Being the Bearer of Bad News

By Rachel Reid, M.Ed

As a teacher of young children, I think one of the most difficult parts of the job is having to tell parents that their child did not have a great day. We care very much about our students, and of course, we try our hardest to keep children smiling and pleasant. Unfortunately, this is not always the way the day goes. Whether a child was injured, sad, fearful, or the cause of another child’s sadness or injury, it is not an easy task to initiate the conversation with the parents. But it is extremely important because parents are our partners in looking after the children’s best interests. Preparing ahead before starting the conversation can give you an advantage of confidence and calmness. You can anticipate parents’ reactions and have appropriate responses ready. Here are some tips for how to prepare for those dreaded conversations.

 

  • Find something positive to open with.

Make sure to start out on a positive note. Parents can be easily alarmed and might panic when they see your number appear on their phone. Teachers don’t typically call unless something is wrong. Even if you are calling to report an injury, and you want to hurry to tell what happened, you can quickly pause and mention that the child is fine now and happily playing, before getting to the point of reporting the misfortune.

  • Watch out for sweeping exaggerations.

Try not to say things like, “Bobby was crying ALL day!” or “Sherry was CONSTANTLY hurting other children today.” Most likely, your attention was grabbed more during the times when these events were occurring. You may not have even noticed when Bobby was comforted by being held by the assistant teacher, or the times when Sherry was so focused on playing with blocks that she didn’t hurt anyone for a solid 20 minutes. These are moments to hold onto for the conversations with their parents, because they will be relieved that their child’s day wasn’t ALL bad. Of course, if the day is progressing and those positive moments really aren’t showing up, it would probably be worth contacting the parents earlier, in case they want to pick up their child early or make a suggestion to help.

  • Ask questions and listen to the answers.

It’s easy for us to feel like child experts, as we are the ones with the children all day, and we know what’s developmentally appropriate for the age we work with. However, the real experts about an individual child are the child’s parents. They hold valuable information about the child’s schedules, relationships with people outside of school, experiences that have an impact on the child. Emotionally challenging days can be the most mysterious, and I like to ask parents to brainstorm with me anything at home that might have triggered the strong feelings. It’s possible that Mommy’s grandmother just passed away, and little Sadie is acting out more because Daddy brought her to school instead. Maybe a special comfort toy got misplaced. It could be a hidden sickness, like an ear infection.

  • Avoid placing blame.

Acknowledging what happened objectively will help to ease the tension of whose fault something is. Sticking to the facts can help get the important information across, and then the focus of the conversation can be shifted to the present and future- what is being done now, and what can or should be done next. This way, everybody can still be on the same team, all concerned for the child’s best interest.

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