I remember when the front desk would let me know I had a phone call with an angry parent. They’d say the last name and I thought: I know what this about. And it’s going to be long ride. I could hear the blades of the helicopter parent above me. This was my third phone call this week from this particular parent.
We throw around the term helicopter parents a lot in our field. It’s a category we might put parents in quickly but I think we confuse helicopter parents with someone confused or concerned about their student. My rule of thumb: two phone calls in one week about separate issues gives them their helicopter license.
But how can we follow FERPA but help the parent cope with whatever is going on? How do we meet them halfway?
We simply LAND them.
L: Listen. More often than not, I would interrupt parents immediately when they had some misinformation or thought my student staff were out of line. I tend to play defensive, but when I did that would kill the conversation and now the anger and frustration would land on my lap—and nothing would get accomplished. I made it a habit to keep a pen and paper by my desk and listen as the parent talked. Just listen. I took notes. I empathized and remembered that the parent was worried. When the parents had finished talking or asked a non-rhetorical question, I’d move on.
A: Advise. When a natural pause would occur, I’d say, “I know this must be hard. I can only advise and respond in general terms, but I want to help.” Then I would clarify our policies for all of our students. I would not say their student’s name, but say things like, “Well, I’d advise students who are homesick to—”, “I usually direct students to—” or “Our policy for student conduct is this—.” Now if they asked about the conduct of our staff, I’d say, “I’m going to get into the bottom of that and see what occurred.” 95% of the time that resolves the situation peaceably. Here’s the rest of the 5%.
N: Navigate. When parents ask for something that I can’t provide such as specific details or a follow up I can’t give, I navigate those tough waters by using statements like: “I know it’s difficult—not knowing, but I assure you this is getting my attention” or “I know your student is homesick, but in my experience this is normal development.” (Note: do not ever make a promise you can’t keep or won’t. Also, issues that need serious attention, police or security, should be responded to. I feel silly saying that. You know that. You’re a smart person.) But what if the navigation doesn’t work? About the 1%
D: Define Boundaries. I once had a parent ask me how to set up a fake Facebook account for her student as bluntly as an oncoming train. I’ve had parents ask me to make sure their student was in my 9 PM on weekdays. I’ve had parents walk into a conduct proceeding with a lawyer. LAW-YER. We’ve had situations but as one coworker said, “Mama bear—baby bear.” The mama bear will do anything to defend the child. Anything. So I’ve learned to tell parents this simple phrase, “This is our system for having the best result for our students and our community” and then I explain the system. If the parent is calling me too much, I try and make a joke out of the situation (careful with this) “Mrs. Smith, I know you’re concerned, but we’ve talked to three times this week and my mother and wife are getting a bit jealous of our time! What do you say we check in next month on Billy’s homesickness and I’ll greet him when I see him at this week’s program?” Carefully and steadfastly explain the school’s boundaries. I once sent a link to a parent about the school’s grand opening of the Women’s center. The parent’s student was there, socializing and laughing. The next week I got a tin of homemade fudge and a thank you note—but not another call.
It is difficult to navigate those waters, but by creating areas of conversation and listening, you can help parents navigate the tough waters they have found themselves in!