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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Home-school communication: Broaching difficult subjects

Hearing for the first time that their child may not be developing at the same rate as their peers is a pivotal moment in a parent's life. Many parents already have a sense that something is "different" about their child, and some children may have been diagnosed at birth. However, there are times when a teacher is the one who introduces the topic.

Because this topic is one that is invested with so much emotion, here are some things for teachers to think about.

1. Build a positive relationship first

As highlighted in a previous post, the first contact you have with a parent will set the tone for your relationship. And essential to a positive relationship is the opportunity to build trust and respect. So it is important that in the weeks before you broach the subject of a possible delay in development, you have made time to chat informally about less emotionally charged subjects. This will help you get to know the parent, and the parent get to know you. Talking about positives will also help the parent recognise that you are seeing the strengths of the child, and valuing their difference, rather than just seeing the child's difficulties.

2. Don't wait too long

While it is important to get to know the child and parent first, it is also important not to let the issue go unaddressed too long. Early intervention is an important part of maximising a child's potential. So don't rush... but don't dawdle. You will know the right time when:

  • You feel comfortable conversing with the family on a variety of topics.
  • You have gathered enough observational records to reinforce your concerns about the child's development.
  • If possible, you have had your concerns confirmed or reinforced by a colleague who also works closely with the child.

3. Understand the adjustment phases, or grieving process

Parents will react in different ways to the suggestion that their child may not be developing at the expected rate. It is important to understand the reactions you might see, and not to take these personally.

Click here for a great article from LD online about the grieving process. And this article by Ruth Mortimer may be helpful for parents.

4. Be informed about policies, procedures and available services

It is important that, before you start talking to parents, you are aware of any policies your school or service may have with regards to referrals and discussions about special needs. There may be a specific procedure for what you are able to share with the parent, how you are to do this, and who you might need to send the parent to in order to start the referral, diagnostic and support process.

It is also important for you to have an idea about community services available such as social workers, paediatricians, child psychologists, clinics, therapists. Alternately, you need to know who to send the parent to in order to find this information. Having some pamphlets, websites or contact details for the parent will be very helpful - even if you don't pass on all the information you have (see point 10).

5. Give some prior warning

It is important to go about the process of talking to a parent about their child's development in a measured way. While we cannot eliminate the shock, we may be able to mitigate its affects by giving parents a sense of what is coming if they have not already become aware that there may be an issue.

For example, ask some questions about the child's development. You might talk about milestones such as when the child first talked or walked. You may ask the parents about behaviour strengths and difficulties.

Having a number of informal conversations rather than just one formal meeting can help the family feel more supported and less overwhelmed. However, setting a time to meet and discuss the issue in more depth will be the next step in the process.

6. Find a quiet, private space

It is important, wherever possible, that the discussion not take place in front of the child. There are several reasons for this. One is that the parent may feel distressed, and even a very young child may respond to this and make it difficult for the parent to work through or express their emotion freely. Another is that what is said may affect a child's perception of themselves.

For similar reasons, it is important that the discussion is private to you, the family and any other colleague that you and the family trust. Being able to speak openly will be important.

7. Find out what the parent thinks

Always start by getting the parent to talk about their child and whether they have any concerns. This will help to ensure a non-judgemental atmosphere, where they feel authentically respected in their knowledge of their child.

8. Speak calmly, with empathy

Measure everything you say by how you might feel if it was you in the parent's shoes.

9. Avoid an imbalance of power

A parent may feel disrespected or intimidated if:
  • You talk to them across a desk. Sit together in comfortable chairs so that physically you are on the same level.
  • You talk "at" them. Talk "with" them - spend as much time listening as talking. Pause and allow "thinking time", so that the parent has time to absorb and respond.
  • You use jargon. Avoid any educational jargon. Talk in plain language to ensure there are no misunderstandings.

10. Don't overwhelm them with information

Listen and watch the parent's reactions. This will tell you when the parent has come to the limit of what they can handle at that point in time. With information about diagnostic and special education or early intervention services, answer questions and make written information available but don't be pushy. Families will need time to take on board all the information, and some families will move through the stages of adjustment more quickly than others.

11. Stick to your area of expertise

As teachers, we are not qualified to label or diagnose children. What we might think is a symptom of Autism may actually be a result of a hearing impairment. What we might think is ADHD may actually be a result of a language delay. Further, parents may have strong views about labelling a child.

When talking to parents, we need to focus on what we have observed and what we know about child development. Having written observations, records and reports as well as a developmental checklist or milestones chart will help parents work with you to their child's strengths and difficulties.

12. Make no judgements

If a family does not follow up with a diagnosis, special education support or early intervention, avoid judging them. Continue to be supportive and provide them with feedback about their child. Make information about services readily available. But give families the time and space to make their decisions. Again, knowing the stages of adjustment will help you understand why parents may be making their decisions.

A good article to read on this topic:

Croft, C. (2010). Talking to Families of Infants and Toddlers about Developmental Delays. Young Children, 65(1), p44.


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