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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: Suggestions for coping with "challenging" parents.

We've all run into them. They're the parents every educator dreads -- the difficult parents. They might be the parents who always run to the defense of their "perfect" children -- even though their children might be as guilty as sin. Others simply get pleasure from making waves. Or maybe they have a legitimate axe to grind.

Dealing With Difficult Parents (And With Parents in Difficult Situations) (Eye on Education, 2001) is written by Todd Whitaker and Douglas J. Fiore (see bio at the end of this article). The text offers a repertoire of tools and skills that teachers, principals, superintendents, and all educators can use for comfortable and effective interaction with parents. It includes advice for dealing with the parent who is bossy, volatile, argumentative, aggressive, or maybe the worst -- apathetic. It provides specific phrases to use with parents and helps you avoid using "trigger" words that can unintentionally make matters worse. It will show you how to deliver bad news to good parents, how to build positive credibility with all types of parents, and how to foster the kind of parent involvement that leads to student success.

Whether we think they are justified or not, it is important for educators to treat difficult parents with the same respect as they treat any other parent in any other situation. That means keeping emotions in check, choosing words carefully, looking them in the eye, and being friendly and direct. "By understanding how to effectively deal with parentswe can turn negative situations into very positive ones," writes Douglas Fiore in Dealing With Difficult Parents (And With Parents in Difficult Situations).

It is important to remember that, while parents might be different than we think they ought to be, they are not necessarily wrong. "But since they are different, dealing with them, in many cases, requires understandings and strategies that are different than what we might otherwise expect," said Fiore.

"The first step is to understand parents. It is only after we make an honest effort in this regard that we can really hope to employ practices to effectively deal with them," Fiore added.

In Dealing With Difficult Parents (And With Parents in Difficult Situations), Fiore and co-author Todd Whitaker offer suggestions for coping with "challenging" parents and the issues they present.

Education World: If a teacher is at the end of his rope with a student, you offer one piece of advice: While most teachers would send the student to the principal's office, your advice is to meet the parents. What would that accomplish?

Douglas Fiore: While that response is partly tongue in cheek, the reality is that many of us need to heed Covey's advice and "Seek first to understand then to be understood." Oftentimes, a challenging student comes by his or her problems naturally. Meeting the parents helps us to understand where the child comes from. Ultimately, this can lead to greater understanding and a stronger willingness to work at helping the student.

EW: Your cardinal rules for dealing with difficult parents include never argue and never hang up

Fiore: Never argue, yell, use sarcasm, or behave unprofessionally with a parent. And, we do mean never. There are several reasons for this. Perhaps the most important reason is because difficult parents have more practice arguing and yelling than we do. Educators are nice people. We spend most of our time harmoniously, trying hard to be positive influences in people's lives. Oftentimes, a parent who comes to school to argue with the principal or a teacher already has had multiple arguments before they even get to school. They argue all the time, and they have become quite good at it. Why in the world would we want to argue with somebody who has had more practice at it than we have? Equally important, we must remember that we are role models. It is up to us to show the most difficult parents a better way to communicate.


EW: You offer suggestions in Dealing With Difficult Parents for developing trust between the school and parents. You even suggest that principals make a special point of providing their home phone number when speaking to parents gathered on open house night. A principal providing her home phone number! Are you nuts?

Fiore: Experience has shown us over and over again that providing parents with your home phone number does not increase phone calls to your home. Let's face it, if a parent wants to contact you at home, they will often find a way to do so. Providing parents with your phone number is a tremendous way to demonstrate that you care and that you want to be accessible. For most parents, that will be the clear implication when you give out your phone number. In reality, the opposite reaction from what you'd expect usually occurs. Parents don't call you at home because they assume that you already get lots of calls at home. They recognize how much you care, and they are often more willing to wait and talk to you at school.

"It's always a good idea to have a system for sending students to the office so that good news can be shared," says principal and author Douglas Fiore. "Calling a parent with positive news is a great idea."

EW: Many schools have set up a referral form/system for teachers to use when they must send a student to the office for discipline. You suggest taking that same idea and creating a form for making positive referrals.

