Have you seen any of these parents lately...
Paula becomes upset when you set boundaries and limits for her son Jeffrey. He's four years old and sometimes his enthusiasm overflows into disruptive or aggressive behavior. Paula is so permissive that even when Jeffrey gets out of control, she insists that "boys will be boys" and does nothing to guide his behavior.
As usual, Betty had too much to do and couldn't attend the parent meeting last Thursday night. On Friday, she had to leave quickly and forgot to take home Michael's favorite painting of a "dinosaur eating marshmallows in the desert." Despite notes, newsletters, and personal conversations, Betty claims that she is unaware of the activities and events which take place at the center, and too busy to become involved even if she knew what was going on.
Daniel comes to major functions, but otherwise keeps his distance. No matter how friendly you are, he keeps you at arms' length. You feel his son Jason would benefit enormously if his father took an active interest in his education.
Ophelia dresses her daughter, Charlotte, in three layers of clothing on a pleasantly warm day. Charlotte is never allowed to eat sweets (even on special occasions). Lately, Ophelia won't allow Charlotte to finger-paint for fear that she will get her clothes dirty.
Norm enjoys finding fault with other people. He smiled as he pointed out the typo in your newsletter. He was furious when his daughter Ashley's shoe disappeared in the sandbox. He rarely says anything positive about his daughter's experiences and often refers to how much Ashley enjoyed "Rainbows and Roses," the center she previously attended.
Juanita volunteers so often that other parents think she is a teacher. Juanita organizes field trips, bakes special treats, shares enrichment materials, and spends time in the classroom. She treats teachers with respect, genuinely appreciates the care her son Carlos is receiving, and is actively involved in all aspects of her son's education.
If child care professionals could design a perfect parent, that parent might be like "Wonderful Juanita." In reality, however, parents have different personalities and parenting styles. We want parents to be involved. We want them to attend programs and read the newsletters we send home. We want parents to be attentive to the needs of their children. We want them to set aside the "baby-sitter mentality" and appreciate and value us as professionals. But no matter what tricks we pull out of our hats, we'll never clone the perfect parent. We can, however, recognize, accept, and appreciate the diversity of parents and families, and use that ability to our benefit. The ability to communicate with parents helps us to bring out the best in parents and encourages them to become involved in their children's education. Here are a few tips on how to work well with parents-regardless of their personality.
Walk in Their Shoes
Be sensitive and understanding. Remember that parents really care about their child even if they don't label their child's clothing as you asked them to and even when they don't come right away when you tell them that their daughter has a temperature of 102 degrees. In today's working environment, parents face many challenges and many limitations. It's critical for child care professionals to empathize with the parent's world, just as we would like them to understand the challenges of our profession.
We must also be sensitive when informing parents about their child's day. Instead of saying, "Johnny disrupted the whole class with his cursing, again!" say, "We interested Johnny in three new words today that were long and fun to pronounce. It seemed to help keep him from using bathroom talk. What kinds of things have worked for you at home?" This type of statement communicates your intervention strategy, but it also allows for input from the parent.
When it comes to communicating, join the competition! Getting and keeping parents involved takes effort. Parents are busy and we must compete for their time and attention. Bearing that in mind, we have to be skilled communicators and our communication tools (e.g., handbooks, newsletters, notes) must be written to be read. Short articles, lots of graphics, and a little humor are helpful in getting and holding the attention of parents. Speaking personally to parents, on a regular basis, is also important. Parents want to hear stories about their children. Imagine how comforting it is if someone actually saw Darlene head for the doll corner with the scissors and caught her before she did any damage! Let parents know that you are doing a great job of teaching their children and keeping them safe.
Lose the Jargon
To communicate effectively, we must not use jargon. A parent can easily be put off when we toss around terms such as visual-motor integration, prosocial behavior, or developmentally appropriate practice. When we use jargon we may sound like an expert but may not be helping parents to understand how their child is learning. Using terms that only professionals understand creates a barrier that is difficult to overcome and may be threatening to many parents.
Offer Different Levels of Involvement
Not every parent wants to romp with five squirming three-year-olds in the pumpkin patch while they select lopsided, muddy pumpkins. Some parents feel more comfortable baking cookies than working directly with the children. Other parents may have an interest in working on a parent advisory board. Try to match a parent's talents to the tasks with which you need help. Make it a personal goal to ask every parent to become involved in some way.
Be Aware of Personality and Learning Differences
Different parents require different communication approaches. For instance, go out of your way to keep the busy parent informed. Listen carefully to the negative or angry parent. Take his or her advice seriously, and use it when appropriate. Make sure parents have clear avenues for venting anger, such as suggestion boxes and surveys.
Some people learn best visually, some when reading, and others when listening. Vary your communication style or, better yet, incorporate all three elements into as many of your communications as possible.
Find out what concerns parents have and provide the information in which they are already interested. For instance, perhaps you have a role to play in helping the permissive parent understand the value of setting limits. If the child is having trouble sleeping through the night, however, this may be the best place to start. Talk to the parent about how setting limits can help the child to sleep through the night. Personalizing information in this way is sure to pay dividends in the long run.
Plan for Flexibility
Finally, when planning programs and meetings, take parents' schedules into consideration. Instead of always planning an evening program, have bagels and coffee in the morning, or plan an after-hours meeting so that parents can gather at the close of the day instead of having to return later on. Providing child care will improve attendance at almost any gathering.
Whether you're dealing with a Permissive Paula, Negative Norm, Over-protective Ophelia, or Detached Daniel, you can make a difference. Your attitude and communication style can help all parents be the best that they can be.
Edna Wallace, M.S., is editor of parent pages newsletter. Her work as a teacher, director, parent educator, and author has spanned 25 years. She stays active in NAEYC and other professional organizations. She is the author of Summer Sizzlers & Magic Mondays: School-Age Theme Activities published by School-Age Notes. You can contact her at www.parentpagesnews.com.