As a teacher, you are able to witness how children behave when they are separated from their family, in a social environment where learning is a key focus. In the school environment, you may notice things that parents don't particularly get to see. So how do you approach a family, kindly and respectfully, when you believe that their child may benefit from an IQ, Cognitive, Learning or Developmental assessment?
Here are our top tips of how best to approach parents.
Schedule a time when parents are ready to talk and fully present.
Keep in mind that parents can easily feel they have done something wrong if their child has learning/cognitive problems. They may overreact or come across as defensive, or in denial. This is because they care for their children but they don’t know what to do in this situation.
Focus on listening, talking with (and not at) them, be clear and show that you want to collaborate. Talk slowly, to allow the parents to absorb what you are saying. Make sure to be mindful of the parents’ behaviour and overall mood. Provide some validation and relate to how they’re feeling e.g. “Parenting is a full time job, and we’re not given guidelines on how to do it”.
Start with the positives.
Start by sharing the positives about the child’s learning and development e.g. “They were able to sit still in class today”.
Provide specific, objective examples.
When talking about any difficulties, provide specific, objective examples. For example, instead of “I feel your child has problems”, draw upon a specific situation e.g. “During a drawing activity, the class was focused on the task. I observed your child being distracted, looking out of the window and not talking to his classmates. After 1 hour, he was the only student who had not finished the work”. Providing concrete examples will help the parents to understand that you are being professional and objective in your approach.
Ask for their input.
Show openness to collaboration. “Did you notice a similar behaviour at home?”, “How do you help your child maintain attention at home?” Check what parents think about the issue. Remember that perceptions of what’s appropriate can differ between cultures or contexts. For example, “How does your family handle it when children don’t tell the truth?”
Make this meeting a collaborative brainstorming and decision-making session.
When you notice that parents are more at ease, start by introducing ideas/suggestions that build upon one another. Set a specific timeframe, where progress can be evaluated and strategies reviewed. “We could try a behaviour chart and meet in 6 weeks to decide if this strategy is working?”, “We could then explore the option of having an assessment.” Evaluate the pros and cons together, with the child’s best outcomes in mind. The strategies will be implemented at school but need to be consolidated at home to maintain consistency.
Don’t pressure the parents to decide the next steps straightaway. Make sure to write down suggestions and notes and provide them to the parents so they can go home, process and talk about it, then meet with you again the following week. You may need a couple of interactions with parents to facilitate a referral to a psychologist for an assessment.
Schedule a follow-up phone call or meeting.
Remember to check in with the family without judgement.
Show continual support.
Show your intention to continually support the family throughout the process. Show openness to help parents liaise with health professionals. It may be helpful to provide the family with a few names or websites.
This definitely can be a tricky subject to bring up, so it is important to do it respectfully. Hopefully, these strategies will help some teachers better navigate through the discussion with parents. Feel free to share with your colleagues!
Strategies by Dr. Isabelle Bauer (Northside Psychology Senior Psychologist and Assessment Lead)
B.S. (Psych), M.S. (Clin Psych), PhD (Neuroscience), Postdoctoral Fellowship in Neuroimaging and Cognition in Psychiatry, MAPS