Last reviewed 18 October 2019

The answer to this, says Rebecca Fisk, is in the question…plan! It is good practice to think about how staff communicate difficult messages to parents on several levels.

Hand-over conversations

There is nothing worse for a parent when collecting their child at the end of their day to be told something uncomfortable about their child or to be put on the spot in the busy early years environment. Settings can ensure that hand-over times are planned with care, are not rushed and chaotic, and can provide enough staff to release keyworkers or managers to have a private conversation with a parent. Consider if this increased staffing is planned into the day at these hand-over times.

Considerations when planning for a difficult conversation

When planning more in-depth difficult conversations, such as discussing a child’s learning needs, safeguarding or personal circumstances it is vital that staff plan for the following:

  • Who is best placed to have the difficult conversation and who else needs to be present? The manager or the SENCO may be the most experienced people at difficult conversations, and you as the key person could take an accurate record of the discussion. Be approachable and professional.

  • Where will it take place? It must take place somewhere where you will not be interrupted and where privacy is paramount. Ensure the room is set up for the meeting, refreshments are offered, and a box of tissues are handy! Arrange for someone else to take phone calls, and make sure staff know not to disturb unless there is an emergency.

  • When will it take place? Find out what is the best time for the parents and if their child/children can be cared for by someone else so they can focus on the discussion. Staff may need to stay on later for the meeting or come in earlier to enable flexibility in timings. If parents do not arrive, which can sometimes happen when anticipating a difficult conversation, then have an alternative time available to offer.

  • What do staff plan to say? Be clear about the professional reasons and evidence staff have for delivering their key message. It is important to reassure the parents that staff have a professional role and have the child’s needs at the centre of the conversation. Have relevant policies to hand, such as non-payment of fees or the inclusion policy. Emotions can run high so stick to factual information, listen well and invite ideas from parents as ways to move forward.

  • Why does it need to be said? Often conversations are needed to address a problem or a concern you have about a child. For example, staff may be worried the child may be suffering from neglect and want to work with the family using a neglect toolkit; or the SENCO is concerned that a child is not making the developmental progress expected. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and the SEND Code of Practice are statutory professional guidance to refer to as needed when highlighting your professional responsibilities to safeguard children and ensure children are making developmental progress.

  • How will the meeting be conducted? Being really clear what the meeting is about and what the intended outcomes are and stating these at the start will help to manage expectations. It is useful to say why each person is there and how long the time allocated for the meeting is. Making sure plenty of time has been built in for listening to parent’s ideas and responses is vital so that they feel heard. It may be necessary to have further opportunities available to revisit the discussion. The aim would be to begin and end each discussion on a positive note, encouraging parental engagement and offering support for difficult circumstances.

What to expect

Sometimes parents do not react well to a difficult conversation. There are times when parents want to remove their child from a setting. It is vital to consider any safeguarding implications of this and pass on concerns as appropriate, following the information sharing guidance from the Local Children’s Safeguarding Board. Some parents may initially be upset, angry, protective or defensive for example, which are natural reactions when people are feeling emotional. Often, parents need time to think about what has been said and an opportunity to discuss this further. It may be necessary to signpost parents to other services and having this information handy can be useful.

After the meeting

Managers can ensure staff have an opportunity to debrief after the meeting, especially if it was emotional. Write up any records in a factual way whilst it is still fresh in staff memories. Ensure that plans are in place for how staff will check-in with parents following the meeting to see how they are and offer further support as needed. It can be useful to state that intent during the meeting to reassure parents that the setting wants to continue to support the child and family where possible. Aim to follow up with the parents until the matter is resolved. Continue to support staff learning through regular supervision and reflection on practice.


Difficult conversations will happen. Being prepared and reflective about how settings go about this can make them less difficult. Listening to all parties involved is an essential skill of senior managers in a setting. Keeping accurate records is important, as is following your policies and procedures, and local or national guidelines as appropriate. There may be a requirement to seek external support from the local authority for mediation or support with the conversation. Do spend time learning from the experience and reflecting on what went well and what could be done differently next time.