How to Dialogue with Parents to Get Engagement

As an educator, you spend a great deal of the day with your students. You get to know them, their personalities, and their typical behaviors. So, when you’ve noticed that one of your students is exhibiting a pattern of behaviors and emotions that may be a mental health issue and something beyond the occasional inability to sit still or day dreaming episode, you want to let his or her parents know. But what’s the most compassionate and effective way to bring up such a sensitive topic?

With the stigma that still surrounds mental health, parents may be resistant to the information you’re bringing to the conversation. Parents may misunderstand what you are trying to say or may feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. You are an important advocate for your student and you can open the door to the conversations that need to happen to begin to help your student access the resources and service he or she needs.

With that in mind, here are some helpful suggestions for working with your student’s parents depending on what their attitude towards their child’s needs may be.

Empathy

Whatever the parents’ reaction may be, your goal is to communicate what you’ve observed to your student’s parents in an empathic manner. Empathy is key to any conversation but especially in conversations that involve sensitive subject matter. Empathy is the ability to understand how the other person is thinking and feeling (even if you don’t agree with them). Empathy is not arguing or convincing the other person that you are right. Instead, it is seeking to understand the other person’s perspective so that you can find common ground to work together. To better help understand them, we encourage you to check the materials in the “What parents experience” section.

As you speak with your student’s parents, try to understand their perspective on the issue. Are they relieved to know you noticed the same things in their child? Are they in denial? Are they completely overwhelmed at the thought? Knowing how they feel about it will help you craft your discussion with the parents so that you can create an effective working relationship with them. Remember, that no matter how you communicate your observations to the family, you are simply letting them know what you have observed and what you think the next steps are. You are not providing a diagnosis or a treatment plan. Instead, you are playing a critical role in helping the child access the resources they need to be successful in school and in life.

When the parents are on board and eager for the school to help, you are their ally.

In this scenario, your student’s parents are likely relieved to have an explanation for their child’s symptoms whether it’s anxiety, depression, etc. Your role is to simply communicate what you’ve observed to the parents and to let them know that you are there to support any modifications that need to be made to your student’s day. For example, “I’ve noticed that [child’s name] has been crying a lot lately and has been missing some homework assignments. I’m wondering if they’re going through a tough time. Have you noticed anything at home?” In this example, you’ve shared what you’ve observed and asked for their perspective to encourage collaboration.

You are an important ally to the parents and an advocate for their child. When parents are on board and eager to collaborate, it will be important to keep the lines of communication open. Regular communication with parents will help keep the collaborative relationship strong. The parents know how their child is doing at home and you know how their child is doing at school. Combining this information to provide to the child’s treatment team will give a richer picture of what your student is experiencing which will, in turn, help create a more effective treatment plan.

Work with the parents to identify how often they’d like to hear from you, what information would be most helpful, and how they’d like to be communicated with. For example, some parents may want daily, written communication while others may want weekly check-ins by phone.

When parents are in denial that their child may need help, you are the child’s advocate.

Sometimes, though, parents will not be receptive to the idea that their child may need treatment for the behaviors they are exhibiting. Some diagnoses, like Autism, carry a stronger stigma and parents may find it difficult to accept that their child may have a mental illness diagnosis. In this case, empathy is going to be extremely important. When you meet with parents who are in denial, be mindful of the fact that you are going to be communicating information that will be difficult for them to hear. You are going to be telling them information that they may not be ready to hear or that they don’t want to hear. You may be met with resistance or you may be told that you’re wrong.

If this is the case, it’s important to create a gentle tone in the conversation. In a simple but sensitive manner, let the parents know what you’ve observed. For example, “Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that [child’s name] has been feeling lonely and seems to have some trouble making friends and expressing their feelings. I was wondering if you’ve observed the same thing at home.” Let them respond. Once you heard them, you may suggest this at some point in the conversation: “Often, children who need a little extra help when it comes to friends can benefit from speaking to a professional. Our counselors can help you discuss that step or help you find one if you’d like.” Even if the parents refuse to act on the information you’ve given them, you made them aware of your observations so that, when they are ready, they can use your observations to help their child.

When parents are not in denial but are feeling very overwhelmed, you are there to empower.

In some situations, parents may be open to hearing your observations but feel overwhelmed by the possibility that their child may need professional help and the changes this could bring to their family life. Stop for a minute and consider how a mental health diagnosis could affect a family. The family may need to rearrange their schedule to accommodate treatment appointments and they may even need to rework their own interactions as a family to better help their child. For example, a child that has been diagnosed with Autism will likely need to meet regularly with a therapist to learn social skills, will benefit from a consistent schedule, and may be sensitive to too much stimuli in the their environment. Parents will have to modify their lives to better accommodate their child’s needs.

Knowing this, your role as their child’s educator is to empower them to take action and to let them know that you are there to support their efforts. For example, you may say, “I know this is a lot of information and you’re probably feeling overwhelmed but I’m here to help in any way I can. The good news is that there are many resources available to help you navigate this.” Simply knowing that they are not alone in trying to help their child, makes a significant difference to overwhelmed parents. Let them know that you are open to communicating with them, open to utilizing recommendations made by the student’s treatment team, and open to lending an empathic ear when they need to vent.

When you are able to form an effective working relationship with your student’s parents, it can be the beginning of a rewarding experience. As the child’s educator, you play an important role in implementing treatment recommendations for a significant part of the child’s day. Having a collaborative relationship with the student’s parents creates the team your student needs to get the help they need.