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Communication as a Key to Classroom Success

Communication as a Key to Classroom Success
Jennifer Romanoff, MA
November 26, 2019

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Introduction

Today's topic is a key one. It really is all about communication as the key to classroom success. Now there are different communications that we're going to talk about today, and we're going to talk about it as part of a team because you do have a hierarchy that goes on in your classroom with lead teachers, teacher assistants, some who work part-time, and some who work full time. Then you also have that key communication that is external to your classroom and that's communicating to parents. Those are some of the conversations that we tend to shy away from because we're talking about somebody else's child and their development and maybe even some red flags we're seeing.

We're going to start by talking about the learning outcomes for today. So after today, I think you're going to be really versed in the different forms of communication. There are a lot of them. We're going to talk about some statistics about communication and I think you're going to be stunned with some of the statistics that I share with you. We're also going to talk about conducting coaching and having difficult conversations with coworkers. Difficult conversations are things that we tend to shy away from for a variety of reasons, but yet statistics will also show us that if we do hunker down and have those difficult conversations the benefits to everyone are numerous, so it's a skill that we need to develop, especially as leaders in the industry and as leaders in the classroom. The last thing we're going to talk about is the delicate conversations and the topics that we have with parents. As I mentioned already, that may have to do with them meeting certain milestones or behavioral situations, or some situations that are a little bit more sensitive, like abuse, or your suspicions when you suspect abuse. 

Forms of Communication

  • Oral
  • Written
  • Formal
  • Informal
  • Personal
  • Group-oriented
  • Non-verbal

Let's first talk about the various forms of communication. The first form of communication is one that you're probably most familiar with, and that is oral, that is the spoken word. That is exactly what you hear including the words you hear. That's what oral communication means.

Another form of communication is written. These can be in forms of a memo, handwritten cards, wonderful Christmas cards that you get at home that solicit feelings, staff announcements, or even an invoice. Those are all types of communication that are written. I'm sure you can think of a few different other examples that you deal with every day, such as bulletins when you think of written communication. It's not just those things that I mentioned, but it's the bigger picture. Written communication is also those billboards that you see when you're driving to work every day. It's the words that flash across your television screen when you're watching commercials such as the MSRP that they talk about with car commercials. It's anything that you see in magazines, trailers that you see for movies or green screens that say the following is a preview. All of those things are written communication. How that applies to your school would be the notices that you hang on your door, the titles on all the bulletin boards, or maybe the various skills that were learned when the children completed projects that are placed on the bulletin board near the children's work. It's the written name, the thing that your names are written on, and labels around the classroom. All of that is written. If you think about it, in the grand scheme of things, we have a lot of written communication that flashes before us each and every day. Things that you don't think of really just become background noise.

Another form of communication is formal. These are the meetings, the communications, and the conversations that are planned. They are usually between you and another person or a group of people. These include staff meetings, parent-teacher conferences, one-on-one coaching sessions, and closed-door conversations that you have with your colleagues in your office. They may be set up on a monthly basis with those that are above you and maybe your regional managers or your COOs. Those are formal, planned, and are usually scheduled on a recurring basis.

Informal communications are your conversations at the water jug, as you're walking through the kitchen when you're stealing cookies or the donuts that somebody brought in, grabbing a cup of coffee, or on your way to and from the ladies room. It's just those informal conversations that are part of communication. It could be something like, "Hey, how's your weekend, how is everything going?" Those are conversations that kind of go in and then they filter right out, but they could also be the communications where you're passing in the hallway with a staff member, and they say, "I forgot to tell you, I need this day off." Sometimes informal communications turn into formal communications. I know I always told my staff, "If you see me walking around the building, don't tell me any of those things because I will not remember them by the time I get back to my office." Sometimes I walk out of my office and I forget where I'm going because I just get so wrapped up in the conversations. Maybe I was going to the kitchen to grab something or maybe I was going to the supply closet. Maybe I was even going to the ladies' room, but when you have all those informal communications, it kind of stops what was going on in your brain. I get back to the office and I completely forgot why I left the office because of all those informal communications. Knowing that sometimes those are shared communications that I need to remember, I will always stop and say, "If this is something that I need to remember, come back to me at 11 o'clock so we can sit, and talk about it and I can put it on my calendar." There's a lot of informal communications that need to be turned into formal.

Then there's the personal form of communication which is more your one-on-ones. This is where you're talking about personal information or about the person themselves, such as their characteristics or the areas of improvement that they need coaching or mentoring for. You may be having those difficult conversations, and they are examples of personal conversations. As such, it always should be stated as that, for example, "This is a personal conversation, so this is between you and me." You might be talking about salary or some other information that you want to be held just between you and that person.

With group-oriented communication things are a little bit lighter here. These include your staff meetings, huddles, and mini-meetings that you have with classroom teams. It could include information that needs to be shared with the large group, information that just needs to be shared with a smaller group, and maybe what's going on in their classroom. It might be a back-to-school night or a parent meeting of a certain classroom. These are all group-oriented communication. The information that you're sharing isn't personal or individual to a child, family, or a staff member, but it's information that the entire group needs to have. This kind of communication is great when you want everybody to receive the same message the same way and all hear the same action plan or the steps that are going to be taken. Group-oriented communication tends to happen a lot in our industry.

