Combatting Parental Anxiety With a New School Partnership Model
and Michael Thompson
In 2017, John Allman, head at Trinity School in New York City, caused a stir throughout the independent school world when his start-of-school letter to families went viral. It criticized an accelerating trend in which parents have a more transactional view of school. He wrote of “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, [using] us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interests” and [treating] the school as a “credentialing factory.” This, in turn, encourages students to see the purpose of school as “narrowly individualistic self-advancement”—namely, to get good grades, be admitted to a top college, and embark on “a path of lifelong superior achievement”—rather than focusing on the “socially redeeming purposes their knowledge and skills could and should serve.”
Trinity was hardly alone. Allman’s critique struck a chord among independent school leaders and educators across the country because they’d been facing the very same challenges. Indeed, we’ve been hearing versions of this in virtually every one of the more than 700 independent schools we’ve visited in our consulting work over the years. Faculty generally agree that most parents are good people who want to be good participants in the school community, but they find the trends ominous: more parents acting like entitled customers whose tuition is purchasing a service—or, indeed, an outcome. More parents are barraging teachers with emails, texts, and calls demanding that teachers change low grades, or insisting on placement in honors-level courses against faculty recommendations, or misreading normal child behavior as bullying. More parents are threatening to withdraw their child or sue the school over minor altercations and disappointments.
Remembering their own schooling, most adults—certainly those in middle age and beyond—can recall that getting in trouble at school meant getting in trouble at home. That still happens, but nowhere frequently enough for any school to count on it. On the contrary, more parents now take literally what a child says about an incident at school. More are reluctant to have the school impose limits, consequences, and discipline that their children dislike. And more seem to expect that schooling should offer a steady stream of successful, positive achievements that build self-esteem without any disappointments, frustrations, or failures. They want the school to help them prepare the path for the child, instead of preparing the child for the path.
The Rock and the Hard Place
Many educators blame this trend on the growing cohort of parents who qualify as millennials, a group widely attacked as being far more individualistic and self-centered than previous generations. But the roots are broader and deeper: a rising tide of anxiety in parents that has been building for more than 30 years that, however problematic for schools, is understandable. It has never been more difficult for parents, even the most successful, to be confident about their children’s futures. Among other factors, social media undermine their authority; elite colleges now admit barely four out of 100 applicants; traditional, sure-bet professions are now in doubt (technology is devouring jobs in law, for example, while burnout and suicide rates among physicians are double the national average); and the gig economy has left millions of young adults with little security and living with their parents.
The great financial meltdown of 2008–2009 transformed the independent school landscape, ending an era of rampant growth and accelerating the problems presented by parents. Schools had to start managing retrenchment. Ten years on, they found themselves in a world where sustained threats to enrollment and financial stability were causing real hardship, even threatening many schools’ viability. The 2019-2020 NAIS Trendbook reports that 64% of elementary schools, 51% of elementary/middle schools, and 45% of K–12 schools were losing enrollment. As parents’ anxiety rose, the worrisome shifts in their attitudes, demands, and behavior intensified, but many schools were hesitant to assert their values and apply their policies for fear of alienating “customers we badly need,” as one head of school shared with us. Another said, “We have to manage anxious and challenging parents without giving in to them and without losing them. We’re truly between the rock and the hard place.”
All of this was before COVID-19. The full impact of the virus’s economic destruction on independent schools is not yet clear, but it can only complicate their interactions and engagement with ever more anxious parents. How can school leaders manage the unknown, anxiety-laden road ahead? It’s easiest to start with what won’t work.
The Old Approach
For decades, schools have looked to resolve problems with parents in two ways: individual and institutional. The first strategy is situational and reactive; teachers and administrators respond to each episode as it arises, hoping to resolve the situation and, perhaps, to make it a teachable moment. The second is systemic and, ideally, preventive; it operates at the schoolwide level and aims to reduce and avert problem behavior, chiefly through educational programs for parents. Most schools still rely primarily on the first and supplement their efforts with the second. It’s a model that may have worked sufficiently back when schools enjoyed much higher levels of institutional authority than they now do, but it’s no longer effective because of the difficulty of getting parents, especially the right parents, to turn out and because many schools, faced with serious enrollment and finance challenges, are unintentionally exacerbating the very trends among parents that they find so troublesome.
If, for example, a school encounters a growing pattern of parents being disrespectful and antagonistic in their treatment of teachers, it may decide that instead of addressing the situations one by one, it should try to be proactive and educate parents. The school would hope that providing information and guidance would improve parents’ perspective on their children and their willingness to let students learn from the consequences of their actions—resulting in greater respect for the school itself. This approach generally consists of evening talks or workshops presented by school staff or outside experts on topics such as “Raising Today’s Adolescent” or “Strengthening the Home-School Partnership.” We’ve each participated in and consulted about these kinds of programs for 40 years, and in our experience, the school rarely sees the kind of change it seeks even when the program is well-received by attendees.
One reason this kind of parent-education approach fails is basic—attendance. Parents are busier than ever and less likely to come to a program. And those who most need the programs typically attend them least. In fact, the audiences tend to consist largely of a school’s most supportive mothers. “We’re always preaching to the choir, and mainly the sopranos and altos,” says a guidance counselor we spoke with. “I’d like to send a special notice to our most difficult and most ineffective parents, including the dads: We planned this evening specifically for you. Be here or else! I keep hoping, but they rarely come.”
