Over the years, Education World's "Principal Files" team of principals has tackled a wide variety of issues. They always provide practical tips for sticky situations. This month is no exception, as they tackle what to do when confronted by angry parents. Included: Tips for calming upset parents and solving problems.
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All teachers and principals must deal with angry parents from time to time. In those times of heated passions, our responses carry great weight. A miscalculated response can backfire; it can fan the flames of a parent's upset and even burn bridges we've worked hard to build between school and home. That's why experienced principals use techniques aimed at extinguishing fires before they develop into full-fledged infernos. The key to controlling the blaze, most principals agree, is listening.
The first thing Addie Gaines does when confronted by an upset parent is to smile and extend her hand. Gaines, who is principal at Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School, invites the parent into her office and offers a seat. "Doing that helps make the parent feel respected, and it communicates that I am willing to listen and try to find a solution to whatever is on their mind," said Gaines.
As she is making the upset parent feel welcomed, Gaines is also reminding herself that the parent is usually not angry with her. Instead, the parent is usually upset by an event or something else in their life -- and it's her job to listen. Listening intently can go a long way toward resolving most problems, said Gaines.
"It's been my experience," added Gaines, "that most people get glad in the same pants they were mad in."
Principal Bridget Morisseau has a similar routine when she is approached by an angry parent. She greets the parent warmly and invites him/her to talk privately in her office. "There is nothing worse than a parent who is upset and yelling in the halls where they are in earshot of students, teachers, and other parents," said Morisseau, of William Winsor School in Greenville, Rhode Island.
Almost always, Morisseau added, parents calm down once they know that she is willing to listen and assist them. "I make sure that I actively listen while parents are talking. Empathy goes a long way in finding a solution to any problem we may be facing."
Principal Jack Noles of Shallowater (Texas) Intermediate School, agrees that the most important thing "is to show genuine concern about a parent's feelings. I always make sure they hear me say that I understand and will do whatever I can to make things right."
Karen Mink tries to remain calm and offer the parent compassion. "They need to let it out, and doing that will make them feel better," said Mink, who is principal at the O.C. Allen School in Aurora, Illinois. "If I become angry or defensive, it becomes a power play -- and they feel helpless and lash out. It is better to show that I understand how they feel... even if their complaints might be out of my control."
Mink agrees that listening is the most important thing a principal can do in this situation. "I listen, and then I listen some more," explained Mink, adding, "I have learned that many parents just want me to hear them all the way through. If you stop a parent before he has had a chance to say everything he came in to say it might appear that you don't really care to get to the bottom of the situation. It will appear that you just want to defend yourself, your teacher, or your school."
KathiSue Summers, principal at Rogue River (Oregon) Middle School, relies on her faith to keep her calm in the face of parent upset. That and listening and taking notes. "I tell them I am going to take notes so I can get down exactly what they are telling me. Doing that helps give me a better understanding of the issues, and they realize I am listening to them. Sometimes I even give them the opportunity to read over my notes and add anything that I left out."
When Marguerite McNeely greets concerned parents at Hayden Lawrence Middle School in Deville, Louisiana, she does so with a smile and a firm look directly into their eyes. "I let them know I want to hear them out but that there are rules in my office. I expect them to behave like an adult and, if they don't, I will end the meeting immediately.
"Then I listen, listen, listen and I repeat what they are saying so they know that I am really listening. I take a few notes, even if I am already aware of the matter. That ensures them that I am being attentive. The bottom line: I attempt to treat them as I would like to be treated if I was the one who was upset."
Before Les Potter became a principal he was a teacher and a guidance counselor. His experience as a guidance counselor helps inform the way he handles concerned parents at Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida. "Also, being a parent and having the ability to put myself in the parents' shoes has helped," he told Education World.
"The fact that I am older than most of my students parents might help too, because they may look at me in a different perspective -- as someone who can offer the wisdom of experience."
When Tim Messick must deal with an angry parent, he reminds himself that the parent is there because of their child -- because they want what is best for their child. Therefore, he tries "to listen with an open ear and keep the child first and foremost in mind."