Nonverbal communication is everything you see and everything you hear by means of intonation. How much or what percentage of communication do you actually think is the oral language, the verbal words that you're hearing come out? Think in your head, what percentage of communication do you actually think is verbal? Let me give you the answer. It's 7%, that's it. Only 7% of communication is the actual words that are being said. The other 90-plus percent is nonverbal. What that means is 38% of that is vocal. That means the intonation that I'm using, the tones, the rhythm, and the way I'm saying it. Am I saying it in a friendly manner or am I saying it kind of snippy and snooty? That's vocal and intonation. The other 55% is actually visual. What is my stance? Do I have my arms crossed, do I have my brows furrowed, do I have my eyebrows lifted?  Is my face saying I really do not believe what you're saying? Are my eyes jetting back and forth or down or up? When somebody's eyes jet down when they're speaking, they tend to be making things up or potentially not necessarily telling the truth. But when people look up it actually means that they're thinking, because they're actually trying to recall all those files in the back of their brain to give you an answer. All of these things actually come into play when we talk about communication. Only 7% is actually the words that are being said, it's the other 90-plus percent of the words that you're hearing and the way you're hearing them.

Have you ever read a text or an email and said to yourself, "Oh, that was so snotty." But was it really? Text and email is a lot of the way we're communicating these days, it's just the technology world that we're in. When you are actually reading the words in a text or an email you're only reading the 7% of communication that our brain actually responds to. If you're putting an intonation to it or you're thinking, "I can see her right now, tapping on her keys like this," that's your perception of what the intonation or the visual is. We have to be very careful, especially with texts and emails, as that's our main form of communication these days. Are you putting a stereotype on it? Maybe it's not a colleague that you get along with very well, so you're putting an intonation or a visual along with it and now you're mad or upset, and it really wasn't that person's intention to write it like that. I know sometimes I've actually gone back and reread my own emails and have said, "Ooh, I know I wanted to get the point across and I wanted to be firm, but for me, it sounded a little curt and sounded a little snotty." I've actually gone back and emailed all those people that I initially emailed and have said, "My email may have come across a little snide or a little condescending, so please realize that I didn't write it that way. If you read it that way, please re-read it as if I was Suzie Sunshine." People have responded or written back to me and said, "Yeah, you did kind of sound mad or frustrated, or a little angry." I had to write back, "I know I sounded that way, but because I was passionate when I wrote it, it came across as snotty or snooty. I really was just being passionate. I was actually excited, happy, and passionate about what I was writing." Be very careful when you have those communications, text messages, and emails because what people are seeing is just that 7% of the actual language. It's that written language, what they're assuming or perceiving is that other 90-plus percent, so be careful when you receive it and be careful when you send it. Know your audience or know the sender of the texts and the emails that you're getting.

Benefits of Good Communication

  • Prevents conflict before it happens
  • Increases engagement with one another and the company as a whole
  • Helps to form better relationships between all
  • Elevates entire environment and center as a whole

Let's talk about the benefits of good communication. These are benefits of good communication overall, not specifically with any group, such as co-teachers, teammates, others within your center, parents, or families. When you have really good communication it prevents conflict before it happens. It means that you have an open, honest relationship that's based on integrity and the ability to have conversations, both good, bad, and indifferent. This way, everybody's on the same page, there are no assumptions, there are no preconceived notions or stereotypes, and everybody's on the same page because you're always talking to each other about what's going on. One benefit of having good communication is actually preventing conflict before it starts.

Another benefit of good communication is increasing engagement with one another and the company as a whole. We out there as administrators and teachers want to be bombarded with communication. Internally, I know I've done surveys and I have always asked staff and parents, how can we improve our processes? One of the things that come back always in the top five is better communication. It's one of those things where I really thought that I was doing a great job, but maybe a weekly newsletter isn't a bad idea. Maybe I should have daily communication with the staff on who's out, who's covering where, if tours are coming in and for what classroom, which children are transitioning, and who is having a play date. It's sometimes better to overshare information like that than it is to under-share. This way, everybody's on the same page and as a whole, your company will be elevated because you'll never have to worry about a parent going into a classroom and saying, "Well, are they transitioning this week or why is there another child in that room?" Your staff will never respond with, "I don't know, let me find out." They'll always respond with great communication because they know the answer. 

I'm a huge advocate of that company that's down in Florida or out in California that is a great vacation site and has a big mouse as their head of the hill. I'm sure you know who I'm talking about. I had the luxury one time of going to one of their seminars and they were talking about communication. They have a piece where every staff member gets this tiny little fold-out every week and it basically said everything that I had just said to you including what's happening, where people can find things, what are answers to commonly asked questions, and what are hours. It was all the pertinent information that they needed in their job if anybody was to come up to them at any point in time and ask them a question. They never had the answer of "I don't know," or "That's not what I do," or any of those answers that sometimes our parents might hear that frustrates us immensely. When I came back from that I said, "You know what, maybe we do need to put one of those weekly communications out to our staff so that they're a little bit more abreast of what's going on within the center." Again, more communication to them and more info really helps them as a company, as a whole, and as a center. It really elevated that communication with the parents, the vendors, and the community.

