MindMatters Panel: Module 3.2 Communicating with parents

Julia Zemiro:
Hello, I’m Julia, welcome to the MindMatters panel. George Bernard Shaw told us, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” So to give us some advice on communicating more effectively with parents we have: clinical psychologist and family therapist, Andrew Fuller; Centre for Multi-cultural Youth Education support officer, Placid Jayasuriya; school psychologist, Sarah Inness; teacher, Nerissa Rodriguez and parent, Monique Parlevliet. But first let’s see if the staff at Eagleton can give us any good ideas.

Eagleton High clip:

PHILLIP
Interpersonal communication is a skill, like tennis or juggling. You get better with practice. But some people like Rob here, aren’t all that comfortable trying new things in conversation, which is why we provide direct coaching. With these ear pieces!

ROB
It really helps.

PHILLIP
Let’s watch Rob and Trisha in action.
 
TRISHA
Okay, so these are Jackson’s parents.

ROB
Thank you for coming Mr and Mrs Pollock. 
 
MRS POLLOCK
Please, call me Stella.

ROB
Yes, yes, of course.

TRISHA
Jackson just got a job at the local supermarket.
 
ROB
Jackson just got a job at the local supermarket. 

MRS POLLOCK
Yes, you know, he wanted some independence and some extra money for his art supplies.

TRISHA
Emphasize these strengths.

ROB
Jackson is very strong.
  
TRISHA
No! Strengths! His dedication to his art!
  
ROB
Oh! His dedication to his art is of a great strength.

MRS POLLOCK
Well, he does love it. I mean what did you think of the piece he handed into the Art Show?

TRISHA 
Crap!
 
ROB
Crap!
 
TRISHA
Ahhhhhh! 

ROB
Ahhhhhhhh!

MRS POLLOCK
He… he won first prize...

TRISHA 
I think he just kicked me in the heart.
 
ROB
He kicked me in the heart. 

TRISHA
And punched me in the bladder.

ROB 
punched me in the bladder.

MRS POLLOCK
Yes, yes, yes – and isn’t that what art is all about?

TRISHA
I have to go to the toilet, Rob. You’re on your own.

PHIL
Nice work Trish. Rob’s doing really well.

ROB
What a lovely conversation.
This is good!

Julia Zemiro:
Ok, right Andrew can you see the red light? 

Andrew Fuller:
Ok, yep.

Julia Zemiro:
Excellent yep Roger that, now smile like the radiant sun. That’s the way, wow these things are amazing they really work. 

Andrew Fuller:
Great. Rubber ducky let’s go.

Julia Zemiro:
Put it away, come on, that’s not what communication really is. Throw that away, from the two dollar shop. Seriously, teachers communicate with students and parents all the time obviously. Are these skills that need to be developed, Andrew – or are they just magically there?

Andrew Fuller:
The art of listening is a rare, rare skill. I guess teachers are busy people and they do spend a lot of their day talking. Which is great except that sometimes when a parent comes up about an issue, one of the things they have to learn without being too impolite about it is to shut up and listen rather than rush in and talk. So teachers are very helpful people in my experience, they want to help, they want to sort things out, they want to solve problems and that’s great, but sometimes it’s worth saying ‘Dear Mr Green, how can I help?’ and then –

Julia Zemiro:
Say nothing.

Andrew Fuller:
Open these things and close this for a bit and hear them. And then of course sometimes you’ll be dealing with parents who say things that are, sound initially hostile and again the initial inclination of a teacher will be to defend her or himself.  Try not to do that either, try to ask if there’s something you’re not clear about. Ask a clarifying question so ‘I want to understand, do you mean this? Or do you mean that?’ Give yourself enough space to really hear the concern. And then it’s to ask a really, really, really important question, which is ‘Is this something you want me to do something about or is it something you want me to just know about?’ 

Julia Zemiro:
What’s the difference, why is that such an importance difference?

