Working with the Parents of Students

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Chapter 19

WORKING WITH THE PARENTS OF STUDENTS

By Don Korzekwa, Ph.D.

It’s 20 minutes after the last class for the day. You’re still talking with the mother of one of your ten-year-old students. She wants him to participate in the next belt-promotion examination. You attempt to explain that he’s not ready quite yet. You think to yourself, “Doesn’t she understand? I’m the expert here. I’m the one in charge of belt promotions.” She thinks to herself, “Doesn’t he understand? I know my son. I’m the one in charge of whether he stays at this school.”

As an instructor at a martial arts school, you recognize that working with the parents of your young students is a critical element in your success. Parents have an investment in their children’s well-being at several levels, including physical and emotional aspects. Because of this investment, it is important to consider that your relationship with the child as instructor to student, also involves a working relationship with the parents.

Parents have certain expectations about your work with their child as a student at your school. They see their child as an individual with unique needs and characteristics, and expect that you will do the same. The manner in which you deal with the expectations of parents regarding their child’s training at your school will have an impact on the motivation of the parents to keep their kids at your school.

Parents can also offer the advantage of years of knowing and understanding their child in a variety of situations. They have a first-hand perspective on what interests and motivates their child. They may also alert you to any changes, problems or sensitivities of the child which can have an impact on his/her training in the martial arts. The more proactive you are in gathering this information, the better equipped you will be to make the training experience a good one for everyone from the outset.

It is also worth consideration that you and the parents can be allies in working with the child. Training directed toward the goals of increased self-discipline, self-confidence, and others can either be supported or ignored by parents when the child in not in class. The extent to which you have a solid working relationship with parents can make a difference in the degree of success which is achieved in guiding the child toward these goals. If you and the parents are communicating about the child’s progress, the consistency and continuity in your combined efforts are more likely to produce the desired results. If parents see you as a valuable ally in working with their child, they have added incentive in maintaining your relationship.

The bottom line is that it is important and advantageous for you to have a good working relationship with the parents of your young students. This can, however, be a difficult task. You may have many students, including children, in your school. The time which you have available to speak with parents is very limited. You may find that you have no difficulty in communicating with some parents, and a great deal of difficulty with others. Regardless of the challenges, it is up to you, as an instructor, to establish and maintain a good working relationship with the parents of your young students.

Establishing the Relationship

The first time the parents and child come to the school to talk with you, or to watch a class, is when the relationship begins to take shape. It is the first impression which they form of you as a potentially important person in the life of that child. If you do not connect with the parents and child in a meaningful way at that time, it is unlikely that the child will enroll to train at your school. They must feel confident in your abilities as a martial artist and instructor, and see you as a person who can understand and communicate with children and parents.

The following section deals with responding to parents’ questions and concerns, gathering information, and parents’ expectations related to their child’s problem behaviors. Communication skills which are discussed here are also relevant to maintaining the relationship with parents, which is discussed in the next section. Also, several examples of questions which you might ask are given for illustration. Although the suggested questions often refer to the child as “your son/daughter,” it is always best to use the child’s name when talking with parents.

Responding to Questions and Concerns

At the stage of “getting to know each other,” it is essential that you make every effort to listen carefully to the questions and comments of parents, and respond in a manner which addresses their unique concerns, interests and expectations. If you treat these issues as important when you first meet them, they will feel more confident that you will be sensitive to their needs as the child’s training progresses.

Questions asked by the parents vary in content. Some questions require straightforward, factual information in response. Here are some typical questions:

– What is your method of teaching? What about discipline for misbehavior in class?

– Are the classes large?

– What age groups comprise the classes?

– Are beginners taught in the same classes as advanced students?

– Do you teach the classes, or do you have other instructors?

The answers to other questions may be dependent upon a number of factors, including the predisposition of the child upon entering the class, the diligence with which they train, and a number of other variables, some unpredictable.

– Will my child learn to defend himself?

– Will he learn how to avoid a fight?

– Will he become more self-confident and disciplined?

– Will my child get hurt?

– When will he test?

– When will he get his black belt?

