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Talking to families about their child’s behavior in the classroom

By Rosemarie Griffin

As an educator, it is difficult to talk to families about their child’s behavior. With all the factors that surround raising a child, most families tend to see classrooms as a positive environment where their little ones are shaped and guided in constructive ways. So discussing their child’s potential errant behavior poses a challenge. Regardless, it is in everyone’s best interest to have these difficult conversations head on, so that the child’s trajectory can be shifted toward something more suitable and appropriate.

Setting the tone for the conversation

There is a finesse required for these conversations. Families are understandably protective of their children and their values, and may react sensitively when it feels as if they’re being questioned. From an educator’s point of view, the tone of this discussion can be difficult to balance. Speak too factually, and it could risk being seen as insensitive. Speak with too much emotion, and the gravity of the situation may be unfelt. Ideally, the conversational energy is somewhere in the middle, and its execution depends on how well an educator knows the families that they serve. Below is a guideline on how to talk to families about their child’s behaviour in the classroom. 

A guideline on how to talk to families

  1. Be Factual and Anecdotal – When speaking of the child’s actions, always do it with a level of professionalism. Describe the situation as anecdotally as possible so that it doesn’t come across as a judgment on the child and/or family. Take some time to structure the conversation so that it’s free of inferences, and ensure that whatever is communicated about the child’s conduct is something that was seen and heard. Keep feelings and other intangible labels away from this part of the conversation to minimize any emotional reactions that could detract from your intent. 
  1. Be Honest with Your Vulnerabilities – As mentioned above, these conversations are challenging because no one really enjoys giving potentially difficult news. So when it’s appropriate, feel free to be transparent about how tough this situation is. You can say something like “This is a little hard for me to talk about” or “It makes me feel a bit nervous to have this conversation with you, but it’s important”. Empathy holds a lot of value, and helps families see how much you care about them and their child. They may also be more apt to listen if they feel that you’re approaching this situation from a heart-centric place.
  1. Highlight Unseen Repercussions of the Child’s Actions – The classroom can feel like a living organism and one person’s actions can have an effect on the entire group. Some behaviors can seem innocent and “no big deal” from a parent’s point of view, so you may have to illustrate exactly how their child’s way of behaving affects the rest of the program. For example, if a child is disruptive during nap time, talk about how that impedes everyone else’s need for sleep. The goal isn’t to make the families feel worse. Instead, it’s about helping them understand the consequences of how each person can affect the larger group, and why it’s important for this kind of behavior to be redirected. 
  1. Talk About the Strategies You Have Tried – As an early childhood professional, it is almost certain that you have already made attempts at behavioral guidance. Illuminating your effort will let families know of the amount of time, care, and strategies that you’ve already put in, thus making them more inclined to help. It’ll be much easier to get their alignment and participation once they understand what the process has entailed so far. This has the potential to strike the right chord between professional and vulnerable; be professional when talking about the strategies, and be vulnerable in asking for the family’s help. 
  1. Frame it in a Positive Light – Through the lens of early childhood education, there really is no such thing as “bad behavior”. Children are exploring and learning about the wide breadth of their humanity with equal parts liberation and recklessness. Sometimes, it feels pretty wonderful to be around! So while some of their behavior may be inappropriate or undesirable, it’s rarely ever “bad”. Make sure to let the families know this, as a way to assuage their concerns. For example, say something like, “[the child’s] exuberance is amazing when we are in the playground. However, we need to figure out how to help them dial it back a bit when it comes to sitting in the book centre”. Give families some reassurance that the goal isn’t to fix something that’s “wrong”. The goal is about proper guidance and helping the child self-regulate. 
  1. Use Video and Pictorial Documentation  – Sometimes, words aren’t enough, and depending on a person’s receptive communication style, they may need to be given a clearer illustration to understand how a child’s behavior impacts the classroom. This is why childcare apps such as HiMama are becoming more valuable tools to use. These apps can document a child’s actions as anecdotally as possible through the use of video and pictures. Remember the delicate nature of this conversation, and be sure to let the families know that your intention isn’t to make them feel bad; it is to share information with as little bias as possible. If done with the appropriate amount of care, showing families these documents can highlight the importance of this conversation and will create a greater understanding between all parties. More than that, these same apps can also be used to document strategies in real time. So when the child has overcome this slight developmental roadblock, their successes can also be shown to the families, and everyone can celebrate how the child has evolved. 
  1. Give Families Time to Ruminate, and Provide Resources – Depending on the nature of the child’s conduct, a resolution may not be found during the first meeting. Family members may need some space to think about the conversation and may want to align privately with their next course of action. This grants another opportunity to show some empathy by allowing them the time to process their thoughts and feelings. It’s also a good chance to provide links and resources to other professionals that they can turn to, so that they feel as supported and informed as possible. Keep in mind that as a caring professional, it’s important to set up a follow up meeting so that the matter isn’t forgotten. This cements your dedication to serving the family and the child. 
  1. End With Gratitude – It’s so simple that it can often be forgotten. Remember to thank the families for making space for this conversation, and be genuine when expressing your gratitude. This will give your families some extra solace that you are someone they can trust, because your goals are aligned with theirs when it comes to raising a healthy and well-balanced tiny human. 

The potential difficulty in these conversations will lessen with time and with intentional practice. In fact, it may be beneficial to role-play these conversations with your peers to help increase your level of comfort. In any case, if an opportunity for a conversation about a child’s behavior presents itself, face it directly with a balance of professional conduct and heart centered vulnerability. Once the difficult moments have passed, talking to families about behavioral guidance will simply be another one of your superpowers as an early childhood educator.

A blog post from our friends at HiMama

HiMama aims to improve the learning outcomes of children aged 0-5 and provides free resources to educators and families. HiMama’s childcare app facilitates open communication with families and enables contactless operation of your center, from documentation to payments.


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