Another benefit of good communication is that it really helps all relationships. That's because you do have that open communication, that open-door policy, and that honesty and integrity where everybody's just sharing information and everybody's on the same page. Ultimately, that leads to relationships of trust and understanding. Better communication and good communication helps form those relationships. Our business is all about relationships.

Lastly, good communication elevates the entire environment. Excellent is amazing. Are we all going for environments of perfection? Absolutely not. But are we going for environments of excellence? Yes, we are. Good communication is a part of that, with one another, with our families, with everyone within that culture that really has anything to do with your center each and every day. Elevating that communication will only make everything and the quality of standard and service that you offer one of excellence. 

The Power of HOW

I know you have heard this saying, "It's not what you say, but how you say it." I want to give you an example, and it is the sentence in figure 1. You can say this along with me, "I didn't say she stole the money."

The sentence I didn't say she stole the money in black font

Figure 1. Sentence example for how you say it.

Now, I said that very monotone, I gave you that 7% of just the verbal language, I didn't say she stole the money. Now, what I want to give you is five different ways that this sentence can be said and five different meanings that it holds by just realizing it's not what you say, it's how you say it.

So the first thing I'm going do is I'm going to put the emphasis under the word I and I want you to say this with me emphasizing that word. Look at figure 2. Are you ready, here we go. 

The sentence I didn't say she stole the money in black font with the word I underlined and in blue font

Figure 2. Sentence example for how you say it emphasizing "I."

I didn't say she stole the money. Well, if I didn't say it, then what I've just done by that intonation and stress on that one word is imply that somebody else said she stole the money. By that 38% of language and communication that is more vocal and intonation I gave the sentence a different meaning.

Let's talk about what if we stressed the word "say." Look at figure 3 and say this along with me and let's stress that word, ready? 

The sentence I didn't say she stole the money in black font with the word say underlined and in blue font

Figure 3. Sentence example for how you say it emphasizing "say."

I didn't say she stole the money. Well, I didn't say it, but maybe I implied it. Maybe I pointed at it or maybe I asked somebody a question and that's what really got everybody thinking, "Well, did she steal the money that went missing from the teacher cabinet?" So yes, it was me, I took ownership of it now because that word I is not stressed, but I didn't say it.

Let's do it again, except this time, let's stress the word "she." Look at figure 4 and say this along with me and let's stress the word "she." 

The sentence I didn't say she stole the money in black font with the word she underlined and in blue font

Figure 4. Sentence example for how you say it emphasizing "she."

I didn't say she stole the money. No, somebody else stole it. See, this is three different ways of this sentence already by just stressing different words.

Let's do it again. Look at figure 5 and this time let's stress the word "stole."

The sentence I didn't say she stole the money in black font with the word stole underlined and in blue font

Figure 5. Sentence example for how you say it emphasizing "stole."

I didn't say she stole the money. Maybe she borrowed it or maybe she thought it was hers. Maybe she didn't realize that it was somebody else's and she was doing wrong, I didn't say she stole it. Or am I covering myself because maybe I passed on that gossip and somebody is calling me out on it? So you see, there's four meanings so far for the same sentence. 

All right, one more time. Look at figure 6 and let's stress the word "money" together. Ready, here we go.

The sentence I didn't say she stole the money in black font with the word money underlined and in blue font

Figure 6. Sentence example for how you say it emphasizing "money."

I didn't say she stole the money, but you know what, there were some other things in that purse that were missing too. It's not what you say, it's how you say it because we just went through one sentence together, stressing five different words and we then turned that one sentence into having five different meanings.

Communication is key, but again, I'm going to go back to that 90%-plus of what is not just the word, it is the intonation and the vocalization of certain words. This is a great exercise to do with your staff to understand what intonation means. When you stress certain words you can put an entirely different meaning to just one sentence. Think about the five different hooplas, gossip, or crazy talk that's going around the center. Implications that you might have on somebody when you just say things in a different way. This is a great little exercise to do with your staff to really get them to understand what intonation means and how it's not just the words we're saying, it's how we say them.

Dreaded Communications with Coworkers

Now we're going to get into the crux of having conversations with coworkers, followed by conversations with parents. Let's talk about coworkers first. Why do we avoid difficult conversations with coworkers? This could be you just not wanting to have that conversation with one another in the office, it could be you not necessarily wanting to have a conversation with the lead teacher or an assistant teacher, or it could be lead teachers with their assistants, or maybe just teacher teams not wanting to have these conversations.

So why do we shy away from the difficult conversations? It is an emotional toll on us. Sixty-six percent of people feel stressed or anxious if they know a difficult conversation is coming up. It just gets everybody so worried about what it is that we're going to have to do and if there is going to be a reaction (if they get angry or cry). We get anxious about it and because we get anxious about it, a lot of times we just tend to avoid it.

Benefits for You

Let's talk about why that happens because we have to realize that those problems won't just go away. When we aren't honest about things that we need to communicate about, a lot of times the other person may not know that it's not right, that it's not acceptable, that it's not helping the situation, or that maybe there's a different way we do this. Maybe that's how you did at your previous employer, but we don't do it here. We think that it'll go away, but what we're really just doing is we are allowing it to just become a habit.