In response to these questions, it is important to keep in mind that what you teach, and what the child learns may not have as direct of a relationship as you, or the parents, would like. You face the same concerns as any instructor. A child may sit in a Spanish class with an excellent instructor for nine months, and learn to say nothing more than, “Adios” (“Good-bye”). If you begin to make lofty promises about what the child will learn, and this does not occur, “Adios” may be the message which you get from them.

You can more reliably talk about what you teach, and what you do to support each child in the learning process. If parents have specific goals for the child in martial arts training, you can suggest talking with them at appropriate intervals to discuss the child’s progress. In this way, you and the parents are agreeing to a working relationship which assists the child in meeting these goals.

It is important to understand that each question the parents ask gives you information about their expectations and concerns. They may be concerned that you are overly strict or inflexible in teaching methods, or in disciplining misbehavior. Possibly they fear that their child will get “lost” in a large class, or be intimidated by older, or more experienced students. They may be anxious about their child’s safety and want to know what they can expect from you in this regard. Listening carefully to the context in which the question is asked, the way in which it is phrased, and the parents’ response to what you say can reveal a great deal about such concerns and expectations.

Answers which respond clearly and concisely to the content of the questions are good.

Answers which respond to the content, as well as the fears, anxieties and expectations of the parents are better. The reason that these responses are better is that this establishes a working relationship which shows an interest in understanding their personal concerns and expectations related to having their child train in the martial arts. If indeed you want the parent to know that this training will help the child on a personal level, the better job you do at communicating at this level, the more effective you will be seen by the parents as being capable of meeting their needs.

This simply means that you allow parents to talk more personally about concerns and expectations, if they wish to do so. If the question about “defending himself” comes up, once you’ve related what you teach in terms of self-defense, you may say, “It’s important for kids to learn how to defend themselves in a variety of situations. Have there been some situations where you felt it would be good for your son to know more about defending himself?” If they choose to talk about the school bully picking on their child, you can begin to relate in a way that is more empathic and supportive of their needs.

Another example of responding at a more personal level may be if the parents ask about the size or make-up of the classes. Once you’ve talked about your class size and make-up, you may say, “We do our best to understand how each child responds to our group classes when they join, and give them the support that they need. What are your thoughts about having your son join in these group classes?” Again, you’ve opened the door for them to express any relevant personal concerns.

Parents of prospective students who ask, “When will my child test?” and particularly, “When will my child get his black belt?” may be communicating expectations which are best addressed at the outset of training. If you respond to such questions by talking about training and performance standards, you hope that the parents will be satisfied with this, and allow you to use your expert judgment as their child progresses at your school.

Parents who ask “when” something will occur, however, at times tend to be less concerned about “what” is required to make it occur. As these parents listen to your comments, they may make the assumption that their child will perform at the martial arts prodigy level, and most certainly receive their black belt within six months.

You can follow-up your response to this “when” question by saying to the parents, “I’d be interested in hearing some of what you might expect with regard to your child’s progress.” The goal of this comment is for you to become aware of their expectations, and to diplomatically clear, as needed, any misconceptions which could later become a point of conflict in the relationship.

Gathering Relevant Information

You can ask questions which show an interest in understanding the personal needs of the child and expectations of the parents related to martial arts training. Spend time getting to know the parent as well as the child. Your questions and conversation with the parent and child will, at minimum, help you assess the individual training needs of the child. They also allow you to talk with parents on a more personal level regarding these needs, and their expectations. You will gain an awareness of the mental, social and emotional development of the child, and begin to formulate in your own mind a “training plan” based upon the child’s abilities. For example, issues related to how well the child can attend to instruction in a group setting, process this information, and respond accordingly, will certainly have an impact on the child’s training.

In your assessment of the child’s needs, and the related expectations of the parents, you will gain insight as to how this child interacts with peers, particularly if problem behaviors exist which can have an impact on the functioning of the class as a whole. Will the child be demanding of the instructor’s time, possibly behaving in a manner which requires you to continually shift your attention to him/her?

Training in the martial arts places demands on the child to perform according to specified standards. It is important to assess the child’s ability to cope with the frustration which may accompany these demands. At the same time, you must assess how the parent expects that you will deal with any of these potentially problematic issues, should they exist.

Your assessment of the child, and parents’ expectations, can take the tone of a friendly conversation. Some questions for the parent may be:

– “How did your son/daughter get interested in the martial arts?”

