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Strategies When Emotions Run High With Families

Last week, I was on an episode of the Curbsiders Teach podcast, an experience that was equal parts fun and nerve-wracking. The episode came after a few physician friends and I put together a workshop on what to do when a student (in this case, a resident or intern) had an unexpected reaction during a lesson. It was interesting work doing this kind of thinking about both the teacher-student dynamic and how that changes when all the learners are adults. That intersection made me think very much about two of the groups we’re often talking about at Astra: students and staff. As I’ve spent more time thinking about unexpected responses and reactions, it occurred to me that, as teachers, we also have moments like this with our students’ families. Just like we discussed in the podcast, there are some important considerations about how we navigate these instances so that we can build or extend relationships rather than diminish them.

Families can react in all kinds of ways to different school-related things. Whether it is content being taught, an interaction between students or between staff and a student, or a policy or school structure, families deserve to be heard. Sometimes, we know a family might have a response. I remember teaching Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and sending home a primer sheet for families about what was in the book; as teachers, we anticipated some families taking issue with some topics that Alexie raised. Whenever a family came to us with concerns, we had a range of responses that we could offer because we had planned for them. But when something seemingly innocuous prompts a response, I’d encourage teachers to consider a few things.

First, a family might have a legitimate grievance about something that has happened and about which you understand one piece of the puzzle. But it’s also true that a family might be reacting with greater depth of feeling because of something totally unrelated. For instance, they might be feeling more stress or anxiety because of a new financial situation or job loss, a medical diagnosis, or not enough sleep. There may be a family conflict that’s overlapping into an issue at school or something about the situation might be triggering a family member and helping cause this unanticipated response. Sometimes the issue is exactly as a family frames it, but there may be mitigating factors that school staff aren’t aware of that exacerbates what’s happening.

Now that we have exercised some humility around what might be adding to a family’s unexpected reaction, I encourage teachers to think about how they can do different kinds of work to help build relationships with families.

Before something happens, teachers should work to build relationships with each family. Emailing something positive about a student to a few families a week at the beginning of the year is a relatively quick and concrete action teachers can take to build goodwill and trust. The more often we can anchor relationships in genuine positivity or good humor, the more we can lean into it when something goes awry. Another tool is to proactively let families know how they might hear less-than-desirable news about their student from you. Will you call and leave a message? Do you email? Is there a school messaging service that you’ll employ? Giving families this kind of insight about how you’ll reach out lets them know both that you’ll tend to situations that require it and that they shouldn’t ignore a call, email, or message from you. Finally, you can be clear with families about how you’d like to be contacted if something happens that they need to connect about. You can also share how frequently you check your messages and how quickly they can expect a response from you.

When a family is bringing something to you, your response may depend on how it’s being communicated. In email, you don’t have to respond right away; you can take a breath, consult someone (if needed), and then respond in a timely manner. In person, it’s just as important to remember to breathe. If you feel like a family is telling you that you aren’t a good enough teacher or you’ve done something to hurt their child, you’ll need to calmly respond, and the best way to bring your own focus back to your body and allow for your rational brain to take over is to take a deep breath to remind yourself that you don’t need to be in fight or flight mode. Depending on physically where you are, you might ask the family to join you in your classroom or another quiet spot (certainly outside of the hallway or a busy meeting place). Sometimes even moving from one location to another can decrease tension. When a family member is sharing what’s happened, try listening deeply and validating that you hear exactly what they’re saying. When you begin to share your side of something or explain what happened, make sure to lead with empathy. It goes a long way.

After the moment is done, you’ll have some follow-up to do. You might need to check in with a supervisor or mentor to get their perspective or advice. You may feel like you need to debrief the conversation, which is healthy and sometimes necessary. When you do, be careful not to vent your frustration but to go to someone who can help you really think through what happened, why it happened, and how to minimize the chances of something like that occurring again. If you want to earnestly engage that family and further develop your relationship, you’ll want to focus on having a productive conversation with a colleague rather than one that doesn’t ask you any hard questions. Depending on what happened, you’ll also want to follow-up with the family and with your student. Are there specific things that you said you’d do? Do you want to check to see if they’ve noticed a change? Do you just want to make sure that things feel better? All of these are important steps that grow a relationship.

While the moments you can’t see coming can feel the stickiest, there are things you can do before, during, and after difficult moments with families that promote a positive relationship. If you’re having a hard time navigating a particular dynamic and want some help, let us know, we’d love to help.

Do you have any suggestions you’d add to our list? Mention them in the comments!


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