Effective communication: why it’s important
Effective communication builds understanding and trust. And when you and parents understand and trust each other, you’ll all be better able to work together to support children’s wellbeing and development.
This is why effective communication is key to establishing and maintaining positive partnerships with parents.
For professionals working with parents, a positive partnership means sharing knowledge and experience to understand a child’s situation, and it can lead to developing plans together to support the child.
Here are some ideas for effective communication with parents.
Parents are experts on their own children. When you work in partnership with parents, you’ll get the best outcomes for children.
Listening to parents
Listening is the foundation of effective communication.
When you listen well, you get more information about children and their families. You also get the full benefit of parents’ in-depth knowledge of their children. And you show parents that you value their experience, ideas and opinions and take their concerns seriously.
Here are some ideas for listening well:
- Let parents know you’re listening and interested by nodding or saying ‘Uh huh’ occasionally.
- Let parents finish what they’re saying before you speak. Then summarise what parents have said, and check that you’ve understood correctly.
- Check on the feeling as well as the content of what parents have said. For example, ‘Am I right in saying that you felt upset when the other parent told Taj to stop shouting?’
- Use open-ended questions to get more information if you need it. Open-ended questions give people a chance to expand on what they’re saying rather than just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, ‘What sort of things did Taj do when he was being naughty?’
- Try to understand parents’ perspectives, even if you disagree with what they’re saying. Put yourself in their shoes. For example, ‘It sounds like you felt judged as a parent’.
Speaking with parents
In every interaction with parents, one of your goals is to strengthen your partnership with them. You’re more likely to achieve this goal if you consistently speak to parents in a clear, respectful and considerate way.
Here are some ideas for this kind of speaking:
Find and share the positives about a child’s learning, behaviour and experiences. For example, ‘EJ did a great job of sitting still for two minutes in class today. It’s a big step forward for her’.
- Be open and honest. Give parents accurate information on what you observe. For example, ‘After a couple of minutes, EJ started pushing the child next to her’.
- Think before you speak, especially when you’re talking with parents about difficult or sensitive issues.
- Ask for parents’ input. For example, ‘How can we help EJ learn to take part in group work without distracting other children?’
- Let parents make the decisions. You can suggest ideas, but it’s up to parents to decide what to do next. For example, ‘We could try a behaviour chart. Or EJ could start with short group activities and build up to longer ones. What do you think?’
- If you’re not sure about what to say next or how to say it, you don’t have to respond straight away. For example, ‘I’d like to think about that more. Can I get back to you tomorrow?’
- Use ordinary, everyday language that parents can understand. Parents are likely to find professional jargon daunting and alienating, so it’s best avoided.
Raising concerns with parents
As a professional, there might be times when you need to raise concerns with parents about a child’s behaviour, wellbeing or development.
A problem-solving approach will help you and parents work together to address concerns. This approach involves:
- identifying the problem
- brainstorming as many solutions as possible
- jointly evaluating the pros and cons
- deciding on a solution to try
- putting the solution into action
- reviewing the solution after a period of time.
One of the keys to this approach is talking about concerns when they come up. Problems usually don’t go away by themselves. And if you leave them to escalate they might be more difficult to repair later.
Here are some tips for putting this approach into action:
- Prepare for conversations about difficult issues. This is because parents can feel upset and stressed by these conversations. If you think ahead about what you need to say and about the most sensitive and respectful way to say it, it can help your discussion go well.
- Try to schedule a time when parents are most available. For example, if you’re a child care educator or a teacher, this might be at pick-up and drop-off times. Or it might be best to call parents during the day.
- Discuss concerning behaviour without judgment. Try to focus on facts and whether the behaviour is appropriate. For example, ‘Ben drew on the wall and said that another child did it. This behaviour isn’t OK’.
- Explain what might contribute to the behaviour. This can help you and parents work out how to change the behaviour. For example, ‘Starting school can be challenging. Children often feel worried about getting into trouble’.
- Check what parents think about the issue. Remember that perceptions of what’s appropriate can differ between cultures or contexts. For example, ‘How does your family handle it when children don’t tell the truth?’
- Offer realistic strategies suited to each family. For example, if a child needs to make new friends but she gets stressed in public, parents might start by inviting other children for playdates at home.
It’s good to keep talking with parents after the initial meeting to see how things are going. You can schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss whether your agreed strategies are working out or if a new approach might help.
Dealing with concerns that parents raise
When parents raise concerns with you, the basics of listening and speaking still apply. And respect and sensitivity are still key to effective communication.
Also, if you focus on the issue that parents are raising and remember that your shared goal is supporting their child, it can help you avoid defensiveness or justifications.
Sometimes the best way to help is simply listening to parents. Parents might just need to feel that their concerns have been heard. You don’t always need to look for a solution straight away.
Sometimes you might find that it’s hard to talk about and resolve concerns with parents. You might even feel that you’re not getting the respect that you’re trying to show. In these situations, it’s OK to ask a colleague or supervisor for help or to refer parents to your organisation’s feedback and complaints process.
Communicating with diverse families
No family is the same. For example, families with vulnerabilities, rainbow families, blended families and culturally and linguistically diverse families all have different support and communication needs.
In general, a family-centred approach can help you better understand what different families need.
Different families are likely to respond to your communication strategies and support in different ways too. So it might help to be aware of how you communicate verbally and non-verbally with families. For example, if you speak a different language from a family, you might need to use non-verbal signals more. Sometimes a smile can be more powerful in building a trusting relationship with parents than verbal communication.
If you’re unsure how cultural differences might affect the way you communicate, you can ask others or do some research online or in books.