How Special Educators Can Validate Parents
Validating emotions is something we as educators teach our students every day. We model caring, compassion and empathy in our relationships among our students, but what about with adults? How are we doing when it comes to talking with care, compassion and empathy towards our students’ parents or guardians? Do we approach them with the same kindness and understanding we preach in the classroom?
Many of us may be nervous, scared, or downright terrified by our students’ parents. But the truth is, the solution to productively working with parents comes from validating their feelings and acknowledging their concerns. Validating feelings is a crucial part of effectively connecting with parents.
Here are six strategies to get you started.
1. Be present.
Being present means living in the moment. Contrary to popular belief, humans are not all suited for multi-tasking. When it comes to parents, they want to see you being aware of what is going on in the here and now, not daydreaming about what you will be doing later. It means being an active listener to their thoughts, feelings and ideas. This includes making eye contact and acknowledging what is paining them. When a parent is speaking to you, avoid being distracted by other activities. Acknowledge when times are not optimal and suggest holding a meeting so you can give them your undivided attention.
2. Mind read.
OK, not really. But you will want to do your best to guess what the parent is thinking. As you listened to the parent divulge what is paining them, what nonverbal cues were they giving you? Were their arms crossed defensively? Did they seem downtrodden and hopeless? These nonverbal cues will help you understand where the parent is coming from and may indicate what they need or expect from you. Try to read between the lines.
After a parent shares their concerns with you, take a minute to digest it. Internalize what they have said and appreciate their willingness to share their thoughts with you. Once you have had a chance to digest, summarize what you have heard with the parent. Explain what you have heard in a non-judgmental tone. By reiterating what you heard back to them, you are giving your student’s parent a chance to catch any misunderstandings and explain what they really meant. When reflecting, it is OK to interject feelings. For example, one might say to a parent, “You seem frustrated (or hurt, or upset) by…” Placing an emotion on the situation will give the parent another chance to express what they are feeling. Be careful and use extreme tact when reflecting. A well-meaning reflection can quickly turn sour if a parent thinks you are patronizing them.
4. Use history.
Ever heard that history repeats itself? Well, that adage pertains here as well. When it comes to parents, they typically have pain points that remain relatively consistent. Use this knowledge to your advantage! For example, do you have a parent who hates it when you forget to write in their student’s home school communication book? Use that knowledge to make sure that you write in the book consistently every day. If you want to avoid being confronted by parents, avoid the situations that preempt a confrontation. Think about it this way. When working with students with behaviors, you first acknowledge what the function is before you implement an intervention, right? Use the same strategy with parents, and you will be golden!
5. Recognize feelings.
Here is the time in the conversation to recognize and acknowledge the parent’s feelings. In step #2 you mind read, or guessed, what the parent could be feeling. In step #3, you confirmed what they were feeling. Here in step #5, you will recognize and place an understanding on the feelings. This is where you help put a parent’s mind at ease by expressing to them that it is OK to feel a certain way. For example, if you have a parent who is anxious the first day of school because it was a disaster last year, you may acknowledge this by saying, “of course you would be anxious given the situation last year…” Recognizing and verbalizing a parent’s feelings can be the most emotional part of validation. For some parents, it may be the first time they were ever “heard.”
6. Be genuine.
OK, no snake oil salesmen here. A parent will see through you like water. If you are not willing to be complete and genuine when treading around parent’s feelings, you are not going to get anywhere. Going back to step #1, if they feel as though you don’t care or are distracted, they will not feel validated, and may end up resenting you and your vapid attempts at caring. Remember, they are placing their child into your hands for 7 hours a day.
Parents can be tough. They can be demanding, absent, or overly needy. Remember, each parent behaves in a certain way due to their history. Validating parents’ feelings can be one of the easiest ways to build trust and rapport. That trust and rapport will be the foundation for a great school year.
Now go on and do good things!
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