Parent-Teacher Cooperation

How to Talk So Teachers Will Listen: Communication Strategies That Work

Disagree with the approach your child’s teacher is taking? These positive communication strategies will help you find common ground and collaborate to solve problems.

A teacher’s negative comments about a student’s performance rarely motivate the child to do better. It’s quite likely, rather, that this criticism will anger and upset the child and the child’s parents.

When this happens, how should parents communicate effectively without putting the teacher on the defensive? More broadly, how can we solve problems without others immediately disagreeing or rejecting what we have to say?

First, ask yourself these two questions:

  • In anything I say or do, what do I hope to accomplish?
  • Am I expressing my views in a way that will encourage others to listen and think about them?

Goals can be easily derailed if the words we use to communicate these goals elicit resistance rather than cooperation. I have had this experience when recommending one of my favorite strategies for nurturing self-worth, motivation, and resilience in students with ADHD: giving them opportunities at school to help others, such as reading to a younger child, assisting in the office, taking care of a class pet, or raising money for a charity. Research, and my own interventions with patients, support the positive impact of these activities.

I suggested this strategy at a school and expected everyone to enthusiastically embrace it. They did not. Several teachers argued: “Why should I reward students who are not doing their own work by having them read to younger students? That kind of reward should be reserved for students who are doing their work.” My reply — that such activities should be available for all students — did little to change their opinion.

[Read: 11 Rules for a Better Parent-Teacher Partnership]

This immediate rejection of my suggestions prompted me to reflect upon the two questions noted above and use what I call empathic communication.

Here is what that looks like.

Communication Strategy #1: Raise Objections to Avoid Rejection

First, I prepare others for what I have to say, especially when I sense they will disagree. I do this by articulating possible objections to my perspective prior to sharing my views. For instance, regarding my recommendation that kids with ADHD read to younger children or take care of a class pet, I say, “I have a suggestion that I think will help this student feel more comfortable in school and more motivated to learn. However, I’ve been told by some educators that this kind of suggestion seems as if I’m not holding kids accountable and may be rewarding their negative behavior. Please let me know if that is how you feel since that is not my intention. My goal is to reinforce responsibility in kids.”

I’ve found that this kind of preparatory statement (“I have something to say, please let me know if you agree or disagree”) serves to short-circuit an almost-automatic, negative reply. Even when others disagree with my recommendation, they are less likely to reject it and more likely to engage in a discussion about its efficacy.

Communication Strategy #2: Focus on Problem-Solving

Another technique I use involves identifying a small area of agreement, especially around one or two goals, and focusing on that rather than on the disagreements. For example, I vividly recall a teacher who believed we’d be “spoiling” a 10-year-old student with ADHD (my patient) by allowing him to read to a younger student before he had met his own school responsibilities. I realized that research showing the efficacy of this approach would not alter her opinion.

[Download: The Ultimate ADHD Toolkit for Parents and Teachers]

I used what I call a “joining” technique and asked what attributes she would like to see in this student. She quickly responded, “I want him to be more motivated and responsible in completing his work.” If I were to reply that allowing the boy to read to a younger child would surely accomplish these goals, I was certain it would only reinforce this teacher’s view that I was spoiling him.

Instead, I joined her and said, “I also want him to be more motivated and responsible. I see we have some of the same goals, but we appear to differ on the strategies to reach them.” Our mutually confrontational position was relaxed by this statement. Joining and adopting a problem-solving perspective allowed for a more open dialogue. Though this approach does not always work, I have found that it often creates a more respectful, empathic discussion. Areas of agreement need to be identified, reinforced, and joined before addressing the more challenging areas of disagreement.

Problem Solving at School: Next Steps

Robert Brooks, PH.D., is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He is the author or co-author of 19 books, including Tenacity in Children: Nurturing the Seven Instincts for Lifetime Success.

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