It is harder to break habits than just learn new ones right off the bat. When you have these difficult conversations, you truly will become a better leader. Even though you're not comfortable having these conversations right away, they will get more comfortable to do as you do them. Unfortunately, things happen and we have to do them. Ultimately, you will be creating a better cooperative team and you will be creating that culture that we talked about previously. You will be creating that culture of honesty and open communication.

Benefits for Others

What will it do for the other person? They will have a better understanding of expectations and maybe that's just what it was, they really didn't have clear expectations to begin with. Now we're kind of resetting those expectations and having that difficult conversation. You're also giving them the opportunity to improve. Who doesn't want the opportunity to improve? They may not have realized that this was an issue in the first place and you may need to expect that they might be a little taken back at first, but you're having this open conversation and it's going to give them that ability to make things better. It's going to give them a chance to change and the chance to be a better teacher, a better facilitator, and a better teammate overall in the classroom. They're likely to utilize the skills and talents that you bring out of them by having these difficult conversations. Maybe you ask them to read a story and they're just not the best storyteller, but maybe they're an amazing singer. Now you're having them utilize the skills that they are willing to share, and you're going to use their talents for the better of the classroom.

Overall Benefits

Overall, it's just a better environment, because now you've got it out and you've gotten over it and you've moved forward. You have these breakthroughs and relationships where sometimes you have those people that don't get along, and they're a little bit like oil and water. What it really is, is that they just really need to better communicate with one another. Well, I thought this and I thought this. Aha, you thought this, but you never really spoke to one another. That's really what this is all about. Everyone learns and grows together about what it's like to have better communication. Some people need that tiptoe communication and some people just need it straight. As long as you're doing that, you're growing together. That ultimately makes a more positive and productive classroom because you're not having that 66% of anxiety or you're not having that stress. On top of that, now you've had these conversations and you're all on the same playing field, you're all resetting expectations and clean-slating it. You're starting all over again, which ultimately makes for everyone to be happier.

I know we don't like having difficult conversations with one another, especially when we have to work with one another. We see each other more in the classrooms than we do our loved ones because of our hours of operation. It's really important to have great communication, to set those expectations for everyone, and to have open communications with one another, even including those difficult conversations. There are benefits to you, benefits to your colleagues, and benefits to the environment overall. Let's move on to some tips and tricks.

Tips for Conversations with Coworkers

  1. Have a clear objective and end goal.
  2. Be prepared with a specific message to get across.
  3. Actively listen and solicit solutions.
  4. Keep the conversation on point.
  5. Be empathetic and understand perception.
  6. Have an open mind and avoid getting defensive.
  7. Circle back to the objective and goal.
  8. Create action steps that involve everyone and everyone’s input.

If you are in a situation where you need to have a conversation with a coworker and it's going to be one of those where you need to talk about a difficult topic, whether it's the way they're behaving, maybe their approach, or maybe you just need to have them step up, let's talk about this. What you want to do is have a clear objective and an end goal and you want to state that right at the very beginning. For example, you might say, "So the objective of us having this talk is to really get on the same page and talk about some things that are happening that we need to improve. Ultimately, at the end of this meeting, I want to leave with an action plan for you, for me, and for anyone else to make sure that we implement the changes that we talk about at this meeting and we all leave with clear goals in mind." That's how you're going to set this up.

You want to be prepared with the specific message that you want to get across. What I'm talking about is you want to talk about the things that are happening, not necessarily the way that it makes you feel. For example, you have a teacher who may be speaking inappropriately to children. That could be she is raising her voice, not getting down on their level, or maybe she's yelling across the room. It's not necessarily that she's being mean, it's just not necessarily appropriate. So your message is, "I want to talk about the way you are speaking to the children, specifically in yelling at them across the room." You don't want to say, "I don't like it" or "It makes me feel bad and you're making the children cry." What you're doing at that point is making it personal. When you make it extremely personal, people take it personally. It actually puts up that barrier that allows people to be subjective and open to what it is that you're trying to improve. Remember, when you make it personal, they take it personally. When you're having these difficult conversations, let's be very specific about the message and be prepared. It's okay to have a notepad or to have bulleted what you wanna talk about or to even make an agenda with these things. You might include things such as this is what you want to talk about, this is the goal, these are the objectives, these are specific examples that you're giving.  Having these things prepared can help you get that message across.

The next thing is to actively listen and solicit solutions. People will help support a world that they built. So when you're giving the answers and the solutions to everyone, they're just going to say, "Yeah, okay, whatever, that's not going to work." Or, "It's going to work for a day," or, "Yeah, I can try that." But if you actively listen and say, "You know what, let me ask you, I've heard some yelling at children from across the room to do what they need to do or to potentially get them to behave in a certain way. Let me ask you if you think that's working. Can you think of any better solutions for when Johnny's not listening to you the three times you yell to him from across the room to clean up his toys, or you asked him to get his jacket on?  Sometimes it's just not working? Can we think of some better ways that Johnny needs to be approached?" This way, what you're doing is you're actually having that staff member solicit and reflect on their own practices and come up with their own ways to do things better. They will support a world they helped build, not a world that you're telling them how to build. You want to actively listen. Remember, you have two ears and one mouth. You have two ears to listen twice as much as you talk. When you really get that buy-in, they're more likely to carry out those action steps.

