Parents, just like students, bring varied backgrounds and experiences with schools and educators. They also rely on a variety of strategies to meet their needs and accomplish their goals. Some parents defer to educators to make the best decisions regarding the learning and education of their children. Other parents take a more assertive approach in advocating for the opportunities and supports they believe their children should be offered. Still other parents take a more confrontational, demanding, and aggressive approach in their engagement with us.
The first two types of parents are usually the easiest and most pleasant with which to work to find answers and develop plans to serve their children. They come with a foundation of trust and an inclination to collaborate in seeking the best solutions. They often have a positive history and successful set of experiences with schools and educators and are inclined to value the relationship. Resolving issues and creating paths to success for their students may be challenging, but the presence of trust and an inclination toward collaboration creates a foundation for working together.
Parents who take a more aggressive approach can present different challenges and require different strategies to build collaboration, resolve issues, and create a path to success. Working with them can be more challenging emotionally, and they may test our professional confidence and skills. Aggressive parents do not necessarily begin with the assumption that we have their and their children’s best interests in mind. Our challenge is to work through the potential barriers, find the best solutions for immediate issues, and lay groundwork on which to build a trusting relationship.
Let’s examine six strategies you can employ with aggressive parents to increase your potential for success.
First, when meeting with a parent whom you expect to be aggressive, meet face-to-face and have the conversation from a sitting position. When face-to-face, we are better able read emotions and respond more effectively than via voice, video, or text. The exchange can also be more nuanced and flexible when the conversation calls for assurances and redirection. Meanwhile, aggression is more difficult when sitting than when standing. If possible, avoid sitting directly opposite the parent; a 90 degree angle or side-by-side position reduces feelings of confrontation and win/lose thinking. Remember: Under their external image, aggressive parents are often fearful, uncertain, and anxious. Position the conversation to communicate that you and the parent are on the same side: You both want what is best for the student.
Second, listen, show empathy, and keep cool. Allow the parent to tell their full story without interruptions, if possible. Recognize and respect the emotions the parent is communicating. The level of emotion the parent conveys can offer important clues about the intensity and seriousness with which the parent sees the situation. If the situation the parent describes involves an incident or aspects of a situation of which you are not aware, thank the parent for bringing the situation to your attention and suspend the meeting until you can collect the information you need. Attempting to argue or speculate risks making the situation worse and further undermining trust.
Third, keep your ego out of it. Refuse to allow your emotions to cloud your judgment or provoke you to say something that further complicates the situation and that you later regret. Take time to frame and consider your responses. Use “I” statements and avoid vague references or hinted accusations. Stay calm and resist blaming. If you hear a threat or begin to feel unsafe, terminate the meeting and inform your supervisor.
Fourth, remain focused on the child. Be clear, concise, and confident in your language. Show care, trust, respect, and integrity. Do not get into an argument. Consistently bring the conversation back to the child and what is in their best interest. Do not respond to personal attacks on your integrity or professional skills.
Fifth, be clear about your position, but remain open to input and compromise. Where practical, integrate elements of the parent’s concern or perspective into the plan of action. Point out overlap and synergy between what you see as needing to be done and the parent’s perspective on the situation. Where possible, offer creative solutions that show the parent that there is more than one way to solve the problem. However, avoid being pressured into making a deal that you would not or could not make for other students.
Sixth, conclude with a specific plan for improved communication. Consider scheduling a check-in after a few days or weeks, depending on the situation. Ongoing communication can reduce suspicion and build trust. Further, your ongoing communication can increase the level of confidence the parent has in your skills and ability, and it may prevent another difficult and awkward confrontation.
Aggressive parents can present difficult emotional challenges. However, when approached with care, confidence, clarity, compassion, and creativity, what begins as a confrontation can become a productive collaboration that leads to greater trust and more success for the student.