Managing Difficult Conversations with Parents – Part 2: Navigating the conversation and working together


by Sophie Mustoe-Playfair
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In part 1, we shared advice on preparing for your conversation with parents and approaching what might be a difficult conversation with an open mind. We’re hoping for a reciprocal and collaborative conversation, where each party feels able to contribute and feels listened to, so that you can reach agreement on the next steps in the best interest of the child. In this blog we’ll be thinking about how to navigate the conversation and come out of the conversation with a united front.

Consider the language you’re using from the outset of your meeting, especially if parent doesn’t share the same vocabulary as you. Jargon words do have a place, because they help us to be precise about the child’s difficulties and they can empower parents to find out more about specific issues, but they can also alienate. The important thing is to be clear about what you’re saying. It can help to explain terminology right off the bat (and write things down for parents if you need to) as not everybody will feel confident to speak up and ask you to clarify or explain terms further.

In the same vein, try to avoid using words with negative connotations (e.g. “he’s behind his peers”) but at the same time ensure that your meaning is clear in order to avoid any misunderstandings. You could try saying “x is catching up with his peers” or “x is working to close the gap” instead. If you phrase your concerns as questions and refer back to specific examples you have noticed (e.g. “I have noticed… at school, have you seen that at home too?”), parents will feel more involved in the conversation because you have invited them to contribute, and you will gain a richer understanding of the child at the same time. 

It’s important to ensure that the conversation remains balanced, rather than focussing on negatives and difficulties throughout. Talk about what is going well at school and the child’s strengths too. There is always something positive found and parents want to hear that you notice the good things and that their child is a valued member of the school community. Remember that the child’s strengths will be the building blocks for the progress that child is going to make.

In any conversation about SLCN, I find it’s always helpful to have expected speech and/or language milestones to hand so that you can ground the conversation in evidence-based expectations. You can use the resources available on the Speech Link and Language Link packages – there are printable parent handouts to explain what Speech Link and Language Link are, what to expect from an initial appointment with a speech and language therapist, and charts explaining expected speech and language developmental milestones.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out in the world, and well-meaning friends and family can sometimes share unhelpful stories which can cloud the conversation. Try to dispel common misconceptions and myths – this can take some practice, but refer to the evidence using the expected developmental milestones to support your position. There may be a cousin somewhere who didn’t talk until they were 4 and then spoke in perfectly formed sentences right away, but you should feel confident to say that that’s a very unusual case. Professionals are in a great position to be able to confront negative stereotypes of children who have SLCN (children who are late to talk, or who are not yet using all of their speech sounds, are not ‘lazy’). Keep in mind that your interventions are not going to hurt a child – it’s really a matter of managing risk. What would happen if you put extra support in place that a child perhaps didn’t need? On the other hand, what might be the impact of not doing anything at all? The truth is often that we can’t predict which children will catch up without any intervention and which children won’t. Most parents would agree that early intervention and careful monitoring is the safer course of action.

If you’ve called a meeting because you have something to share with parents, it will be your responsibility to steer the conversation, and your job to involve parents as much as possible. It’s very easy for parents to feel powerless in a situation and like they have no voice and no control over what is happening. Strong home-school collaboration will have a significant positive impact on the success of your support, so consider that the child’s parents are an extension of your team. Be prepared to listen and try to find genuinely supportive ways to work together without making assumptions. You want parents to tell you if they feel that something is going to be difficult for them so that you can solve the problem together.

Talking about SLCN, SEN or indeed any difficulties facing a child can be an emotionally charged conversation for any parent. Sometimes upset and anger can be directed towards you, but this is rarely intended – it’s just a reaction in the heat of the moment. Try not to take things personally, but be clear about your boundaries so that you can protect yourself in a professional and polite manner.

Finally, it’s important to ensure that the child’s needs are put in a realistic perspective. It helps to refer back to the functional impact that you see for the child and to keep a record of actions along the way so you can summarise at the end and make the meeting feel pro-active. Parents should leave any conversation with a clear understanding of the issues, but hopefully feeling that there is something that can be done and knowing what their next steps are.