Complex family dynamics can seem like a minefield for teachers, but there are ways to navigate these tricky situations.
For Administrators

Navigating a Minefield: 6 Essentials for Working with High-Maintenance Families

By Brian Gatens April 18, 2016

Complex family dynamics can seem like a minefield for teachers, but there are ways to navigate these tricky situations.From time to time, you’ll have to manage complex at-home family dynamics for your students. Acrimonious divorces, dysfunctional spouses, meddling grandparents — if you teach long enough, you’ll see these and more (fortunately, they’re the exception rather than the rule).

Regardless of the dynamic, rest assured there are time-tested, helpful strategies for helping the child stuck in the middle of it all:

Be clear about communication

Communicating how and when parents can reach out to you is a good practice for all of your students’ families. For more complicated situations, being extra clear about just how you can be reached is essential.

Offer as many ways to reach you as you are comfortable with — email, classroom phone, website, etc. — and be sure to check them regularly. I don’t recommend that you share a personal cell number or engage in text exchanges with parents. You’ll appreciate doing all your work through official channels if something comes up that requires you to provide documentation of your communication with families.

Aside from the phone and email communication, be clear about how a parent may set up a face-to-face meeting with you. Nothing beats sitting across the table from someone and looking them in the eye when discussing important matters.

Show balance in communication

Some parents will be more disagreeable than others. Regardless of how off-putting their behavior may be, you have a professional obligation to keep them informed of their child’s progress. Make sure you communicate evenly and with the same level of openness for both parents.

If a legal case is involved, review the official court documents with your supervisor to make sure you are following those guidelines. You don’t want to find yourself in the awkward position of either revealing personal information about your students or unwittingly withholding information from a parent.

You may want to request that you be allowed to CC initial emails and communications to your supervisor. An extra pair of eyes on your work will help keep you out of sticky situations.

Never pick sides

Relationships are complex. Sometimes one parent will seem clearly in the wrong, but you can never assume you know who the “good” or “bad” parent is. Picking sides is not only unprofessional, but an overreach of your role, and can lead to serious repercussions if parents complain about how they are treated.

Stay right down the middle. Communicate fairly with both sides, and act in the manner expected of a teacher in your school. You’ll find these situations will test your patience and capacity. Keep in mind that the child may be embarrassed by the action of the parents, and will feel terrible if you too are upset by what happens.

Stay student-focused

Keep your emphasis on the child, and push back on any attempts to drag you into the relationship dynamic between the parents. One or both parents may try to win your sympathy and bring you over to their side.

Avoid this and, if necessary, reinforce that your far-and-away primary concern is the educational and emotional growth of their child. You’re not a counselor to parents, but rather a resource for the child. Keep your focus there, and you’ll stay out of trouble.

Stay close to the administration

If you have the slightest hint that the family dynamic is going to be a problem, tell your immediate supervisor. Also seek advice from trusted colleagues. Veteran teachers have, for the most part, seen it all and their counsel will be of tremendous help.

Cc’ing emails, responses and parent notes via your administration will help to keep you out of the middle of things when they eventually turn sour. Dysfunctional parents sometimes project their issues on their child’s teachers, and you don’t want your professional judgment questioned. You can’t go wrong by playing it safe.

Practice compassion

“Hurt people, hurt people.”

That’s the view of a wise colleague of mine who treats erratic, off-putting behavior of parents as something tragic that’s not worthy of her anger. She set a fine example for bringing a sense of compassion to these situations.

While holding parents to high expectations, she doesn’t fall into the trap of blaming them or granting herself a sense of moral superiority. I am grateful for her example, and encourage everyone to do the same. It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

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