You want to keep the conversation on point. If they start getting defensive or getting personal about it such as, "Well, I did this, but you do that," or "She does that," you can respond by saying, "I understand, but right now, we're talking about this situation, and how you handle things. I want to make it better for you, me, and the children, and the environment as a whole. That is to be discussed with them, and just as I'm having a personal and confidential conversation with you, I'm going to have a personal and confidential conversation with others that I need to." You want to keep that conversation on point.

You do want to be empathetic and understand their perception. That may be that this is just how they were spoken to as a child or this is how they learned how to do things, maybe in a previous classroom with a previous employer. You want to give them the opportunity to at least explain when you actively listen and say, "Why do you think that's not working?" or, "Do you think that's the best approach to take with Johnny?" Listen to those cues that they're giving you when they're telling you their story as to why, and be empathetic. It's very hard to walk in somebody's shoes and to understand their perception, but it might help you to understand who they are, and it ultimately goes back to building those relationships.

You also want to have an open mind and avoid getting defensive yourself. They may get defensive and they may point out flaws that they see in you, and you're going to have to take that and reflect on that at a later point in time to see if it's actually accurate. You do want to have an open mind to hear what they have to say, but again, avoid getting defensive yourself. It's not professional and then going back to number four, it's not keeping the conversation on point.

You always want to circle back to that objective and goal so when they get defensive or they start talking about somebody else in the room or they talk about how maybe Johnny really needs to see a specialist that this is just not right you can say, "I hear everything you're saying and I'm writing it down, but I at least just want to get this challenging topic that we're talking about taken care of. So let's get back to how we're going to change the way we talk to Johnny and yelling to him from across the room. Let's just focus on that one step at a time." 

You want to create action steps that involve everyone. That goes back to number one, having that clear objective and end goal. "All right, so this is what we talked about. This is how we're going to change things. I hear that you're going to not talk to Johnny from across the room. We're all going to make an effort to walk over to him, get down on his level and speak to him at a face-to-face level in a tone that's not going to be intimidating to him or sound like we're yelling at him because that is degrading to his self-esteem. Clearly he's not responding to us, so we're going to do this in a different way. You're going to document all of this. That's a really important part that is not on this list. You do want to document this and then keep it and put it in your administrative files or put it in your team meeting booklet that you might have in your classroom. This way, everybody's on the same page. Those are tips for talking to coworkers for difficult conversations, and benefits to you, to them, and to your overall classroom.

Dreaded Communications with Parents

Now let's talk about having conversations that we always dread with parents. This one's a little bit more difficult because we're talking to someone about their child. It's one of those conversations that is usually saved for administrative team members to have, but teachers do need to be present for this. It's really good to have them there because it's a learning experience for them. You've all heard the slogan, "It takes a village." It sure does take a village. In this day and age, most of us are servicing parents that are dual-income families. They are both working and often we see their children more than they do. It's really important that we do partner with parents to provide the best possible environment, service, and care for the child. This is where I'm going to circle back to what I said previously, that relationships matter. We are truly in the business of trust.

Parents come to our centers and they take a two-hour tour. When I say two hours, I mean the tour, going over all the paperwork, maybe visiting a classroom, maybe having a play date, and maybe having a conversation on the phone or an email follow-up. However, the most time we're likely spending with a family is between two and three hours. In those two or three hours, they are deciding who to put their child with. That is a huge decision. It is one of guilt because it is their finest, most precious asset that they are turning over to virtual strangers that have said and told them all the right things in a matter of two to three hours. Then they need to go off to an eight-hour job where some of them commute into larger cities. Their children are with us for 10, 11, or sometimes even 12 hours. We really have to form strong relationships and earn the trust of parents each and every day in everything we do. That involves communicating, phone calls, and being honest when we mess up, such as if we missed a bottle or if we missed a diaper change.

What happens is when you form those relationships it makes it easier to take when you mess up. Everybody messes up or forgets something. These parents have signed up for group care and sometimes those little things happen. Did their child's diaper get changed at the two-and-a-half-hour mark? Yes, but we did go over two hours. That's our commitment that we made to them. But when we call that parent and say, "Look, we just want to let you know that three o'clock came and went and things were just a little hectic in the classroom, so Johnny got his bottle at 3:15. I just want to let you know so when you see that in your daily report today you won't wonder what happened." If you have built that relationship and you have the trust of the parents, those parents are more likely to be forgiving of you for that little bit of a mess up than they would have if you didn't foster that relationship. Part of that relationship is having good communication. They have left their child with you and they have walked out. There are 10, 11 and 12 hours of the day where they are not connected to their most precious asset. The only way that they stay as part of the day and part of their child's life is through the communication that you provide, whether it's phone calls, daily reports, or shooting them a picture of how their child is enjoying their day.