Andrew Fuller:
Well teachers are amazed often because they are inclined to rush around and try and sort problems out. They’ll be amazed how often parents say ‘I just want you to know,’ ‘I just want you to hear what I’m going through at home in terms of getting Betsy-Lu to school’ or whatever it might be. So it’s nothing, there’s no job for them to do. It’s often because parents, sorry, teachers do rush around and try to sort it out that parents sometimes feel a bit railroaded by them.

Julia Zemiro:
Is that true?

Sarah Inness:
I don’t want to disparage your very hard working profession, many of whom will be watching this after –

Julia Zemiro:
Many of whom will be watching –

Sarah Inness:
– from my school. But I do think Andrew is right. They do want to rush in, they do want to solve problems and if it’s just enough to take a little bit of the pressure off to know that all you need to do is listen and maybe offer to share that information with other people who would benefit from knowing. And you can offer a small discreet group not ‘I’m going to email all the teachers in the school this information’ but maybe you would know the direct line that that would follow.

Julia Zemiro:
When we’re talking about these communication skills aren’t teachers taught these skills already? Like isn’t that part of teacher training?

Nerissa Rodriguez:
No. Definitely not.

Julia Zemiro:
Well, why not?

Nerissa Rodriguez:
I really don’t know.

Julia Zemiro:
It’s something you need to pick up by osmosis or something?  

Nerissa Rodriguez:
Well I’m fortunate, I came from a hospitality background. But, it is very difficult if you’ve gone from high school to university, to school as a teacher.

Julia Zemiro:
I actually agree with you. I think hospitality – because I waitressed for a thousand years as well. It’s – you do learn how to read people, all the other stuff aside. And because you – if I can say – you kind of want to get a tip by the end – you’re reading them to go ‘well what do I need to do, to get what I want by the end of this?’ But then you started realising you could make assumptions about people, you thought you could, you start to actually approach them on a different level, you discover a little bit about them throughout an interaction that can last between 1 and 2 hours and so by the end you become pretty good at reading people and finding out what they want. And what they don’t want. So how do then teachers get those skills?

Sarah Inness:
Well there’s training available.

Julia Zemiro:
Do they go?

Sarah Inness:
Do they go I don’t know. I’ve been fortunate within the independent school system, we’ve got some scope and flexibility and I’ve been asked occasionally within my school to provide some learning around active listening skills. But there are accidental counselling courses around so that just – that idea already gives you that maybe you’re not meant to be a counsellor, which teachers we don’t want them to be counsellors but gives you the skills to manage a situation with students who might be presenting issues that could be a little bit more hairy than you might expect in your typical teaching day. And that’s your active listening skills, support skills, being ready to refer on – how you do that, it’s a pretty decent course.  

Julia Zemiro:
Andrew, what’s your take?

Andrew Fuller:
Let’s say if we’re dealing with a very fraught conversation between two people. What happens is the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for fight and flight– gets activated and that essentially blocks the kind of higher order thinking. So if they’re kind of feeling fairly heated and a bit fragile and you basically also feel threatened and fragile then that’s two dinosaur brains basically talking to one another and not much conscious sort of higher order thinking is going to happen. So just realising that’s important because of course, you know, rather than blab blab blab going on and on as often when we’re under pressure we’ll often blab blab blab. It’s realising that really probably in stressful duress states you can probably only take in 3 bits of information really and that might be something like ‘Well it’s clear we have an issue but we also have a common interest, which is, you know, the student’s best interests at heart. Would you like me to communicate with other people and look into it and how soon would you like me to get back to you about that?’ and probably that’s about it.

Julia Zemiro:
What about parents you don’t like or have nothing in common with – Placid – what can happen there?

Placid Jayasuriya:
We have all different, you know, all sorts – 

Julia Zemiro:
All sorts. Everyone does.

Placid Jayasuriya:
Coming in with all different issues. I think they, we sort of go by a strength based approach so we’re looking for positives, you know, the fact they are coming and talking to me or talking to our services or over the school, that’s a positive, you know. We can use it, you know, again it sort of comes back to that relationship working with, you know, the communication, sometimes not understanding, emphasising, not quite understanding where they’re coming from.  

