As a teacher, this sentence is one of the hardest to tell a parent of a young student. Often this is a conversation that is had during parent-teacher conferences, or perhaps the child’s behavior has warranted a special meeting with the parents. Hearing these words from a pediatrician, teacher or school counselor can be highly upsetting for parents, who often blame themselves, or immediately deny the issue. How can you bring up this issue in a way that parents can really hear you, and not immediately react negatively to a suggestion of having their child evaluated professionally?
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “The context is decisive.” As a psychologist specializing in neuropsychological and psychoeducational evaluations, consultation, and treatment, I know that how I handle these sensitive conversations can make all the difference in how a parent feels when they leave my office, and in how they handle taking care of their child’s needs. Your demeanor matters, the order in which you talk about things matters, how you handle their feelings matters, and how you answer their questions matters.
1. Start with all of the positive things you have to say about the child—Tell the parents about how their child was kind to another child that week, or how excited they were to create a new piece of art in school. Say something positive about the child’s relationship with their parents if you can. Remember, parents blame themselves for their child’s behavior most often, so pointing out the positives helps reassure them that they are good parents. A great example is, “John is so creative and loves to talk about the art projects he works on at home with you. I can tell you have a real interest in helping him grow and develop the things he’s most interested in.”
2. Be kind and respectful no matter what—Keep in mind this is such a sensitive subject that parents may act defensive, may be in denial and may even try to blame you. It’s important not to take any of it personally, it’s not about you. Show warmth, empathy and respect to help parents trust and listen to what you have to share.
3. Ask if the parents have concerns and questions about how their child is developing—Ask specific who, what, when, where and how questions to find out if parents have noticed anything. This will help you gather more information and also move the parents towards focusing on the issue. It will also help you learn if the parents have observed anything at all different with their child. It could be as simple as, “Have you noticed if Mary is having a hard time hearing you when she’s turned away from you?” “How long has this been happening and where does it happen most?”
4. Share your concerns—Only do this after the parents have had a chance to talk. It may help to practice this part of the conversation on your own first, and to have some specific statistics to back yourself up. This might include typical developmental milestones for a child of that age etc. Choose your words carefully when doing this and don’t make statements that make it seem like you’ve already come to a conclusion about the child or have labeled the child in some way.
5. Avoid using labels at all or technical terms—Often when we are in a particular field, we become so used to verbiage we use with other professionals in the field that we forget “laymen” may not understand or worse, may misunderstand the terms. Especially in this case, you want to be sure to keep it simple and use only words that describe what you’ve observed about the child. Give specific examples of incidents that have occurred, rather than telling the parent their child “is” something in particular.
6. Stress the importance of checking things out right away rather than waiting—Sometimes a parent thinks a child’s behavior is “just a phase.” They are confused and scared and may want to wait and see if their child “grows out of this.” Stress that the evaluations will shed light on both their child’s strengths and their weaknesses. It’s important to let them know that early evaluation will ensure that their child’s strengths and weaknesses are addressed properly to have them grow and develop. And that the evaluations will help the school provide whatever support is necessary to keep their child from struggling and falling behind. No parent wants to see their child struggle, and this will go a long way toward avoiding that scenario.
7. Be prepared to offer information and resources to the parents—Have contact information and website information about the issues you’ve observed, about the types of evaluations you are recommending, and about the types of help a child can receive at school once the evaluation is complete. Give them a clear pathway to see what needs to be done next for their child. Let them know you are available for them, listen to their concerns, and offer whatever resources are available.
As someone who cares for children every day, you are in a unique position to see things about that child others don’t, and as such you are most likely to see if they are struggling in class. Sharing your concerns respectfully with parents shows you really care about their child. Let the parents know that having their child tested for learning and attention issues is an important step toward helping that child manage his or her challenges. It’s also an opportunity to help him or her make the most of his or her education.
Shira Gottlieb, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Dr. Gottlieb is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her B.A. in psychology, with a minor in neurobiology, from Harvard University, and her Psy.D. from the George Washington University. Dr. Gottlieb works with children and adolescents, and their families, to provide comprehensive neuropsychological and psychoeducational assessments to better understand the individual child’s attention capacities, learning profile, emotional functioning, and behavioral presentation. For more information on Dr. Gottlieb please visit her website at http://www.gottliebchildpsych.com/