Giving Difficult Feedback to Parents

When teachers “bundle” feedback for parents, tough conversations can go much smoother.

As educational partners, teachers and parents share responsibility for the success of children. Keeping open lines of communication is essential to maintaining a relationship of transparency and trust. Parents expect and deserve honest feedback about their children’s progress. But when situations call for difficult conversations, teachers can become agitated and apprehensive.

Will hearing negative feedback about their kids make parents defensive or supportive? Point fingers or lend a hand? Brain research shows that negative feedback floods neural pathways with cortisol, the stress-inducing hormone, and triggers our threat awareness. How can teachers give parents the information they need to know but might not want to hear?

A standard approach is the “praise sandwich,” which attempts to sidestep blame, conflict and hurt feelings by surrounding negative feedback with positive statements. After opening with praise (“Johnny is so energetic!”), the teacher quickly slips in a specific critique (“With all that energy, he can become quite disruptive in class”), then closes on a positive note (“But he adds so much to our learning community”). While this tactic remains popular, it’s not always effective: Since people tend to remember the first and last things they hearthey focus on the praise at the ends and not the critique in the middle. The “sandwich” delivery softens the message but doesn’t necessarily strengthen the meaning.

An alternative might look more like a “bundle.” Rather than buffering negative feedback with praise, teachers offer direct feedback comprised of specific observations and value statements:

1.      Context: Where is this happening?

2.      Observations: What has happened?

3.      Emotions: What feelings does this cause?

4.      Value: Why does this matter?

5.      Input: What can be done to achieve success?

First, teachers establish a feedback context by naming the time and place the problem is happening. Next, teachers provide specific and objective observations about the problem in action. From there, teachers describe the impact of the problem on the emotions of others and its value to the group as a whole. Finally, teachers seek active input from the receiver on how a positive and productive solution can be reached.

In the case of the excitable but disruptive Johnny, here’s how the teacher can give his parents more productive feedback using the “bundle” approach:

“Mr. and Mrs. Jones, I want to mention some concerns I have about the way Johnny is behaving during class (context). In the past two weeks, he’s been calling out frequently during small-group instruction. He also riles up his classmates during transitions (observations). As his teacher, I’m concerned that Johnny is falling behind his class work and frustrating his friends (emotions), which is detrimental to the learning environment we’re trying to create (value). Can you offer any suggestions as to why this is happening and how we can help Johnny improve (input)?

This is high-grade feedback. The teacher clearly defines the feedback context (small-group instruction and transitions), provides specific and targeted examples of the problem (calling out, causing distraction), expresses in personal terms what this means to her (“As his teacher, I’m concerned…”), gives basis to her claims by tracing their impact on others (degraded learning environment), and seeks advice from the receiver on how best to resolve the conflict (“Do you have suggestions?”). The teacher approaches Johnny’s parents as partners, not combatants, and uses matter-of-fact, nonaggressive language to win their support and find a solution.

It also defuses the uncomfortable tension that surrounds difficult conversations. These encounters can play out in one of two ways: (1) Refuse/Regret or (2) Reflect/Repair. In the first outcome, negative feedback is framed by denial, blame and helplessness. Both sides levy charges, trade accusations, reject accountability and later regret the damage done. But in the second outcome, negative feedback is fueled by acceptance, contribution and action. Both sides have a chance to state observations, offer input, explore solutions, and later reflect on progress made.

As I describe in my book, The Feedback Fixthis approach looks past who people are and focuses on who they are becoming. It dumps the past tense of traditional feedback and embraces the future-leaning language of “feedforward.” Most importantly, bundling feedback this way moves the focus from blame to contribution by actively seeking the receiver’s input on how to improve. It allows teachers and parents to hold honest and open conversation as true partners, and promotes positive problem-solving that has a real shot at success. Parents will be grateful for the candor. Teachers will be gratified by the consequences. Getting there requires a simple tweak, but the results can be quite significant.

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