Five tips for communicating with parents in challenging times

How can school leaders communicate to build parental trust in difficult circumstances? Karen Dempster and Justin Robbins offer tips to try and a template to plan communications

Author details

Karen co-founded Fit2Communicate in 2014 and is passionate about good communication. She is a highly experienced communication expert (and Fellow of the Institute of Internal Communications) and passionate about making a difference for future...

Justin co-founded Fit2Communicate in 2014 and is passionate about good communication. He is a highly experienced communication expert (and Fellow of the Institute of Internal Communications) and passionate about making a difference for future...

In the current climate, where schools are taking tentative steps to adapt to a post Covid world, maintaining parents’ trust is critical. But sometimes, when the pressure of school life takes over, it can be challenging.

Here are five tips you can try right now.

Tip 1. Communicate regularly as one team

The Covid story is unpredictable. Stay connected as a school team to ensure everyone is speaking as one. This starts with the SLT agreeing messaging and sharing this with self-awareness and empathy.

School communities need strong leaders who communicate clearly and regularly, providing a sense of security and routine that has potentially been lost during the chaos.

Create a frequently asked questions document, managed by one person, that can evolve over time with ‘one version of truth’.

With your agreed messaging, set a planned regular communication approach. Consider which of your usual communication channels, or any new ideas you have for the virtual world, will help you to provide information parents need on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

It’s not enough to simply shift face-to-face activities online. Consider what outcome you want to achieve and think creatively about the best way to achieve that with what is now available.

Appoint one person to coordinate all messages so parents receive a consistent story, delivered in a clear way and aren’t bombarded with multiple messages. This will ensure they receive messages and take appropriate action.

Consider a traffic light approach for your school team, so they understand what they should do with, for example, urgent and important messages. Critically, make sure your communication is two-way so parents can feed back, and you can demonstrate you are listening.

Tip 2. Listen to and reassure your parent community

When parents feel a sense of belonging and are valued as part of a school community, they feel safer and want to support the school. This is particularly important when building trusted relationships at the moments that matter, including during a pandemic.

How the school team acts, the language they use, and their mood will be under scrutiny as people look to them. They need to be supported during this time through their experience every day so they can stay resilient and support parents and students.

Leaders need to demonstrate the behaviours that others follow, starting with listening. Clearly, it’s easier to role model these behaviours in person but it is also possible using the power of technology.

Create opportunities for parents to share their concerns in open forums such as:

  • virtual coffee with the headteacher
  • ask questions on your Facebook page
  • through a network of ‘friendly’ parents who others will listen to.

Find ways to have fun as a community, such as quizzes or themed online events, wherever appropriate. Encourage school leaders and teachers to be human and share their own fears and concerns with parents too, while helping them to move forwards to support their children with positivity.

Whatever you choose, make sure it is inclusive as some parents may not have the technology or opportunity to join online events. Short surveys allow everyone an opportunity to have their say and may be more practical in reaching more people despite being less personal.

Create a frequently asked questions document, managed by one person, that can evolve over time with ‘one version of truth’.

Tip 3. Understand how uncertainty impacts communication

When we experience uncertainty or change, it affects how we communicate. We may be more emotional, less patient and verbally lash out at others. Some reactions may seem irrational and unrelated to the actual situation.

Covid-19 has heightened parents’ anxiety. Your school team will experience this at the sharp end.

Understanding and anticipating how different personalities respond to uncertainty can avoid people taking ‘feedback’ too personally.

We use a personality profiling tool with schools, to help them to understand how parents will react to change and build better trusted relationships as a result. There are four common personalities.

Personality 1: direct and as​sertive (even aggressive)

They say what they want, expect immediate responses and appear very impatient. When your school team spot these characteristics, they need to be receptive and listen to the parents, get to the point quickly and be brief in their approach. They will benefit from offering suggestions and hints rather than directly taking control.

Personality 2: calm and friendly

They talk openly around the concern but do not directly tackle it. They conceal their true feelings and only react when they feel challenged personally.

With these people, it’s important to be optimistic and positive. Have an open and friendly conversation and be ready for them to share their perspective.

Personality 3: reflective and thoughtful

They avoid conflict and worry about offending or upsetting others. Their drive is to find a compromise without harming relationships.

Be patient, gentle and reassuring with these parents, giving them time to reach decisions. Make it clear that you value them and offer to help.

Personality 4: reflective and questi​oning

They appear to be efficient, rational and ask questions to explore all options. They ask for evidence and avoid conflict. Provide them with the detail they need and ensure your approach is logical and thorough. Give them clear and specific examples and work with them towards a potential solution.

Of course, your school team is approached by a diverse group of parents every day. It’s not always possible to flex in the moment to everyone. But it will definitely help to keep these principles in mind for better relationships with parents, particularly when preparing for difficult conversations.

Tip 4. Plan for challenging parent conversations

When parents are anxious about their children’s futures, there will be inevitably be difficult conversations to be had. Keeping in mind the different personality types above will help to plan for difficult conversations. Even if the conversation is virtual, the principles are the same.

Put the date in your diary
It’s easy to put off a difficult conversation for another day. Let’s face it – no one likes conflict. However, doing so is likely to make matters worse. Put a date in your diary (even if privately) to have the conversation.

Do your homework
Gather facts and evidence before you start. Who do you need to speak with to gather background information? Consider their personality type as described above.

Structure your conversation with the GROW model

GOALS: What would you like us to achieve for your child?
REALITY: What is the current situation with your child?
OPTIONS: What could we do together to achieve your goals?
WILL: What will you do and what will school do?

Keep a positive mindset
Regardless of the parent(s) you’re preparing to speak with, keep in mind they will probably forget what you said to them but will remember how you made them feel. Consider how you can create a positive experience, regardless of the message.

Confirm and follow up
When emotions are involved, facts can be confused. Confirm with the parent what you agreed in your meeting and give them the opportunity to ask any further questions. Follow up agreed actions.

Covid-19 has heightened parents’ anxiety. Your school team will experience this at the sharp end

5. Have a plan to move into the future

It’s easy to get stuck in the here and now when crisis hits. But you can’t stay in crisis mode forever. It’s exhausting and the school community needs light at the end of the tunnel to move forward.

Consider what you have learned during Covid-19 in building trusted relationships with parents.

  • What do you want to stop, start, and continue as a result?
  • What relationship would you like with parents in the future and why?
  • What student outcomes can be supported through these parent relationships?

Develop short, medium, and long terms plans with clear goals and actions that help you to move forward so you are in an even stronger position for the future.

This is an incredibly demanding time for schools. By taking simple steps to plan and manage communication, you can reduce pressure on your school team while building trusted relationships with parents so students can be at their best.

Take a step back, breathe and give someone in your team the responsibility (and support) to be your parent communication expert. Keep listening, with an open mind, and take action to adapt and improve. These are unchartered days that require new ways of communicating.

For more school communication templates, visit fit2communicate.

Last Updated: 
23 Nov 2020