Maybe when they drop their child off the child is having a really tough transition or a tough drop-off, or they're going through that separation anxiety. Remember that communication is not just 7% words, it's all those other things. When you shoot a picture or you shoot an email or you just pick up the phone when it's a quiet time and just say, "Hey, I just want you to know, Johnny's having a really good day today." That's it. It didn't have to be because he had a bad day or had a challenging day the day before. It's fostering those relationships that matter so much and it's building that trust. Someone once told me that trust is built. Think about those old-fashioned metal water cans and an eyedropper. Trust is built by dropping a drop of water one drop at a time into that bucket. When you do something to lose that trust, that bucket gets kicked over and dumped and all the drops that you have put in are gone. You stand that bucket back up and you have to start all over again. You don't get to start all over again with all the water that was in it though. You actually have to start again, one drop at a time. Relationships matter and trust matters. When parents are dropping their children off to you, for the majority of their waking hours, communication is key. Let's follow the same process we did with staff members and talk about the benefits.

Benefits to You

The benefits to you are that parents just don't go away and think that no problems exist. Their child is there and you need to talk to parents about the good times and the bad times. Just like with the behaviors of staff members, the behaviors of children won't go away either. Parents go away thinking that their child had a great day unless you tell them otherwise. If we're talking about behavioral issues, and maybe Johnny does have a behavioral issue, maybe there are things that are going on and we're seeing some challenges. Maybe we're not seeing some developmental milestones being met. Again, it's just going to become a habit or it's just going to get worse.

When you talk to parents, the benefit to you is you will have more support from parents at home in those hours that the child is at home. They may not be exhibiting these behaviors in the home, so when we talk about having these conversations with parents you have to realize that children are with us in group care. There are 12 or 16 or 20 of them in a classroom with toys and supplies that they don't have at home. There are 11, 15, or 19 other friends that they have to share with that they may not have to at home. Now that you've built this trust and these relationships when it comes time to have these conversations, you'll get more support from them from the home environment. Maybe there will be more talks with Johnny and maybe there will be more rewards and positive reinforcement with him that will help with the it-takes-a-village philosophy.

Ultimately, you're helping one another succeed. You might be helping them succeed as parents. Children don't come with user manuals or owner's manuals and a lot of times parents might be looking to you and asking for your advice as to what they could be doing at home. Maybe there's a behavior that's being exhibited just in the home, or with a behavior that's being exhibited at school and how they can support you, or a behavior that's being exhibited in both home and the school environment. You're actually helping one another. When you give parents that advice, you're building that relationship again. You are just strengthening that trust that not only they have in you, but that you have in them to help you to help their child.

Benefits to Parents

For the parents, one benefit is they may have a better understanding of child development. They may be doctors, lawyers, brokers, work on Wall Street or in real estate, but they don't have the knowledge that you have as an early childhood educator. When you talk to them about these things, you're actually helping to educate them on child development because you are the experts in the field. Although sometimes we're seen as glorified babysitters or daycare, we really are early childhood learning environments and we need to help parents understand everything that happens in that zero-to-six, zero-to-eight timeframe in early childhood because we are the experts in our field. Just as they may give you advice on a home to buy, or a car to buy, or what you should do with your money and if you should put it in an IRA, you should also be giving them that information that helps them to understand the growth and development of their child.

Another benefit to parents is they realize that you're a partner with them. They're not just dropping their child off to a glorified babysitter. You truly want to partner with them to give them the best environment you can for their child. Ultimately, even though you're having difficult conversations, it may lead to something a little bit deeper than what we can give them. You are partnering with them.

By that, I'm talking about early intervention and aid for their child. You are there to support them. You have fostered this relationship of trust and you have the ability to say to them, your child might need something more. It's coming from you, a trusted source. It's coming from somebody that they have left their child with maybe for a year, maybe for a few months, or maybe for a few years. Now those telltale signs of something a little bit deeper are coming out. Because you have that relationship with them, it's like being told by somebody that they absolutely know cares and loves their child, so it makes it a little bit easier.

Overall Benefits

Overall, you're strengthening that relationship each and every day. Both of you are on the same page, whether it's you, the teacher, or the family, you're all on the same page. You're providing a better environment for the child. There's more consistency so the things that they're doing at home you can integrate into your classroom, or the things that you're doing in the classroom get integrated at home. We've gone so far as to bring a third party in. It doesn't matter because you're creating a better environment for the child and the child will ultimately get the structure and the help they need. Isn't that why we're ultimately all here, for the child? They are at the heart of all we do so we have to keep that in mind.

Sometimes we avoid these difficult conversations because we don't want to deal with them, but then you have to ask yourself, what are we here for? We are here for the children, to ensure that they have the best possible care and we are setting them up for future success. That involves trust and relationships, which ultimately all revolve around communication.

Tips for Conversations with Parents

  1. Ongoing, open communication with more positive expressions, as opposed to completely negative ones.
  2. Decide when parents need to be involved in a sit-down conference.
  3. Involve the right people.
  4. Be prepared with documents/observations.
  5. Keep the conversation positive.
  6. Share action steps and approaches taken.
  7. Ask and listen to parents.  Take notes.
  8. Be empathetic, compassionate and seek to understand their perspective.
  9. Expect denial, tears, anger, and blame.

