This week I wanted to share some ‘interesting ideas’ about meeting with families.
As a school we would often discuss parents coming to the school for a meeting and what we could do as a staff to make sure the parents were heard, they were comfortable, they felt safe and we had productive conversations in order to support their child.
While the pandemic has really changed how we engage with families, the ideas shared here can and should be transferrable to an online meeting as well. In the future, I believe I would ask a family which they would prefer, virtual or face to face meetings. And, a day will come when we have our families back in our schools and parents in meetings to discuss their child. The last many months have showed us that we can still use great communication skills to have effective meetings.
The first thing we must recognize is that not all parents are comfortable coming to the school. For some, they may have had negative experiences as students and coming back to a school reminds them of this. No matter what we do to make our schools warm and welcoming they are still a formal setting that we know parents are, at times, nervous to attend. Add to that the worry that they must feel when we are speaking about their child and it all means we have to work really hard to make the experience as positive as we possibly can. If the only communication a school does with a family is to share bad news it is no wonder they do not want to come and spend time with us.
One of the key points we shared with staff is that we have parents coming to our space and then we are the ones that do all the talking? This was not going to happen at our school. We were going to concentrate on ensuring there was an equal dialogue with our parents. We were going to encourage an equal sharing of air time.
If parents came for special education meetings with a long agenda we increased the amount of time we had for each family. If we ended a meeting early we would utilize this ‘found time’ to do other things, but we definitely did not want to cut our meetings short or be rushing parents out the door. The rationale behind this was simple, not only are we speaking about their child in a support context, but it may be the only opportunity we have with this family. They were going to get our best. This starts by giving them the time needed to make sure they had their questions answered and their thoughts expressed.
It is sometimes important to coach staff prior to the meeting about how much to say, what things to say etc. This is an excellent way to increase their comfort level by making them aware of what may be coming up and ensures that your meetings run as you expect them to run.
We would display an agenda with ‘Student A’ ‘Student B’ etc listed with times. Families could see the posted times and we would highlight the length of time we had together as we started. This built understanding that we were on a timed agenda and we all wanted to respect the time of the other families we would see that day. We would do our best to make sure our meeting was completed in the time allotted, however, we would share how we would continue the conversation if time did run out. Setting this expectation before beginning assisted us greatly in staying on task. As we were approaching the end time we would summarize ‘who would do what, by when’, and how this would be followed up. If more time was required we would set this up at this time so families knew they had our support.
The other analogy we would share with staff comes from Crucial Learning and the program, ‘Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue’. We asked staff to think of taps that flow into a basin or sink. There would be both a hot and cold faucet and we shared how this relates to conversations with families. Most important was the idea that everyone must contribute to the ‘shared pool of meaning’ which requires everyone to have their taps on.
When someone is sitting in silence we must have people skilled in making them feel comfortable and safe so they will turn on their taps and contribute to the conversation. As well, if someone is running hot and have their taps on full we must have the skills to have them turn down the flow and contribute in a shared manner to the conversation. Sometimes they need to be provided with an opportunity to just ventilate, but there is a line and requires someone skilled in conversation to make sure that a family does not step over that line and we can return to a proper dialogue. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Crucial Conversation training. It is an extremely valuable tool for yourself and your staff.
We wanted to use this taps analogy to make sure we allowed and invited parents to turn on their taps and contribute to the conversation. One person in the meeting was always asked ahead of time to monitor the contributions in order to work towards sharing the air time. As a school we did not want to overuse the time. At the end of the meeting the parents should speak an equal amount or more than the staff at the school and we must invite this contribution.
Another important aspect that shows respect for the family and the child is to have only one person taking the notes of the meeting that will later be shared with everyone in attendance. Others in the meeting can then concentrate on really listening to the conversation and focusing their attention on the speaker.
Introductions are made at the beginning of the meeting and everyone’s role in connection to the child. If possible place name plates in front of the staff so the family know who they are speaking with.
After introductions and the purpose stated it is important to ask the family if that was their understanding of how the time would be used. If there is anything else they would like to share or talk about while we are together you can then make adjustments, since we are there for the parents and their child. Or, you may have to address the added content at another time. Asking this clarifying question at the start makes sure you are beginning the meeting with everyone having the same purpose in mind.
This is such a wonderful time of year in schools. December includes so many celebrations, holy days and special occasions. We share many key similarities in these events: family, friends, food, remembering, celebrating love, joy and happiness. My family celebrates Christmas and as such I would like to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year. I’ll be taking a break from writing blogs until 2022. Be well everyone.