– “Has your son/daughter trained before?”

– (If the answer is yes:) “What did you think about that training? What did you like? Was there anything you didn’t like?”

– (If the answer is yes:) “Tell me about that.”

– “Different people want to learn different things in the martial arts. What kinds of things might you want for your son/daughter to learn here?”

– “Are there some things which you would like to see emphasized in your son’s/daughter’s training?”

– (If the answer is yes:) “What are they?”

– “What kinds of things does he/she like to do for fun?”

– “How is school going for him/her?”

The responses to these questions can engage the parents in a conversation which helps you understand the training needs of the child, and the expectations of the parent. If the parents tell you that they are interested in enrolling their child in the martial arts because, “The kid needs to learn some self-control,” you had best gain insight into what they mean by this statement. Do certain problem behaviors exist which you should know about? If so, what are they? A simple “How so?” is a nice follow-up when parents make this type of comment.

Another scenario is that parents want their child to become more self-confident. Self-confidence can mean different things to different people. Are they bullied at school? Are they overly shy, or hesitant to speak up in class?

If you say to the parent, “Tell me more about that,” not only do you show an interest, but you can more specifically define what it is they expect for their child to get from training at your school. The key is not to assume that you know what the child needs from general statements. If you really are interested in helping the child and parent, find out specifically what it is they need help with first.

As you gain insight into the needs and expectations of the parents and child, you can begin to relate how some of what you offer at your school can benefit them. This is an important element in establishing your relationship with parents. If you simply deliver a standard speech that you give to parents when they visit your school for the first time, they may feel that you are not interested in their individual needs and expectations, but only in “making a sale.”

Regardless of what your school has to offer, unless you make a connection with what the parents want for their child, these nice features may be irrelevant in their mind, and so will the relationship which you are attempting to establish.

Responding to Expectations Related to Problem Behaviors

Some parents enroll their children in martial arts training because they want help. The child may have a problem managing his/her behavior when angry. Other concerns which parents express regarding their child are low grades in school, problems focusing his/her attention, or lack of appropriate respect for authority figures. Regardless of the problem, there may be a certain expectation that you, as his/her instructor in the martial arts, will play a major role in “the cure.” These expectations may be supported by what parents see advertised by various martial arts schools.

Such expectations by parents must be appropriately managed. These parents need to know that martial arts training is not martial arts therapy. Also, your time with, and influence over the child is limited. Although training in the martial arts can be an excellent adjunct to other efforts which are being made to help the child, promising that martial arts training alone can solve personal and academic problems is risky.

When talking with parents, explain to them the role which training in the martial arts can play in helping the child with specific problem behaviors. Show an interest in how martial arts training will be used in coordination with other efforts to assist the child. Questions and conversation about the ways in which this problem behavior is being addressed at home, school and other areas allow you to understand their current efforts and needs. Do not allow the parents to expect that training at your school alone will be the miracle cure to all that ails the child. This is an expectation which can result in disappointment for all concerned, and a strained relationship between instructors and parents.

Maintaining the Relationship

If you have successfully established a good working relationship with the parents of your students, you must now turn your attention to maintaining that relationship. It is critical that you continue to apply the same communication skills discussed earlier in this chapter. If parents feel they can easily approach you with their questions and concerns regarding their child’s training, and you will listen and respond with understanding and respect, you have made a major step in maintaining that relationship.

Parents have a variety of options when they are dissatisfied, or concerned about their child’s training. Two obvious ones are that they can either bring these issues to your attention and allow you to respond, or they can pull the child out of your school. If the parents do not feel that they have a relationship with you which allows them to bring concerns to your attention, their most immediate response may be to terminate their relationship with the school. It is thus to everyone’s advantage that you keep the lines of communication open with the parents of your students.

The Rarely Seen Parents

Maintaining a good working relationship with the parents of your students brings on its own challenges. Some parents can be quite busy. They may simply drop their kids off in the parking lot at the beginning of class, and return when class is over to pick them up, vanishing as quickly as they came. In essence, your contact with these parents may be limited to receiving a monthly tuition payment. Their child may be performing adequately in class, so you see no reason to have more communication with them than you do at present.