Julia Zemiro:
I think sometimes you can be speaking English and English and no one knows going on. I mean it’s what you were saying then it’s like oh the language may not be there but the language is there and you’re still not hearing anything I’m saying. You know it’s that kind of active listening as well. You were nodding Sarah – do you agree?

Sarah Inness:
Yeah I think that perhaps, when you’ve got difficult people, you’ve got to try and find, anywhere in life you’ve got to be able to find a way that you can have a working relationship and often parents, when they’re difficult it’s because they’re anxious or they just have no clue what’s going on at home. They might be dealing with their own issues that we don’t know about. They’re not ready to share with us or will ever share with us and allowing them to have their say and their voice for a little bit can help alleviate a lot of the anxiety that might come up in difficult conversations.

Julia Zemiro:
What do you do if a conversation doesn’t go well?

Sarah Inness:
I think it’s important to think too that we can’t always be perfect and get these things right.

Julia Zemiro:
I beg your pardon. Yeah but I know, it’s true – it’s very difficult.

Sarah Inness:
Yeah. I think if you approach it thinking that you have to get it right, it makes it harder when it doesn’t go the way that you expect it’s going to go, and frequently I’ll have conversations that deviate from where I actually thought it was going to be and I’m off somewhere else. So and that’s in a more pleasant conversation so when it’s a more difficult conversation I think accepting that perhaps it’s not your fault, that sometimes these things happen and maybe that opportunity to debrief, take a step back, but also to think well what can I learn from this?, what actually went well?, first of all. But then how can I learn from this conversation for next time?, because you’re going to have many conversations with parents in the future where the risk is that it could go south and so it’s helping you for that next time. Yeah.

Julia Zemiro:
What type of interpersonal or communication skills are important for teachers when they’re interacting with parents. What did you find Mon? Especially when Ashleigh was diagnosed with depression in Year 10 and you had to change schools – what would you have liked more of?  

Monique Parlevliet:
We met on a one-to-one basis obviously because we enrolled Ash at a different time, but they took the time to speak to us, to hear us and Ash. And I think what really struck me is that by the end of that first session, Ash felt so comfortable she actually told them about her mental health issues. So that was without prompting from us that was without us going ‘you know we really think it’s advisable that they know.’ It was actually a case of her going ‘I want you to know that I have depression.’ 

Julia Zemiro:
How much impact can just one conversation actually have?

Placid Jayasuriya:
I think it can have a great impact on the settlement process. Often parents are looking to get their children settled in their schooling so if everything’s going well – 

Julia Zemiro:
It’s just one building block in getting into the next thing. 

Placid Jayasuriya:
That’s right, and I think having those difficult conversations, I think it’s important that for teachers that if they get caught off guard then they can stop and not having to continue on and making time. Because the parent may not be ready to have that conversation either, so you may want to make time – stop – make time to have that conversation.

Julia Zemiro:
So you can stop that’s true, that idea that you have to go ‘oh well we booked this 15 minutes, I’d better do something’ and then going actually this won’t actually lead to anything and we need to kind of set something that’s better. And that takes a boldness, doesn’t it?, to do that, and courage. One conversation can have a big impact?

Andrew Fuller:
Oh a great conversation can change your life. I think a conversation where you’re truly heard, where you’re truly seen, where you’re truly acknowledged is a magical thing. It’s almost like, it’s like dropping a pebble into the pond of your life and it resonates, it has echoes. And we know that in our research on resilience, that basically it’s when a teacher or an adult outside a kid’s family says, ‘You’re alright, you’re the kind of kid I like, there’s something about you I can see that nobody else can see that you can’t even see about yourself.’ That changes that child’s life, or when a parent says that to a child the same thing occurs and when adults recognise the humanity of other people and kind of really acknowledge that yeah it is tough, I don’t know what to do about it either but gee it’s tough and well I’m going to look into it and kind of see if we can get this kind of sorted. That really forms that bond that changes people’s lives.

Julia Zemiro:
Thinking deliberately about our conversations can be exhausting. I know because comedian Jarod Kintz once said ‘I consider conversations with people to be mind exercises but I don’t want to pull a muscle so I stretch a lot –  that’s why I’m constantly either rolling my eyes or yawning.’