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Breaking Bad News to Parents
By Susan Miller, Ed.D.

Tuition increases. Biting. Head lice. You know you have to tell the parents, but you want to do it in the best possible manner—sensitively, effectively, and without causing panic. Here’s how.

 

All child care professionals, whether brand-new at the job or seasoned veterans, dread that moment when they must break some type of bad news to parents. Sometimes the situation is quite obvious. During my first year as a preschool teacher, I was carefully supervising a tottering block tower when a child excitedly called me to see two girls who were “really playing beauty parlor” in the dramatic play center. I turned just in time to see the scissors they had “borrowed” from the art cabinet snip Aileen’s bangs to the scalp.

 

Knowing she was to be in a wedding the next day, I wondered what I could possibly say to Aileen’s parents. Fortunately, her mom had a sense of humor and knew her daughter delighted in exploring new activities. As soon as she saw Aileen’s hair at dismissal, she exclaimed, “I guess she’ll wear the flowers on her head instead of carrying them!” Usually, however, telling parents bad news is much more difficult and unpleasant than this experience.

 

Dealing With Difficulties
There are many stressful events that need to be shared with parents. Some situations may affect all of the families: The lease for the center will not be renewed and the program must move. Certain problems may be very specific: Three children have come down with chicken pox and have infected the group. Other issues may relate to an individual child and be very private: A preschooler will not use the toilet at school and has wet pants each afternoon. Some problems with rather visible results may involve several children: Kirsten bit a number of youngsters on the playground.

 

Whatever the problem, bad news is usually serious and very important to the recipient. However, no matter what the situation, certain guidelines are helpful to follow when breaking bad news to parents:

 

·         Always be sensitive to the parents’ feelings and treat the issue with great delicacy. Put yourself in their shoes before you affix the blame or become defensive.

 

·         Gather your facts in advance and be honest about what happened. Describe the situation clearly and calmly. Remember, the parents may be very angry, distressed, sad, or confused.

 

·         Try to find a quiet, private place to sit and discuss the issue professionally. No one wants to be told in a lobby filled with other parents that his or her child has head lice.

 

·         Timing is very important in order to ease into a discussion of a delicate problem. You may wish to telephone the parents to set up an appointment at a mutually convenient time so no one will feel rushed. Sometimes it is important to talk to a specific parent right away, before school gossip begins—for example, if one child bites another. At times it may be necessary to send a letter immediately to all of the parents if instant notification is urgent, as in the case of an outbreak of highly contagious conjunctivitis (pinkeye).

 

·         Have reference materials, such as books, pamphlets, or articles, available in order to share information or to ease shock or sadness. A tragedy may affect the parents and children, such as the death of a beloved staff member. Names of competent resource people to contact, such as psychologists or pediatricians, are a comfort to parents who learn their child has a special problem.

 

A Typical Situation
Probably one of the most common and most unpleasant pieces of news to break to parents is telling them that head lice have been discovered at the school. Parents usually become quite angry and upset at this news. At first, they find it impossible that their children, who “come from very clean homes,” could possibly have head lice. Then they discover that it is a time-consuming nuisance to rid the child and the immediate environment of the lice.

 

With thoughtful planning, factual and sensitive discussions, and swiftness in dealing with it, a head lice problem can be handled in an efficient, humane manner.

 

·         With nearly 10 million school-age children being affected yearly with head lice, it is a prudent idea to talk at a staff meeting about how your school might set into motion a plan of action for handling this problem, should it occur.

 

·         A simple reproducible, one-page sheet describing the facts, symptoms, and treatment can be sent home to parents immediately upon the discovery of a problem. This will do much to dispel some of the myths—letting parents know that lice crawl, they do not jump or fly, and that anyone can get them.

 

·         To help parents know what to do to control the infestation, prepare easy-to-follow picture hand-outs or posters that depict the following: hair being shampooed with medicated shampoo; a demonstration of using a nit comb; symbols for washing clothing, bedding, and stuffed animals in hot water (130° F) and placing them in a hot dryer for at least 20 minutes; treating items that cannot be washed by dry-cleaning or placing them in plastic bags outdoors for two weeks; and vacuuming rugs and upholstered furniture. Manufacturers of medicated shampoos, nit combs, and lice egg removers may be able to provide some educational material for parents as well.

 

·         So that families don’t feel discriminated against when head lice are discovered, have a written policy established in advance about when children who have been treated are allowed to return to the school. Consider enforcing a “no-nit” policy, allowing children to return when they have been treated and are nit-free. There is no other observable, objective measure of treatment available. This policy will also make any re-infestation immediately apparent.

 

·         Have a group meeting or discussion, if necessary, to help quell guilt feelings and reassure parents that the school is working with them to eliminate the problem and educate the children (making them aware of such things as having separate areas in cubbies and lockers; not sharing clothes, combs, or other belongings; and telling an adult if their heads itch).

 

Conclusion

The very best advice for breaking bad news to parents is to have open communication regularly. Be sure to share positive information, special events, and funny little incidents with parents on an ongoing basis. Then, when you must tell them something that isn’t so pleasant, you will have already built a foundation of trust and understanding which will make it a little easier for both of you to handle the bad news together.

Susan A. Miller is professor emeritus at Kutztown University of PA.