Although the above scenario presents an advantage in that these parents do not take up your limited time, there is a disadvantage in that you lack an understanding of how they view your school and their child’s training. You might assume that as long as you get a tuition payment every month, things are okay. If, however, this is your only form of communication and contact with the parents, you may be missing out on some essential information.

There are some things you would benefit from knowing about these parents’ perspectives.

– Are they satisfied with the school, and committed to keeping their child in training?

– Do they see their child as making adequate progress toward the goals which were discussed at the outset of training?

– Are they supporting your efforts with the child at home?

– Are there changes coming up in their family situation, schedule or other areas which may cause them to pull the child out of your school? These considerations, and others, can have an impact on the child’s progress in training, as well as how long he/she remains at your school.

These parents also need information from, and contact with you. Some parents may not understand that training in the martial arts is not just “participating in another sport.” If their kids disappear from your classes after six months, you may simply see this as a lack of commitment on their part to follow through with the training. It is important, however, that you assess your own commitment to maintaining a working relationship with parents which may preempt their departure. This includes helping them to understand that this training is more than a hobby or simple recreation.

There are some important considerations in this regard.

– Do you spend time talking with parents, reminding them of training goals and benefits, and reinforcing the commitment to keep their child in training and at your school?

– Do you talk with them about your efforts with their child, and check to see if there are problems with the school or training, of which you must be aware?

– Do they know how to support your efforts with the child at home? The point is that if you, as the child’s instructor, have this communication with the parents, you can do a great deal to maximize parents’ commitment and support for their child’s training. You also minimize the number of students needlessly terminating training at your school and thus enhance retention.

The Highly Involved Parents

Other parents may be quite demanding of you and their child. They continually express concerns to you about their child’s lack of progress through the belt ranks. They may constantly “coach from the sidelines” while their child is in class, and admonish the child for what they consider to be inadequate performance.

In such instances, it is helpful to establish appropriate boundaries for the parents with regard to their child’s training in the martial arts, and their interactions with you. These boundaries can be limits and guidelines which are set with regard to the behavior of the parent.

If you attempt to establish such boundaries, be aware that parents and their children tend to have their own special ways of relating to, and being involved with, one another. This is part of the “family system.” If you try to intervene in the way in which parents are involved in their child’s training, you may be “bucking the system.” There are some things that you can do, however, which may be beneficial to all concerned.

If you are setting boundaries for parents who seem to demand a lot from you and their child, the manner in which you frame this effort is critical. It is not that you want the parents to become less involved with the training, it’s simply that you want to assist them in finding new ways of being involved. Recognize that these parents may feel they are being helpful, and showing an interest in their child’s training. If you begin your conversations by voicing a sincere respect and appreciation for their desire to be helpful and supportive, you are building upon your working relationship.

One way in which you can begin to set limits on the frequent lengthy conversations in which you become involved is to establish regularly scheduled times when you can meet with them. You might explain that you regard these conversations as important, and setting aside specified times allows you to devote your attention more completely to the discussion.

Once you have established these appointments, keep them. It is also important that you specify the amount of time which you will spend in this discussion, and be consistent in beginning and ending on time. If these parents attempt to engage you in non-urgent matters outside of these discussions, remind them of your upcoming appointment, and assure them that they can bring this to your complete attention at that time.

Parents who continually coach from the sidelines, or admonish their child for what they see as inadequate performance, may believe that they are being helpful. Such behavior can, however, be disruptive to the child’s training (as well as to the rest of the class), and prove discouraging to the child.

A private conversation with these parents can possibly modify this behavior. This is how to handle the situation:

– Acknowledge the fact that they want to help their child.

– Explain that progress in training typically occurs in small increments.

– Suggest a strategy which focuses and builds on the child’s strengths, complimenting the child on the things that he/she does right.

– Ask that they hold their comments until the end of class, so that the child will be less distracted by other things that are going on, and more capable of hearing what they (the parents) have to say.

It is essential that these parents get the message, however, that you are the professional martial arts instructor, and in charge of training during class time.

Concerns about Belt-Rank Promotion

A common topic which parents bring to instructors is their child’s progress through the belt ranks. Parents want to see their children succeed, and belt promotions can be an indicator of success to them. As with many conversations, this is one best held in the privacy of your office, away from other parents and children.

