Thinking Beyond The Classroom: Building Relationships With Parents

The latest blog post from Legacy’s education consultant and Advisory Board member on her blog: Education, From Inside and Outside

Building Relationships with Parents

Parent meeting with teacher.

Parent conferences can be stressful for both parents and teachers, because the conversations are high stakes for everyone. Parents are anxious about their child’s progress and also their parenting reputation. Teachers are anxious about their teaching reputation and about whether parents will be angry if the child is struggling in some area. Both parents and teachers are liable to take any cool feedback very personally. What can teachers do to ensure positive outcomes at parent conference time?

Parents and teachers work together best when they agree on what is best for the child. A good way to begin a conference is to establish that the purpose of the conference is to ensure the best outcome for the child. This is a goal shared by parents and teachers. The teacher can move next to list the child’s personal strengths and successes. Parent anxiety drops significantly when they believe that the teacher knows their child as an individual and appreciates their child’s unique gifts. If the teacher has a concern about an aspect of the child’s performance, it will be easier for parents to hear that concern without becoming defensive, if a ground of mutual respect for the child has already been laid.

If there is a challenge that the child is facing that needs support from adults, parents are reassured if the teacher already has strategies in place or strategies to suggest that parents can put in place at home. Children in school may be having trouble academically or socially, and parents worry about both areas, of course. Sometimes difficulty in one area may be leading to difficulty in the other – always turning independent work in late, for example, may be embarrassing and cause a child to lose social confidence.  Most children wrestle with at least one challenge in school. Some children wrestle with many. An effective parent-teacher conference will address ONE challenge thoroughly (one that the adults deem most deleterious to the child’s success). Listing many challenges can be extremely discouraging, and children can really only work on one challenge at a time. If there are several significant challenges, the teacher might say something like, “I have concerns about a couple of behaviors, and I’d like to work with you and your child on this one first.”

Some student behaviors that interfere with a child’s success and are of concern to teachers and parents:

  • Difficulty completing independent work (in school or at home).
  • Not remembering or not understanding new information presented in class.
  • Losing materials or taking a long time to get ready for the next activity.
  • Rushing to complete work, with results that appear hasty or messy.
  • Interrupting.
  • Daydreaming.
  • “Grandstanding” (behaviors that cause all to pay attention to the person engaging in them – singing, shouting, dancing, running, making faces or funny noises – when this causes a disruption to the classroom activity).
  • Socializing with friends during instruction.
  • Mean teasing or exclusive behavior.
  • Not complying with adult requests.

Many reasons exist for these behaviors, and sometimes they appear in clusters. Being precise about the behavior and why it is of concern is the best way to begin building strategies to help the child gain control of the behavior, so it stops interfering with learning. It is very important for teachers and parents to work together on strategies to address a behavior of concern, so that the child gets a consistent message and consistent support. It is also important for the adults to decide how and when to bring the child into the conversation, and will depend on the level of autonomy and independence appropriate to the age of the child.

Teachers and parents will be most successful in working together when they can listen to each other without being defensive. This can be a tremendous challenge.  Teachers who are interested in learning more about themselves and their students tend to be more effective in the realm of parent communication. Knowing that you don’t have all the answers opens you to feedback that may help you work with a family. It also builds trust with parents when you ask for their feedback – what does the child say about school? What happens during the time the child works independently at home? Sometimes the parent and teacher will disagree on what may help a child or on what is contributing to the behavior of concern. A teacher who doesn’t immediately dismiss the parent’s viewpoint may find there is an insight there, even if the parent’s observation or request is unrealistic or unreasonable. When parents believe a teacher knows and cares about their child, they are more willing to listen to teacher concerns with an open mind, and they may discover a teacher’s observation gives them information that they have been unwilling to accept in the past.

The LivingSideBySide® teacher training program includes extensive communications training to help teachers learn how to have a dialogue about difficult issues. For further information, visit the LSBS website:


Mary Riser has worked in Virginia independent schools for 30 years, most recently as Head of School at James River Day School, a K-8 day co-ed day school in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she served as Head for ten years. Mary received her B.A. in English and Philosophy from Georgetown University and her M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Oregon. Prior to working at James River, Mary was the Middle School Director and an English teacher at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville for fifteen years, and an English teacher and English Department Chair at the Blue Ridge School for Boys for five years. Between undergraduate school and graduate school, she worked as a legislative aide for the Honorable Pat Williams, the Congressman from Western Montana.
When asked what motivates her, Mary said, “I am passionate about learning. I believe that education should be designed to keep the learner at the center, and that the purpose of education is to cherish and challenge all learners to find their purpose and to thrive.”
Mary and her husband, George, live in Covesville, Virginia and have two adult children.