When a child has developmental or behavioral issues how can we approach the parent about the subject in a way that will not upset them, and will help get the child the help they need?



It can be difficult and uncomfortable to speak with families when you have concerns about their child’s development or behavior but it is vitally important that concerns get addressed quickly. Kudos to you for choosing to move forward in having this discussion rather than ignoring the signs.

This kind of discussion is easier and more effective if you have established a bond with the family. Scheduling a general conference at the start of the year is a great way to get to know the family and share your positive insights and feelings about the child. This helps forge a solid partnership with the family that you can build on when you have to discuss difficult topics.

Below are some ideas to help you set the stage to ensure a productive discussion with the family and positive action for the child. 

First, schedule the conference at a time that is convenient for the family and have the discussion in a private area. This is serious information and a private, uninterrupted discussion is vital. This is not information to be provided through a note home or at drop off or pickup.

Start off with genuine, positive comments about the child.  It’s important that the family knows you see both their child’s strengths as well as challenges.

Solicit the family’s ideas first. Rather than starting out with your concerns, ask the family for their observations —the parent may already have concerns but just not know how to express them.  Careful and gentle questioning and probing will allow the parent to share their observations and concerns.  Then you can follow up with the issues you have seen. This will open up a dialogue rather than a one-sided conversation. 

When you discuss the issues, especially when the concern is challenging behavior, refer to specific examples and situations and have documentation, if possible. It is often helpful to provide the family with a developmental checklist of milestones and red flags. This gives them information about strengths and possible areas of concern but never puts a label on it.

Avoid jargon or diagnostic labels — the use of these terms can lead to an emotional response from the family resulting in confusion and fear.  Simply emphasize that this is an area that needs to be checked out by a professional.  It’s a good idea to have developmental and referral resources available at the conference.  If the family is ready, you can assist with making a referral right there. If they seem reluctant, provide them with a good article or website to review. Sometimes seeing something in writing allows the parent to recognize the concerns at their own pace. If the family declines the referral, continue to check back and support them as they come to terms with the information.