Preparing for difficult conversations with families

As an educator you will inevitably have difficult conversations with families about their children. Here are a few strategies to use when preparing for these discussions. 

Apr 21, 2020

Children benefit when the significant people in their lives communicate and collaborate. This helps to ensure the best outcomes for their mental health, wellbeing and development.

It’s especially important to connect with families if you notice a change in their child’s behaviour. 

Get support from your team
If you’ve noticed changes in a child that you need to discuss with a family, it’s important to have support from other educators in your team to work out the best way to address the situation. 

Ask if anyone else has observed any changes. Discuss how you will approach the conversation with the family, workshop the questions you will ask, and plan how to make the family feel comfortable.

Conversations with other educators will help you create a plan you can be comfortable with.

How to start a difficult conversation

One effective way to start a difficult conversation is by asking the family to tell you what their child is like at home, or by voicing a concern you’ve observed. 
For example: “Lately, Alice seems a lot more upset than usual. She’s reluctant to play and appears very withdrawn. Have you noticed this at home, or have you had any concerns about her?”

Discover tips and strategies on understanding your role and maintaining professional boundaries when collaborating with families in the Assist module of the Family Partnerships Professional Learning.

Use the BETLS observation tool to shift the focus 

The response of some family members to questions about their child’s behaviour may be to downplay or deny the existence of any concerns.

The  BETLS observation tool can help to base the conversation on concrete, evidence-based examples of changes you’ve observed in the child’s behaviour. 

BETLS is an acronym for behaviour, emotions, thoughts, learning and social relationships. The tool is a template for gathering and documenting information and observations about a child or young person.

The tool guides you to make observations that should:

  • focus only on what you actually see and hear, rather than what you think about a child or young person’s behaviours, emotions and thoughts
  • take note of when, where, and how often a child or young person is showing a particular behaviour or emotion
  • notice what makes the child or young person’s experience worse and what makes it better
  • be recorded by different people and in different situations during the day.

Using the BETLS tool may also help to avoid the temptation to diagnose, which is best left to mental health professionals.

Give families time to reflect

Using concrete examples helps families to reflect on your conversation. 

Some families may not welcome the concerns you raise, as they may interpret what you say very differently, depending on their past experiences. They could respond with anger, disbelief, distress or grief. Other families will welcome the conversation as it helps them address some of their own concerns and worries about their child.

Finish your conversation by assuring families you’re always open to further discussions.

You may  also need to consider self-care if the conversation becomes professionally challenging.

Use the ‘Stop, Reflect, Act’ process to support difficult conversations

When you stop, it gives you a moment to make sure you don’t launch into autopilot. Instead, you take time to listen and learn.

When you reflect, you consider your thoughts and feelings and everyone’s physical and emotional safety. You consider what you know and what else you might need in purposeful and intentional ways before deciding how to act.

When you act, you don’t need to completely solve an issue or even have answers to questions. You might simply act in a way that prepares for the next step.

Learn more about communicating with families by exploring modules in the Family Partnerships and Early Support domains of the Be You Professional Learning.


Discuss approaches to difficult conversations with a Be You Consultant in any National Check-In. Book your next event here.