Now we're going to talk about tips for having these conversations with parents. One of those is that you always want to have open, ongoing communication with more positive expressions as opposed to negative ones. That means that yes, Johnny may be having a challenging day, but we are going to talk about it by means of not that he had a challenging day, but by saying, "He's got a very strong personality." Do you see the difference? He had a bad day and he's very challenging, as opposed to he has a very strong personality. When I say that, what I'm saying is, there are times when we are in small group interactions and he has a very strong personality. He definitely wants that toy when he wants it and for how long he wants it. We're not saying that Johnny had a bad day and that he won't share and he keeps taking toys from children. Remember that parents have come from a nine-hour day at work and are tired.  It goes back to the I-didn't-say-she-stole-the-money. It's not what we're saying, it's how we're saying it. You definitely want to look for ways to not put parents immediately on the defensive. You want to find nicer, positive ways to say the same thing that will keep parents having that open frame of mind. When they hear that their child has had a bad day, they might think that it's the other children or he's strong-willed or maybe it's you. When you instantly go with that negative comment, it clouds people's ability to hear the things that you're trying to say. Again, more open, positive statements than negative ones.

The next thing to remember is you want to talk with your administrative teams, the teachers, and everyone who's involved with the child about when is it a good time to actually have a sit-down meeting. This is not necessarily that communication that happens when they're coming into your classroom each day because that's what I just talked about with number one, that ongoing open communication. You want to decide as a team when it is the best time to have a sit-down meeting. When you have a sit-down, you want to ensure this is not the first time that parents are hearing about any concerns that you may have because you've been having that open, honest communication the whole time. When you do have that sit down, you want to involve the right people. As I said before, as members of the administration this ultimately lands on you to be the facilitator of this conversation. When I say the facilitator of this conversation, it's because you may have been involved or are involved in what's going on in the classroom, including those red flags that your teachers are seeing in the child, You've gone through the developmental milestones and your assessments and the parents have stepped in and talked to you every now and then. What ultimately needs to happen is it needs to be a facilitated conversation between the parents and what the teachers are seeing every day. That's going to involve some coaching with the teachers before this conversation happens. It may be you paraphrasing what the teacher has said to you, but you want to involve the right people. You want the parents, a member of the administration, and you absolutely want to have the teachers who are there spending the most time with Johnny sitting at the table with you.

You want to be prepared with documents and observations. That includes incident reports, child assessment sheets, checklists, and developmental milestones. You want to have all of that with you. That's because there has been open, honest communication the entire time and this isn't the first time we're sitting down and talking about this. This isn't the first time that the parents are seeing the documentation that they may have needed to sign in the past regarding their child's behavior or conversations that you may have had in the past regarding some challenges that you may see that they've had. Remember, by the time you get to a sit-down meeting this shouldn't be anything new to the parents. They will likely have been expecting this.

You want to keep this conversation positive because ultimately, we're trying to get to a positive partnership where we can really do what's best on behalf of the child. Again, if it gets to a point where people are getting defensive and they're pushing back, you definitely want to be empathetic, but you want to keep it positive and keep bringing it back to the child.  You might say, "Let's remember why we're here. We want to help. That's why we're having this sit-down and why we called you into the office. We want to partner with you to make the best environment and get the best help that we possibly can for your child."

You want to share the action steps that you've already done. You might say, "We've tried redirection and we've tried the ready approach. We've even tried timeout. That's not the way that we do things, but you've suggested it so we tried it. We've tried a behavioral chart." We want to make sure that we've tried everything. Ensure that you're sharing with the parents all the action steps that you have taken. They may not have known them all. They may have known of some during this open process of communication, but they may not know all of them. You definitely want to make sure that you have documented all of the action steps that you've taken as a classroom team to try to get Johnny to succeed.

You want to ask the parents, "What do you see at home? Do you see any of this working? Do you see a difference in him?" You want to listen and take notes. Make sure you let the parents know that you're going to take notes though. You could even say, "I want to make sure you know I'm not trying to be rude by not looking at you and taking notes. I'm just taking notes on what you're saying so that when we circle back to this after the meeting and create the action steps of where we're going to go from here that I remember everything that you've said to us. Then my teaching team and I can refer back to it." Also, when you take notes, regardless of whether it's a conversation with a coworker or a conversation with parents, people tend to be a little bit more reserved and don't get as heated. They may think before they talk because you're taking notes and documenting what they're saying.

You want to be empathetic, compassionate, and you want to seek to understand their perspective. However, you should expect denial, tears, anger, and blame. You're going to do everything that you can to keep this conversation positive and to keep bringing it back around to where it ultimately needs to be, and that focus is on the child, the behaviors, and the red flags that we're seeing. Ultimately, we brought everyone here together so that we can make sure that we get the help or we create the action plan together for the child. We need to all be on the same page when it comes to providing the best environment and services that we can provide for the child.

Have tissues and cold bottles of water available. Have that ability to remain professional. Don't take it personally, because this is a personal conversation. You are talking about somebody's child. I know when I said when you talk to coworkers don't make it personal, because it becomes personal. There is no other conversation that you can have with a parent about their child than a personal one. You can expect it to be taken personally, and then to get personally shot back at you. That's the one thing that you have to realize, this is a personal conversation about that family and child, it's not a personal conversation about you. You have to remember to be sensitive to that. Although you are being empathetic, you are also being professional.

Deeper Conversations with Parents

1. Educate yourself to help them.
2. Symptoms, not diagnosis.
3. Provide them a resource path.
a. Pediatrician
b. School District Child Study Team
c.Early Intervention
4. Be prepared with documents/observations to take.
5. Keep the conversation positive.
6. Expect denial, tears, anger and blame.
 