Fiore: The only way for principals to positively impact students' lives is to share in positive moments with them. Students need to see that principals are caring individuals whose primary concern is student learning. It's always a good idea to have a system for sending students to the office so that good news can be shared. That helps the student see the principal in a positive light, it helps the principal have enjoyable interactions with students, and it sets the stage for the times in which students must be sent to the office for negative things. This is particularly helpful if the parent is involved. Calling a parent with positive news is a great idea. That is particularly true if you need to call that parent later with some negative news. People believe you are fair when you share in positive events as well as negative events.


EW: When parents show up at school, one of the first things they see is a great big red sign that reads something like STOP! All visitors must sign in at the office before proceeding further. In your book, you offer some ideas for presenting that same message in a little less threatening -- a little more inviting -- way...

Fiore: Which of these messages sounds better -- "All visitors must report to the office" or "Welcome to our school. We are so glad to have you here. We do require all visitors to sign in at the office before proceeding to other areas of the school"? Clearly, if we want people to feel welcome, we need to greet them in a friendly, welcoming manner. Good people will report to the office no matter how the greeting is worded. Some other folks will not report to the office, no matter how the greeting is worded. Therefore, it only makes sense to greet people in as friendly a manner as we possibly can. We get the same results, but when we are friendly we tend to get friendlier responses.

EW: Many teachers are intimidated by angry parents. They get unnerved. What advice might you give to teachers to help them calm their nerves in a situation like that?

Fiore: By nature, most educators are kind, warm, and gentle people. It is easy for us to become unnerved and to get quite nervous when confronted by an angry parent. While it's difficult to change our personalities and to learn to be less intimidated, there are some things we can do to make our nervousness less obvious. In the book, one of the suggestions we make is for teachers to maintain strong eye contact with angry or aggressive parents. This is somewhat counterintuitive; our impulse might be to look away when we are feeling uncomfortable. However, we must remember that looking away is exactly what the angry person wants us to do.

As an illustration, consider the typical playground bully. Bullies ordinarily expect us to back down, bow our heads, and shake when they confront us. On the playground, we see children exhibit this behavior from time to time. Well, one of the best ways for combating this type of bullying is to look the bully squarely in the eye. We're not implying that this look should be an intimidating one. Rather, simply maintain eye contact, and do not look away. When dealing with an angry parent, such a look will ordinarily cause the parent to back down slightly. Now, it likely will not cause them to be completely disarmed. Such a hope would be irrational. However, the edge is taken off when somebody maintains eye contact with you. Let's face it. It is difficult to bully somebody when they are looking right at you.

EW: Open house night is a school staple. But, you say, most open house nights are contrived, ritualistic events that leave very little time for real and positive parent-teacher interaction. Have you any thoughts about ways in which schools might present events that enable real communication between teachers and parents?

Fiore: First, there is nothing wrong with the traditional, somewhat contrived open house format, provided other opportunities for dialogue occur. If, however, the open house is the only time for parents and teachers to come together, then it is a real mistake to make that evening one that is characterized by one-way, teacher-to-parent communication. Many schools that enjoy great relationships and rapport between parents and teachers report that there are a few evenings each year set aside for question/answer sessions. These sessions can be focused on specific topics (assessment, for example), or they can be open ended. What's important is that parents feel like there are opportunities for them to be heard.

This e-interview with Doug Fiore is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


About Douglas Fiore

Dr. Douglas Fiore is principal of South Anna Elementary School in Hanover County, Virginia. Prior to serving at South Anna, he was assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Fiore has worked as a teacher, principal, and in higher education in Indiana, Georgia, and Virginia. He received his doctorate from Indiana State University and has enjoyed assisting other educators in their quest for graduate degrees in school leadership.

Dr. Fiore's books include Creating Connections for Better Schools: How Leaders Enhance School Culture; School Community Relations; Introduction to Educational Administration: Standards, Theories, and Practice; and Dealing With Difficult Parents: And With Parents in Difficult Situations (with Todd Whitaker). Dr. Fiore and Dr. Whitaker have co-authored a new book, 6 Types of Teachers: Recruiting, Retaining, and Mentoring the Best (release date: September 15, 2004). Dr. Fiore has also authored more than a dozen articles in educational publications.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 08/26/2004
Last updated 08/25/2009