"We ask parents to be their children's advocates," added Messick, who is principal at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, "and, often, that is what they are doing. Unfortunately, we seldom provide them with training or lessons on how best to do that."
The second thing that Messick tries to keep in mind is that the parent probably only has part of the story. "I continue to be surprised by parents who believe the words of their children are gospel. They often react and respond without all of the details. So I need to listen, and then I need to find out as much as possible before I react or make any decisions."
Like Messick, principal Nina Newlin tries to remember that the parent has only heard one side of the story and is reacting, through love and concern, to that side. "Keeping those things in mind keeps me calmer, because I am less likely to take any vituperative remarks personally."
Newlin, principal at Rock Hall (Maryland) Middle School, also tries to remember that the parent is coming in out of love and concern for their child. "Many parents are like I am as a parent," Newlin told Education World. "I will forgive just about anything you do to me, but don't mess with my kids."
Jack Noles tries to see everything the parent brings to the table through the lens of the student. "I find it is very difficult to become overly upset or emotional when I focus on the child, not the parent," said Noles.
"I just tell myself never to take a parent's upset personally," echoed Marguerite McNeely. "That helps me remain calm, professional, and consistent."
Bonita Henderson is another school leader who tries to put herself in the parent's shoes. "Mostly, they just want to know that their concerns are heard and that you feel their passion for their child," said Henderson, who is an assistant principal at the Parham School in Cincinnati. "If you can relate to parents that their child is number one with you too, and that you understand their concern for their child, the parent usually calms down and you can have a conversation."
The one thing that Henderson will not stand for is verbal abuse of any kind. If a parent turns abusive, Henderson remains polite but ends the meeting. She tells the parent they can continue the conversation when the parent has better control. "No one deserves abuse, not even a servant of the public," added Henderson.
Lee Yeager, principal at S&S Middle School in Sadler, Texas, is always willing to listen to a parent. "If the parent is willing to explain the problem to me, I try to be as open and understanding as possible," said Yeager. "But if they refuse to calm down, or if they use profanity, I calmly explain that we will have to have the conversation at another time. I will not allow the parent to verbally abuse me or a staff member."
KathiSue Summers tries to encourage parents to talk calmly, but she also tries to turn a deaf ear when the parent edges toward being abusive. "I make sure the parents understand that I am there to listen to the message -- not the inappropriate language and angry outbursts."
Sometimes, by assuring parents that you are there to listen to their unedited thoughts, a principal can actually help calm down an angry parent.
When a parent is clearly heated up, some principals have found that it can help to give that parent a little space.
Marguerite McNeely has never had to call in the law to gain control of an angry parent, but she always has a couple strategies in mind for handling difficult situations. For example, if a parent is extremely agitated, "I might simply inform them that I am going to take a walk around the school so they can get control of their thoughts, and that we will continue the conversation when I return," she explained.
Giving an angry parent a little space sometimes helps to diffuse the situation, she added.
Jack Noles tries to get the gist of a parent's complaints at the start of conversation. "If it looks like the conversation might run long, I offer to get the parent something to drink. Leaving them alone for a few minutes often helps calm them down. When I return, they are almost always more receptive to what I might have to say."
Principal Shari Farris has worked hard to build a school community that focuses on the positive. "I find that if I have established a relationship and built a community with families that is consistently focused on positive school news and child celebrations that parents and community members then feel like partners with the school," explained Farris, principal assistant at Regal Elementary School in Spokane, Washington.
A school community built on such a positive foundation helps Farris deal with the difficult issues that arise from time to time. "When I have to deliver difficult information to a parent, we have already established a healthy relationship. They know that I value them as a partner and a valuable member of our school community."
Creating such a strong community "takes some additional time and effort, but it is truly a case of an ounce of prevention being worth gold," added Farris.
William Winsor School is another school where creating a positive atmosphere helps teachers deal with an occasional upset parent. "Positive, frequent, and ongoing communication between parents and teachers is vital to our success," said principal Bridget Morisseau. "That communication has fostered very strong relationships between the staff and families."