Let's talk about some deeper conversations that have to happen with parents. This may be beyond our scope of control and beyond our scope of expertise. Maybe we've had conversations about Johnny biting, not getting along, or about his transitional separation anxiety issues in the classroom. He's an only child and he's not used to sharing, he's not used to a group environment, and he's been with a nanny for so long. We've been able to sit with the parents and have conversations about ways that we as his teachers can take as an approach and how we as his childcare center can create more action steps for working and partnering with the parents. The parents have gone home with their homework to think of ways that we can partner together to work on that relationship and to create an action plan to help Johnny extinguish those behaviors and positively reinforce all the things that we can. These deeper conversations may be about things that we have realized are beyond our scope of expertise.

The first thing that you want to do is you is to educate yourself in order to help the parent. That means understanding what a child study team does, what your local district offers for children who may have early diagnoses of special needs, what a speech pathologist does, what an occupational therapist does, and what your center policy on having those people come in and use your facility if the child is still in an inclusion-type environment. Children with special needs can benefit from being included in your program but may need that side service, so what is your policy for letting those people in?

When you're talking to parents, just as we do with a child who's sick, you want to ensure that you are telling them the symptoms, not the diagnosis. Let me give you an example. We all know what pink-eye looks like, but you can't call a parent and say, "Your child has pink eye." You can call the parent and say, "His eye is extremely puffy. It's pink, the eyelid is swollen, and it is continuously oozing puss. When he woke up from nap it was kind of dried and crusted shut. We used a warm, wet compress to open that up, but I think you probably need to come and get him as per our illness policy and take him to a pediatrician." I didn't say, "Hey, your kid has pink eye." Instead, I gave the symptoms. I did not give the diagnosis. The same thing is going to happen here. A lot of things tend to come to light when children are in our care. You may see symptoms of Asperger's, autism, the child's palette not being developed, or speech delays. We can tell when they're not necessarily hearing us and they may need to get tubes because they've had one too many ear infections. We're not saying, "Your kid is autistic," but we are saying, "We are seeing some signs that are concerning to us. She really doesn't like to be around other children and it's very hard for us to make eye contact with her. We just want to sit and talk about some of those developmental milestones and those things that she should be achieving at this age because we think we might want you to talk to a pediatrician."

That's where you want to provide the parents with a resource path. You don't just want to bring them in and say, "Hey, this is what we're seeing, so good luck to you." You want to say, "Look, we think you should talk to your pediatrician. We can give you everything to bring to the pediatrician. Maybe you should talk to the child study team." I know that within our district, once a child turns 18 months, or two, or three, that you can actually get a free evaluation. That may give you the option to go see the Early Intervention Team, which is usually part of the child study team. You don't want to just say, "Hey, your kid has issues." You want to be there to partner with the parents and give them all of the paths that they can take. They're going to take this information in and it is going to be crushing to them that their child may have an issue. You want to be the one to help support them and send them where they need to go. Sometimes parents will go home and wonder where to begin.  You can be the one to give them that path.

You want to be able to give them all that documentation and all of those observations that you've taken, because they're just going to go to a pediatrician and be say, "This is what my childcare center is saying." Give them copies of all the documentation you have so that they can take with them. You want to try the best you can to keep that conversation positive. "We're all here to really do what's best for him." Again, you want to expect the denial, the tears, the anger, and the blame, it's going to happen, but in the end, it's what's best for the child.

Summary

In conclusion, let's remember that there are so many forms of communication. It's not always what you say, it's how you say it. It's being empathetic. Having good communication and being a good communicator is also a lot about listening. There are so many benefits to communicating, and even difficult conversations have benefits to them. Always remember that when you are communicating with somebody, you want to have a clear plan, have clear objectives, and get everybody on the same page when it comes to creating action plans.

Put it into Practice

  1. Try saying it using only positives! (No, Don’t, Stop)
  2. Partner up to assess each other’s written and group-oriented communication.
  3. Have daily, 5-minute, lunchtime huddles to promote real-time communication.
  4. Work to improve each other’s approaches on HOW things are said.
  5. Practice having difficult conversations with teammates or family members.

Your follow-up homework is putting this into practice. Really try to say the positives and don't use the words no, don't and stop. Think about different ways you can say difficult things. Partner up and talk to one another. You might say, "Look, I need to say this to my coworker. Can I just say it to you, and you let me know if it's a little crass or if I need to say it a different way?"

Have lunchtime huddles. That's a great way to keep open communication. Here are some things you could say:

  • Hey, guys, what went great this morning?
  • What d

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jennifer romanoff

Jennifer Romanoff, MA

Jennifer Romanoff, MA ECE, is a trainer of early childhood teachers, center administrative teams, and owners. A published author of three books on responding to toddler behavior, Jennifer has been teaching and training in the early childhood education field for over 27 years. She has presented nationally both through live sessions and webinars. As Vice President of Education and Training for her company, Jennifer also creates trainings to support best practices, excellence in education, and the accreditation process. A supervisor series of trainings developed specifically for center administrative teams is Jennifer's current focus. This project has included use of a production studio, an online learning center, and simulcast capabilities, where she recently hosted an event for over 800 attendees.



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