Five Ways Educators Can Build Rapport with Parents During Meetings
POSTED ON: August 15, 2022
As a practicing speech-language pathologist in a high school, I realized the majority of times I called a parent, it was to get something from them–availability for a meeting, an update on their child’s speech and language abilities in the home, etc. On top of that, when I called parents, they tended to assume I was calling to tell them their child was acting up in school, or they knew I wanted to schedule a meeting. I could sense from the calls that my caller ID was a stressor for them.
So I decided to try something different:
I chose one student who was outstanding in speech therapy–whether it was by simply attending, participating, or being respectful to peers–and I called their caregiver to brag about their child.
I remember calling one parent who, when I told him I was calling about his daughter, began apologizing for whatever she had done. I smiled and told him to take some deep breaths because she was making excellent progress in therapy and was a friend to all in her group. The father made an audible sigh and thanked me so much for calling him. He then shared with me that he was going through a divorce, and my student had been acting out in other classes due to difficulties at home. Later, the student shared with me that she and her father went out to dinner to celebrate the phone call.
Good rapport between educators and families is priceless, and can potentially change a meeting from being stress-inducing to joyful. While you may not have the time to call parents before a meeting to compliment their child, there are simple things you can do during a meeting to help build rapport:
- 1. Embrace moments to build a relationship.
While agendas during meetings can be lengthy, taking a few minutes to build relationships with family members can be a simple step to show you care. Questions can be as simple as “How is your day going?” or they can even be open-ended statements such as “Tell me about your family.” Depending on the situation, pay attention to conversation starters as the family walks in. For example, if the caregiver comes in wearing scrubs, you can ask about their job.
- 2. Begin with oepn-ended questions that are positive and show you care about this child.
During IEP meetings, it’s typical to want to talk about how a child is progressing on goals, or what specific difficulties they are working on. However, one of my internship supervisors taught me an important lesson by starting with a positive, open-ended question: “What do you see as your child’s greatest strengths?” This may sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out: a child’s strengths can provide insight as to how to best engage them in therapy. If my child has difficulty verbally communicating but loves to draw, I can use drawing as a way to help the child tell a story, or describe something. After a parent states what they see as their child’s strengths, you can respond by sharing your observations as well. One simple question can help the parent realize that you see their child’s potential.
- 3. As a caregiver responds, be aware of your nonverbal and paraverbal expressions.
Nonverbal statements can be made before a meeting even begins. Seating arrangements (whether you sit across from the parent or next to the parent) can send a specific message. Typing notes constantly during a meeting is a nonverbal expression that can make parents anxious about what is being written down. Paraverbal expressions are what happens as the parent talks. These include the prosody, or intonation, of your voice; your facial expressions or even a slight nod of your head in agreement; even something as small as folding your arms can show that you are not open to hearing others’ responses. Rather than hyperfocus on the myriad ways nonverbal communication is happening during a meeting, you may want to occasionally check in with yourself by making sure you are doing your best to communicate, being open and willing to listen.
- 4. Validate a caregiver’s thoughts and feelings.
Validating someone’s thoughts, feelings, and/or concerns shows that you care. It does not have to mean you agree with them, but it shows that you are listening to them and want to help them. Most of the time, however, I agree with my caregivers’ concerns; in fact, their concerns for their child are often what I am targeting in therapy. Responses can be as simple as “I can see how you would feel that way.” or “That must be very difficult.” These responses are typically short and followed by what you can do in the following tip.
- 5. Restate what a caregiver says to ensure understanding and show that you are listening
As a child, my mom would make me repeat back her instructions to me to ensure my understanding. Now, when someone shares thoughts with me or asks me to complete a task, I restate what I heard them say to make sure we are on the same page. Note that I do not repeat verbatim what they said (that would be annoying). Rather, I say “Let me make sure I understand what you said…” or “If I understood you correctly, you said…” and then I summarize it in my own words. After validating someone’s thoughts and feelings, you can restate what they are saying to show that you are trying to understand them. A lot of times, this task can be a segue to their child’s goals and how they can support therapy goals in the home.
Brene Brown aptly stated, “People are hard to hate up-close. Move in.” Now, I’m not saying educators hate parents, but these meetings bring out the vulnerability in everyone. Parents are used to hearing about how their child isn’t measuring up or needs to make improvements–the list goes on and on. The tips here are ways to help us remove the walls we put up as meetings are about to start and instead offer a hand to caregivers and family members sitting across from us at the table.
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