Morisseau often includes advice, communications strategies, and reminders of communication expectations in her weekly Staff Notes bulletin. Her back-to-school bulletin includes an entire section in which she outlines her communication expectations, including
"I feel strongly that the culture of a school community largely determines the frequency with which its principal must deal with angry parents," said Morisseau. "Is the school community one that cultivates respect for differences? Fosters and promotes dialogue between home and school? Creates an overall sense of warmth, kindness, and high expectations for learning and behavior?
"Preventative, common-sense measures that create a strong sense of community ensure that the number of angry parents I see is minimal."
Even in the strongest of school communities, disagreements or difficult situations can arise. When that happens, Addie Gaines listens to a parent's complaints -- without interrupting. In the end, I hope to be able to propose a logical solution, and a parent must be calm before a logical approach will work.
When the parent finishes venting, Gaines tries to stick to the facts. "I'm very careful not to say anything that inflames the situation," said Gaines. "Instead, I focus on the fact that we all want what is best for the child."
If the conversation stays tuned into what is best for the child, "I am usually able to empathize with the parents' frustrations but lead them to a reasonable and logical solution," said Gaines.
Gaines always tries to offer alternatives, so the parent has some control over the situation and so there is a sense of shared decision making. "I also calmly and politely stick to my guns as necessary," added Gaines. "For instance, if there is a bus problem, the number one consideration is the safety of all riders. In that situation, I will not back down on consequences no matter how mad a parent might be. When I mention safety, it is difficult for a parent to continue to argue, because no one logically would say It is okay for my child to endanger the safety of everyone else on the bus.
"I have found that Love and Logic types of techniques -- including using empathy and offering choices -- work with people of all ages, not just children."
When Bridget Morisseau finds herself confronted by an angry parent, she listens. Then she listens some more. Then she asks questions and listens some more.
"Experience has taught me that it doesn't pay to become defensive when a parent is sharply critical of my leadership, a decision I have made, or a colleague," said Morisseau. Instead, she asks questions such as What do you think we should do to solve this problem? or How can I help you find a way to make this work for you/your child? By asking questions, the angry parent often proposes a very workable solution.
But what if Morisseau's tactics dont work? What if the parent is still on a tirade?
"Sometimes, out-of-control parents expect me to continue down the path to disagreement and contention," she said. "Instead I will state' 'Thank you for making me aware of the situation and your concern.' That final statement, as simple as it sounds, usually brings finality to an endless litany of complaints and ranting dialogue."
Marguerite McNeely is another principal who tries to use questioning techniques to solve problems. After she listens to a parent's complaints, she often poses a question such as What do you want from the matter? "If their suggestions are something I can do that is fair and follows our rules, then I attempt to settle them down. If they offer something I cannot do or do not feel is in the best interest of the school, I tell them so. And I tell them why.
"Maybe I am lucky, but this direct approach seems to work for me."
When it comes to parents with complaints or concerns about a teacher, principal Karen Mink makes it a policy not to talk about a teacher with a parent if the parent has not already spoken to the teacher. "If they have not spoken to the teacher, I ask them to come back when the three of us -- the parent, the teacher, and I -- can sit down to talk together."
Mink uses that same approach when a parent has a complaint about another student or another parent. "I want to be the last resort, not the first face they see," said Mink.
Other principals prefer to run interference for their teachers. "If a parent is upset about a teacher or about a student-to-student situation, I like letting the parent unload on me before talking to the teacher," Nina Newlin told Education World. "That way, I can prepare the teacher, which usually makes the parent-teacher conversation more productive.
"Doing that gives me an opportunity to remind the teacher that the parent is just trying to do the best he or she can do for his or her child, and I can encourage the teacher to hear the parent all the way through without becoming defensive. If at all possible, I like to be in with the teacher to mediate.
"Sometimes all it takes to diffuse a situation is to have the teacher (or the principal) acknowledge some responsibility for the situation and demonstrate willingness to compromise or work together for a solution."
