Calming the Waters When Parents Are Angry
By Ronald Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn
Every principal has dealt with unhappy or even angry parents or guardians. It’s a fact of life for leaders. If you’re lucky, the parent will schedule an appointment with you. But it’s just as likely they will show up unannounced and want to meet.
For the past thirty years we’ve worked in schools of all sizes and in all types of communities. Ron also teaches in one of the largest principal preparation programs in the country. We use those opportunities to talk with school leaders, to listen to the challenges they face, and to learn from them about how they approach issues like unhappy parents.
The advice we provide in this article incorporates the perspectives of these principals and the practical strategies they’ve found useful in turning contentious or tumultuous meetings into productive experiences.
Perspectives on the Issue
Not every parent who’s upset or angry has ulterior motives. Many simply have a concern and want to share it with someone who they believe can resolve the problem. Perhaps the most critical observation that principals report again and again is that “there are all kinds of parents.” Parents who are upset should not be immediately labeled as difficult or resistant to school policies.
Often parents simply seek more information about a recent decision or an event. Sometimes there is a conflict between their personal beliefs and values and what they believe happened. Almost always their motives are anchored in concern for their student(s), not outright hostility to the school or its personnel.
While there’s evidence that some people get angry just to get angry, most don’t. They are genuinely concerned about some policy or some occurrence. They either don’t have sufficient information, or the information they have doesn’t provide a complete picture of what happened. Sometimes they may have a valid concern that needs to be addressed – it’s their approach that’s off-base.
Leaders need to recognize these diverse feelings and concerns when working with any parent who is unhappy or angry.
What a Leader Can Do
Fortunately there are things you can do to turn a contentious meeting into one that is far more productive. Here are eight steps principals find helpful when managing challenging or upset parents.
Listen, Listen and Listen Some More – Often the unhappy parent wants you to listen, to allow them to describe the problem and to share their feelings about what happened. Your first response should be to meet in a private space, perhaps your office or another conference area. Provide privacy but be prepared to listen.
Demonstrate your genuine concern for the problem they’re describing. Taking notes will demonstrate that you take the problem seriously and help to validate their concerns. Most of all be empathetic to the parents’ concern. Statements like “I’m sorry this happened” or “I’m sorry you feel that we made a wrong decision” will help assure the parent that you’re listening to their concern.
Stay Calm and Be Professional – Regardless of the tone or tenor of the conversation, regardless of any accusations that may be made, it is important for the leader to model the behaviors you want. That means remaining calm and not responding to inflammatory comments. Avoid sarcasm and educational jargon.
Use nonverbal cues that show you’re engaged. For example, use affirmative nods, keep your hands open rather than closed, face the speaker, maintain eye contact or use a barrier-free space like around a table or adjacent chairs rather than sitting behind a desk.
Ask Clarifying Questions – Demonstrate concern by asking questions that help clarify the issue. Ask open-ended questions that invite further conversation. Some prompts might include “Tell me more,” or “I think you’re saying…” or “So, you would like . . .” Perhaps asking “is there anything else that I need to know” will provide more detail. These questions provide an opportunity to reflect and clarify.
Dig Deeper – Always take a close look at the concern and what might be causing it. It may be because of factors outside of school, or unhappiness with a teacher or coach. Use follow-up questions as an opportunity to learn more about the problem and the impact on students. Use positive language and avoid accusatory or inflammatory language. Again, open-ended questions work best.
Avoid Taking It Personally – Understand that people get angry for many different reasons and often it has little or nothing to do with you. Being aware of this can help you avoid making an emotional reaction and acting in ways that don’t help resolve the issue. It is appropriate to set clear boundaries for any conversation or meeting. Just make them reasonable and allow yourself to modify them as the problem becomes clearer.
Again (we can’t repeat this too often), use positive language and open-ended questions to get them to talk about the issue. Several principals told us that often the parent just wanted to be listened to and to know someone took their issue seriously.
Document Everything – As with many things a principal does, be sure to document all of your conversations, your meetings and suggestions. This may include a summary of the problem, suggested solutions, and identified next steps.
As a final step go back over what you promised to do and, if possible, share a plan for how you will follow-up with them. After the meeting make a personal phone call or send a letter to both document next steps and to affirm that you took the concern seriously.
Don’t Panic. If Abusive, End the Conference – If the meeting becomes toxic and inappropriate behavior persists, you may have no choice but to end the meeting. But do so by letting the parent know about next steps whether it’s a meeting with your supervisor, inviting another administrator into the meeting, or simply agreeing to reconvene at another time.
One principal suggested that stepping out for a couple of minutes or offering to get the parent a cup of water. She reported that often when she returned to the room the parent had calmed.
Focus on Students
It seems so obvious to always think about students first. But we’ve found that when challenging issues arise, student interests are often an after-thought. Part of the problem is that everything that people want to do is always described as being “in the best interests of students.” Often that phrase is used to justify whatever they propose. So be clear about the motivation and always turn the conversation to students.
Effective interaction with upset or angry parents is a critical skill for school principals. While everyone has their own style and approach, it’s essential that principals incorporate strategies that will calm the waters, provide clarity about the problem, and open the way to a solution.
The Counseling Teacher (2017). 7 Simple Ways to Calm an Angry Parent and Improve Parent Communication. Retrieved from The Confident Counselor, July 17, 2019 https://confidentcounselors.com/2017/11/27/calm-angry-parent/
Hopkins, G. (2007). Dealing with Angry Parents. Retrieved from Education World, July 15, 2019 https://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin474.shtml
Ronald Williamson is a professor of leadership and counseling at Eastern Michigan University. He was a middle grades teacher, principal, and executive director of instruction in Ann Arbor, MI. He’s also served as executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE) and as president of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.
Barbara R. Blackburn was recently named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education. She is a best-selling author of 18 books including Advocacy from A to Z written with Robert Blackburn (her dad) and Ron Williamson. An internationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. She can be reached through her website. Follow her on Twitter @BarbBlackburn.