lot of thinking into the decision, consulted others, saw it from their point of view, and looked at past practice.  I then share my decision and what will be happening next.  Find an area to yield or compromise, no matter what or how small it might be, even if it’s in an area that is not at the heart of the matter.

6. Reflect together / Finalize it 

At that point, most parents will offer some feedback or their own thoughts on your decision.  If not, ask for it.  This is often where I share with the parent the differences in the role of a principal and a parent.  I relate my experiences as a parent and let them know how it enables me to see it from their point of view.  Sharing that perspective helps bring the human element further into the discussion.  If there are still parts that are in conflict, either choose to address those further or verbally agree to disagree.  But state that out loud.

Those 6 steps have really helped me walk through challenging situations.  I hope there are a couple of pieces in there that can help you in future dilemmas!


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