Managing Difficult Conversations with Parents – Part 1: Putting your best foot forward


by Sophie Mustoe-Playfair
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Talking about SLCN is a sensitive issue. No parent wants to hear that their child might be having difficulties in their learning or their development, and that we aren’t able to predict the long-term prognosis for a child will often be particularly challenging to hear. But despite this, it is really important that we tackle these difficult conversations head on – it’s the crucial first step towards implementing the appropriate support and setting the child on the path towards reaching their best potential.

In this two-part blog series, I’ll be sharing with you my advice for navigating tricky conversations with parents so that you can put your best foot forward. In this first part of the series, we’ll be thinking about how to approach and prepare for a conversation with parents.

It’s important to consider the parents’ perspective right from the outset. It’s very easy for parents to feel like they’re being ‘blamed’ for their child’s difficulties, and it’s difficult to balance the conversation so as not to cause a sense of panic, but also not minimise your concerns to the extent that the parent is left unaware of the potential impact of the child’s difficulties and unprepared for what might come next.

There can sometimes be a ‘perception gap’, whereby the parent(s) may have higher expectations of their child than you believe are reasonable, or they may find it difficult to accept the difficulties that you have noticed. As the professional in this relationship, it will be your job to try to resolve this gap, but it won’t necessarily disappear completely over the course of just one conversation. Don’t dismiss the parent(s) insights and opinions, even if they are not in line with your own. Be open to what the parent(s) have to say as well as sharing your own observations and insights, as the information that they have to share is equally as valid as your contributions.

Parents of children who have a history of additional needs or difficulties will very often have heard a lot of negative feedback about their child and unsolicited advice, so try to avoid leading the conversation with a negative as this can taint the relationship from the outset and build a wall between you and the parent. First impressions do count, especially in this context. Talk to the parent(s) about their own perceptions about their child’s strengths and difficulties first of all so you can begin to establish a ‘common ground’. Both you and the parent(s) will benefit from starting off from a feeling of ‘being on the same team’.  Remember that, although you may have called the meeting, conversations are not a one-sided means of communicating information, so you need to make time and be prepared to listen to the other person as well as achieving your objectives. Try to see this as an opportunity for collaboration and keep an open mind.

You can prepare for the meeting by putting together an ‘action plan’. Very often time is short when you’re meeting with parents, so it is helpful to note down what your key messages are so that the conversation remains on track. Remember that you can’t be expected to know all of the answers off the top of your head, too! As part of your ‘action plan’, consider making a note of any organisations or websites that might be useful so that you can signpost parents if they need further information. Rest assured that it’s better to say that you don’t know the answer to the question and that you can help find out the answer than it is to blag it.

It’s natural to feel apprehensive about these conversations ahead of time, but bear in mind that you’re doing the right thing by sharing your observations and raising any concerns you have – you’re advocating for the child’s best interests.

Coming up in part 2 on 5th March – we’ll offer our advice for navigating common conversational pitfalls and working together with parent(s).