There is no reason for schools to stop offering parent education, but they need to moderate their expectations for its outcomes. These programs do indeed preach to the choir. That’s what they’re good at; they serve a valid, useful function. They help the choir stay in tune. They encourage parents who have good childrearing judgment to trust that judgment and act on it—and to trust the school. But these programs are not a vehicle for changing the behavior of the most problematic parents.
Without intending to, many schools have been contributing to their own malaise. Some, in their efforts to sustain enrollment, have become less selective, admitting students they once wouldn’t have accepted, including those with real learning disabilities, even when the school has little experience with such students. When, as too often happens, the school doesn’t train its teachers or hire faculty with special education expertise, the students begin falling behind their classmates—a formula for distressing their parents and increasing the likelihood of hostile interactions.
Other schools now discount tuition for families who don’t actually qualify for financial aid but who won’t enroll their children unless they receive a tuition reduction. From the get-go, these parents have reason to see their relationship with the school as transactional and to feel that they hold the upper hand in the parent-school relationship.
In addition to modifying admission and tuition standards, many schools have responded to enrollment and financial threats in their marketing efforts. Even the smallest schools now make big claims in their mission and vision statements and their viewbooks; none want to be out-promised. This emphasis has been accompanied by an enhanced customer-service orientation that can further encourage parents’ most consumerist tendencies. Many schools now survey parents more frequently to assess their satisfaction. As the late Claudia Daggett, the longtime executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, pointed out in the June 2018 edition of The Trustee’s Letter, this can contribute to a “Yelp effect” that encourages parents to treat their relationship with the school in precisely the entitled, transactional ways that can cause the school such distress.
A New Approach
In our experience, the schools that encounter the fewest boundary-breaking problems and preserve the best relationships with their families begin at the systemic, not the situational, level. They treat the shifts in parent behavior as the new normal. They don’t anticipate a return to the levels of respect, trust, cooperation, and confidence schools once enjoyed. Instead, they work to redefine the home-school partnership as one in which the school is the senior partner.
Being the senior partner means that the school undertakes a systematic effort to build and sustain clarity throughout the school community about two key facets of school life: purpose and conduct. It means providing clear guidelines for parents about how best to interact with the school. In key ways, it means becoming more parental with parents—not by telling them how to parent but by modeling effective parenting when dealing with them. It absolutely does not mean condescending to parents, failing to listen to them, or dismissing their legitimate concerns. It means being appropriately, assertively clear about the school’s values and expectations, about the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and about how disagreements and conflicts are handled.
Purpose in this context isn’t related to the typical school mission or vision statement. Most schools’ statements proclaim identical commitments and goals and are too long, full of pledges the school can’t possibly fulfill, and riddled with clichés. They are essentially wish lists. There’s nothing wrong with being aspirational, but with occasional noteworthy exceptions, these statements rarely capture the imagination in a way that shapes behavior. Purpose in this context means guiding principles: the school’s most essential defining beliefs that distinctively mark its approach to students and teaching. In most schools, these tend to center on academic excellence and values that come under the heading of respect for others, ethical responsibility, and increasingly, on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The values will vary among schools. What matters is building clarity and consensus about them.
Conduct refers to the way the school’s core values are enacted—what are the minimum nonnegotiables of belonging to the school community. Schools have no right to tell families how to live or what to believe, but they cannot function without basic norms for behavior and shared understandings about education itself. And independent schools do have a right to lay out for parents—who, after all, are not forced to enroll their children—the essential requirements of being part of the school. Conduct means that a school’s few central values apply to its entire community, not just to students, but to faculty, staff, administration, trustees, and parents. If respect for others is a true top-of-the-tree value for a school, the adults in the community must not just teach it to students, but model it. Children always learn more from the example we set than the sermons we preach.
Continuous Community Effort
Over the past 20 years, many school enrollment contracts have started including language that confirms the importance of students and parents observing the school’s values and, often, affirms that failure to do so, by a student or a parent, could be grounds for separation from the school. Whether a school has such a provision, the key is to build a broad, shared understanding of conduct among the larger school community. Student assemblies and all-school meetings, back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, and newsletters all provide opportunities to underscore and reinforce core values. But a startup initiative to increase awareness is not enough; there must be a continuing effort that includes orientation for new members and reminders and refreshers for everyone. Their essential message to parents should be: “To help your children grow up well, these are the values and expectations we teach them. We need you to help us help them succeed by joining us as models of these values and behaviors.”
Ideally, this message should begin early, during the admission process. A prospective family needs to know what kind of school it is joining, and the school needs to remember that it is welcoming a family, not just a student. Too many schools have decided that true excellence means promising all things to all people. They neglect to prepare students and especially parents for the school’s shared essential expectations. Having failed to establish guidelines for community membership, they risk having their decisions, notably those about discipline, seen as arbitrary and capricious. By contrast, the more clearly and energetically a school stands for something, the more attractive it can become—and the better prepared it will be to hold all its members accountable and thus to fulfill its mission on behalf of its students.
This article is adapted from the authors’ new book on school-parent relations, which NAIS is scheduled to publish in late winter 2021.