Delivering Difficult News: How to Handle the Call Home


A student in your class is struggling academically, socially, or behaviorally. You know you have to call the student’s parents, but picking up the phone can be daunting for even the most experienced teacher. The parent may react defensively and question the veracity of the problem or your competence as a teacher. Or, perhaps, the parent will dismiss your concern and refuse to offer support. These common anxieties shouldn’t prevent you from making the call because with the right preparation these conversations benefit your struggling student, your relationship with the parent, and the class as a whole.

Parents are your students’ first teachers, and the lessons they teach will impact your students for the rest of their lives. When parents and teachers team up, the struggling student buys-into the learning process and has the support and consistency needed to own his or her learning. No one likes to deliver or receive bad news, but these 8 tips can turn an unnerving phone call into an important step towards creating the strong parent-teacher partnership your student needs to thrive and reach his or her potential in the classroom.

Before you pick up the phone

1. Schedule the call

If you can, schedule the phone call with the parent in advance. This way, the parent has time to prepare, and you can speak free from interruption. Send the parent an email asking them to set up a time to speak with you. Offer several time slots and keep the email short and cordial.

When an immediate concern arises and you cannot schedule a call in advance, we suggest starting your call with the question, “Do you have about 5-10 minutes to speak with me?” If they do not, be open to rescheduling.

2. Plan before you dial

It’s a great idea to keep anecdotal notes about your student’s behaviors, good and bad. Sharing specific examples with parents is a great way to communicate issues and show your professionalism.

When preparing for your call, take some time to reference your notes. Preplanning means (1) you can focus and organize your thoughts so the call has a clear purpose and goal; and (2) you have a cheat sheet to keep you on-track and calm during the call. For especially difficult or complicated issues, you may want to script your conversation. We suggest this great resource to help you prepare your script.

3. Rehearse with a colleague or mentor

Take some time to run through what you plan to say during your parent-teacher call with a trusted colleague, mentor, or guidance counselor. This not only provides a dry run of the call, but also presents an opportunity in which your colleague can provide you with objective feedback, suggestions, and strategies for engaging parents and addressing difficult situations without judgment.

During the call

4. Be polite, professional, and confident

While speaking with a parent, it’s important to remain direct and polite to set the tone of the conversation. To start your call, introduce yourself and state your purpose for calling. Thank the parent for taking the time to speak with you at both the beginning and end of your conversation.

What you say is just as important as how you say it. Try to avoid using colloquial speech patterns like uptalk, vocal fry, and an excess of filler words such as “like” or “um.”

Even though a parent can’t see you during the phone conversation, body language is still key to projecting confidence and authority. According to social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, body language shapes our mind and behavior. Standing in a power pose for just two minutes before an important call, for instance, can actually make you feel confident and change the way others perceive you.

5. Stick to the facts

A key aspect of classroom management is to never take a student’s misbehavior personally, which can help you stay objective during your call. When speaking to parents, it’s a best practice to explain the student’s observable behaviors, the actions you took to address them, and the impact they had on the student and the rest of the class. Here is an example:

“During a group project today, Lucas turned away from his assigned group several times to socialize with members of other groups. I prompted Lucas to stay on task twice. However, this issue persisted throughout the class period. When Lucas socializes during group work time, he misses out on important learning and distracts others from their work.”

6. Present yourself as an ally

A child’s classroom extends far beyond school grounds. Like you, parents want their student to be successful academically, socially, and behaviorally, so take time to emphasize your common goal: helping the student become a positive, contributing member of the classroom.

To solidify your teacher-parent relationship, ask for the parents’ input. Have they observed similar problems at home, or has the student spoken about the problems he or she is having at school? Parents may have information that is crucial for fully understanding the student’s problem or are already taking steps to help the student. A conversation with the parents can help you understand the problem, create an action plan, and establish a relationship of respect, communication, and collaboration.

7. Come to the table with a possible solution and provide next steps

Changing student behavior is a team effort. Think about how you can work together to support the student, instead of how the parent can “fix” the problem. Providing the parent with possible next steps demonstrates your solutions-oriented mindset and builds parents’ trust.

Before ending the call, plan a time to check in with the parent. Explain that at that time, you will share the student’s progress and get the parent’s feedback. Commitment on both sides to follow through enhances your student’s chance for success.

After the call

8. Follow up

Call the parent to let them know how things are going. Keep the parent informed on the student’s improvement. The positive phone call home is a powerful tool; it shows both the parent and student that you notice and value the student’s hard work and progress.

If the student is still having problems, the follow-up is an opportunity to adjust the action plan or schedule a parent-teacher conference. This is a great resource for holding a successful parent-teacher conference.

For more information about forming strong parent-teacher relationships, check out our course, Building Parent Engagement and the Common Core State Standards. Also check out these additional resources:

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