In truly difficult or inflammatory situations, it might even be a good idea to have another person or two in the room with you, added Newlin. "That person should be, preferably, a person who can see both sides of an issue and remain calm," she recommended. "When you are feeling beleaguered, this person can refocus the conversation on finding a solution, rather than shifting blame. A guidance counselor is a good person for this role, because they know about mediating conflicts and may have valuable knowledge to contribute to the situation."
At Berryhill Elementary School in Milton, Florida, principal Terry Neustaedter follows the same venting-then-clarifying approach that many other principals use when approached by an angry parent. If a parent has not addressed the issue with the teacher, Neustaedter recommends that they schedule a mutually acceptable time when everyone can sit down together.
"A wise person once told me that when two people disagree, it works best if both sides feel they have taken something away from the table," said Neustaedter. "It doesnt always work like that because sometimes you have to draw the line.
"The worst thing you can do is be wishy-washy. Even if everyone doesn't agree with the final results, hopefully they understand you are not making a decision capriciously."
A well-trained office staff can be an excellent line of defense when it comes to handling complaints from parents or the community. "I am fortunate to have a wonderful secretary who is often able to diffuse situations before they get to me or a teacher," said Addie Gaines. "She is a good listener and, oftentimes, upset people simply want to be heard. She is also well-versed in our policies and procedures and can explain things to parents, so oftentimes the problem is solved without involving anyone else.
"If she is not able to solve the problem, she uses our chain of command and refers the now calmer person to the appropriate person."
Principal Terry Neustaedter says his office staff is very capable too. "They present a warm, welcoming attitude to the public," he said. "They understand the concept of a favorable first impression. They are very good at diffusing parents who are upset."
If a caller is abusive, Neustaedter added, "I tell them to call me, our assistant principal, or the school resource officer. They don't have to put up with that."
When Les Potter hires new office staff at Silver Sands Middle School, "we always look for caring and calming secretaries, because any of our secretaries could pick up a call from, or be greeted by, an upset parent. We work with them on this aspect of their jobs, and our district provides staff development and workshops on this topic."
When a parent is upset, most principals agree that the key to solving the problem is to make the parents concern a priority and provide a quick response.
One thing I have learned is not to put off these conversations for long, Nina Newlin told Education World. If a secretary passes along a call from an upset parent, Newlin might take a little time to try to get more information, but, "While it makes sense to take a little bit of time to figure out why the angry parent is trying to get in touch with you, delaying a response might just make the parent angrier and more likely to take his complaint straight to the board office."
Marguerite McNeely agrees. "Angry people need to be addressed immediately. I feel I am the one who should handle the sticky affairs, so my office staff and teachers have been instructed to refer them to me. If I am not available, they should take a name and number so I can call them to schedule a meeting."
Tony Pallija, principal at North Canton (Ohio) Hoover High School, investigates concerns as soon as possible after he learns of them. "I try to follow the 24-hour rule," said Pallija. "I always give the parent a time frame and make sure I call them back or give them a time to call me. A call back in 24 hours, or another meeting to work out the problem within that same time frame, is best."
Members of our "Principal Files" team offered the following suggestions for resources that have helped them get a handle on handling upset parents.
"Todd Whitaker and Doug Fiore wrote a book, Dealing With Difficult Parents (Eye on Education), that I feel is a very useful tool," said principal Les Potter.
Terry Neustaedter agrees. Dealing With Difficult Parents is very practical. "We used the book as a community learning tool with our teachers and staff. We were able to share successful experiences."
At Providence Day School, teachers make a conscious effort to keep up to date on generational parenting issues. The entire staff recently read Understanding Independent School Parents (National Association of Independent Schools). "It was a quick read and it inspired wonderful dialogue at some grade levels and among our faculty overall," said Tim Messick.
Addie Gaines recommends an article she found online. Conferences Concerning Angry Children includes many thoughts and tips that are helpful in dealing with all difficult situations.
Dealing With Difficult Parents
In Dealing With Difficult Parents, Doug Fiore and Todd Whitaker offer strategies and techniques that make it easier to deal with seemingly difficult parents and with the difficult situations in which they find themselves. Included: Information on school design and learning.