If this is a point of contention, it is best that you and the parent reach an agreement as adults, before discussing this with the child. In this regard, circumstances may or may not necessitate this discussion with the child. Typically, it is best that you talk with the child about his/her progress through the belt ranks in the same manner as you would with any other child of his/her age and skill level.

Meeting requirements to test and be promoted is not a foreign concept to parents. They understand that their child must meet certain requirements in academic settings to be passed from one grade to the next. Just as it would be a mistake to promote a child in school to the next grade if he/she has not met the academic standards, it would also be a mistake to do so in his/her martial arts training. This sends the wrong message to kids about their own responsibility, and sets them up for future difficulties. The better the working relationship which you have with parents, the easier it is to get this point across to them.

In these belt-rank discussions, it is important for you to understand that the parents are concerned about the best interest of their child. You can acknowledge this by telling them that you appreciate their interest and this opportunity to discuss their child’s training. By doing so, you have opened the door for communication, and expanded this from a discussion about when their child will be promoted, to a conversation about their child’s training in the martial arts.

This is how to handle the situation:

– Make the parents aware that all of you are working toward the same goal, making martial arts training a successful and rewarding experience for the child.

– Emphasize the child’s current successes in training.

– Explain the elements which you look for, as a professional instructor in the martial arts, which would indicate that a child is ready to test.

– It is important to tell them specifically what you are doing with their child in training to assist him or her in meeting the requirements for their next promotion.

– If they press for a date, and you are not certain when the child will be ready to test, set a date for your next conversation with them to discuss the child’s progress.

– Do not make promises which you are not sure you can keep.

Creating Opportunities for Communication

Communication doesn’t occur unless there is an opportunity for it to occur. If you want to maintain a good working relationship with the parents of your students, it is beneficial to create opportunities for communication with them. There are various methods which can be used in doing so.

As discussed previously in this chapter, regularly scheduled meetings may be appropriate and desired by some parents. Other parents may not feel the need, nor have the time for these meetings. You can, however, initiate conversations with them when they drop their kids off, or pick them up from training. Be sensitive to their availability. If they have a few minutes, a pleasant greeting can open a conversation and allow them to express their thoughts, or to ask questions about their child’s training.

Solicit feedback in the form of surveys. Although having these on hand at the school will get some results, mailings with self-addressed, stamped envelopes will allow the parents who only see your parking lot to participate.

Phone calls to parents whom you rarely see can open the door to increased communication. Unexpected phone calls, however, can be a little annoying or anxiety-provoking at times. If you talk with them about the fact that you like to receive feedback from parents, you can suggest occasional meetings or phone calls and gauge their response.

If you do have this type of contact, calendars, tickler files, or databases can be helpful in remembering when to make your next contact. Also, making a few notes when you do talk can provide consistency for subsequent contacts, as well as add to the value and importance of these conversations.

Newsletters can be used to acquaint parents with you, as well as other personnel at your school. Include articles that invite parents to contact you with comments or questions. Newsletters can also alert parents to any group activities, or an open house which you may be sponsoring. Such gatherings may become the forum for increased communication, and enhance the personal, friendly atmosphere of your school. Allow parents to volunteer to help at such functions if appropriate opportunities exist. This type of atmosphere does not detract from your professional reputation, and can be a point of added value for many students and parents.

It is also essential that your school is an inviting place for parents to stay during classes. Adequate seating which allows parents to watch the classes and have conversations with each other is essential. When they do come in, make them feel welcome. The message to them is that you appreciate them being there, and you want to make this a pleasant experience when they do come to your school.

Creating opportunities for communication might require some additional effort and creativity on your part. It does, however, send an important message to parents. It tells them that what they think about and expect in their child’s training is important to you.

Summary

Establishing and maintaining a good working relationship with the parents of children in your martial arts classes is important to your success as an instructor. This relationship begins when you first meet them, and continues to develop throughout the child’s training. It is your responsibility, as an instructor, to foster this relationship in a manner which allows open communication. This requires that you demonstrate an understanding of, and respect for, the needs and expectations which parents have with regard to their child’s training. In doing so, you can maximize success in making the martial arts training experience a good one for everyone.