Two principles of parent engagement

Originally published on Higher Ground Education's Substack Feed

Ray Girn

Ray Girn


Happy Friday, everyone.

Over the past few weeks, a team at Higher Ground has been reviewing our retention data and digging into the various reasons why a parent may decide to leave our school. Through conversations with guides and school leaders, calls with parents, and study of withdrawal forms that parents fill out when they give notice, we’ve tried to understand and draw lessons from information across schools, programs, and regions.

There are many reasons why a family may choose to withdraw from our community. Some are obvious, others subtle. Some are unavoidable, others are unforced errors. Sometimes the decision is actually right for a particular family (however much we wish we did not lose the enrollment), other times the outcome is a tragedy because I actually believe the child and family would have been best served in our environment, and we failed to make that clear or we lost the opportunity to demonstrate it.

Having worked in Montessori education for over 15 years, and having interacted with thousands of guides and leaders across over a hundred school communities, I’ve seen just how much is under our control. So I never assume that a withdrawal is inevitable. Instead, I try to understand what I could have done—or perhaps still can do—differently to preserve the relationship.

For example:

  • If a family is moving, I ask if they inquired about a Guidepost or ATI program in their new area. If not, why not? Were they dissatisfied? Did we highlight that opportunity? We often see that a family moving finds a new home near a Guidepost program in their new city. When that doesn’t happen, the obvious question is why. Even if there was no program available, why wasn’t the family at least curious to find that out?
  • If a family is upset about a staffing or program change, I don’t just assume that their decision was unavoidable. Could we have communicated more effectively? Could we have built deeper relationships? Could we have taken steps to address the cause of the change, assuming that it was something we wanted to avoid? We see all the time that families choose to trust our efforts to work through challenges. When that doesn’t happen, I reflect on what we could have done differently.
  • If a family says that they cannot afford our tuition, I don’t just assume that they literally don’t have the funds. My default interpretation is that their child’s experience (or their own) is not worth the cost—that they are able to afford it, but have concluded it’s only marginally better than something less expensive or free—and that our failure is not the price of our tuition but that we did not provide the student and the family a better experience.
  • If a family says that they are going to public school or another private school, I don’t assume that choice was correct or inevitable. To the contrary, the way I see it, we had every opportunity, across months or even years, to convince them otherwise—but were not yet up to the task of making real the value of another year with us.

In looking at feedback from parent withdrawals, and what we can learn, I see so many areas where we can do better. Two principles really jumped out to me that I think you’ll find helpful:

  1. the preemptive contact principle, and
  2. the follow the parent principle.

These are already implicit practices deployed regularly across our organization. But my hope is that by making them explicit, by naming them as principles, we can adhere to them even more consistently and thoughtfully.

Before getting to the two principles, let’s get concrete, and consider a hypothetical scenario.

Only Nerds Wear Glasses

Imagine the following situation in one of our classrooms:

A 6-year-old, let’s call her Leslie, innocently asks a question out loud about whether people who wear glasses are nerds, and wonders: why don’t they just take the glasses off?

A 7-year-old, let’s call him Jonny, reacts by looking down and walking away. His posture suggests he is hurt by this comment. Jonny just started wearing glasses a few weeks earlier.

The teacher, let’s call her Ms. Jones, observes the whole situation unfold. She makes a note to monitor Leslie’s social awareness, and to watch for whether she’s frequently making comments that don’t take other people’s context into account. She also wonders how the idea of a “nerd” stands in Leslie’s mind, and about her motivation. Was Leslie just trying to be funny? Is she insecure about her own intelligence?

Ms. Jones also checks in with Jonny, just to see how he’s feeling. She asks him if he’s having a good day. He says he is, but doesn’t really open up, and does seem covertly upset.

Ms. Jones doesn’t raise Leslie’s comment with Jonny, since Jonny didn’t bring it up himself, and since she’s not positive that’s what is bothering him. Instead, she finds a different way to validate Jonny: she gives him visibility by asking him questions about the work he’s doing and giving him the opportunity to share his excitement. He seems to respond well to that.

Ms. Jones makes a mental note to consider the hypothesis that Jonny may have a tendency to assume too quickly that others are rejecting him when they are just asking a question. Since she has occasionally seen other signs of moodiness, she decides to watch Jonny closely for the next few weeks and to think carefully about what might be at play and how best to meet his needs.

She also plans to raise the issue with her Head of School in her next meeting, in case there’s anything else she should do.

Both Leslie and Jonny seem engaged the rest of the day, so Ms. Jones goes home feeling good about her handle on the situation.

The next morning, Jonny’s mom (let’s call her Mrs. Wynn) comes into the school furious, wanting to talk immediately to the Head of School about the fact that Jonny is being bullied. She says that Jonny told her that Leslie and a group of other kids were laughing at his glasses, and calling him a nerd. She insists on seeing Guidepost’s bullying policy, and wants to know how we’re going to address the psychological damage being done to her child. She brings in articles about the dangers of bullying in private schools, and mentions as an aside that she’s heard other parents complain about Leslie as well.

We’ve been in this situation. An upset parent comes in worked up about a particular concern in a way that seems disproportional. And in this situation, we all feel the same immediate impulse—to correct the falsehoods. We know for a fact that there isn’t bullying going on in the classroom; we know that Ms. Jones in fact loves Jonny and is highly attuned to his needs. What the parent is saying feels like it is begging for refutation, either because it is inaccurate or an exaggeration or a misunderstanding of our approach to education.

And her angry tone seems so unfair, and seems to warrant a strong, decisive response. But, despite our own frustration, we collect ourselves, take a breath, and start explaining, warmly and patiently, why Mrs. Wynn’s is incorrect. We respond to her agitation with kindness. But rather than seeing how inappropriately she’s acting, our answers only seem to agitate her more. She treats our friendliness as unseriousness, and doubles down on her criticisms.

There’s a lot to say about orienting oneself in this kind of situation—about attuning to the unknowns in the parent’s context (was she bullied as a child? does she feel insecure about her own parenting?)—about how to best respond, in the moment and in the hours and days following.

But the thing I want to focus on here is how to avoid this type of situation in the first place. Putting aside the right way to think about it, or to respond, we can and should also ask: was it inevitable? Is there anything to learn here going forward?

Indeed, I think the right analysis is that this situation should have never come up in the first place.

This is the kind of specific situation that results in withdrawals. Either immediate withdrawals, if we badly mishandle it, or, more commonly, eventual withdrawals, if enough things like this accumulate. The parent gradually becomes dissatisfied to the point where they outright withdraw, where they decline a moveup, where some other big change (e.g. in a guide, or the family’s circumstance) is an excuse to leave.

But we can see in this one hypothetical, writ small, the way that most withdrawals are avoidable. Most withdrawals are at root failures of human connection, and they just shouldn’t occur. How can they be prevented?

The Preemptive Contact Principle

The overwhelming majority of the time, in any situation where a parent is dissatisfied, the “real” issue is a failure of communication.

The majority of the time parents express frustration, they are not primarily concerned about the specific things they are citing. While those matters, what they are fundamentally conveying is an underlying lack of trust: they do not trust that we really see their child, are competent to understand their child, are authentically caring about their child. For whatever reason, they feel suspicious or insecure or hostile about our commitment to providing their child with our very best, and that mistrust manifests as an angry or disillusioned response to some specific trigger event.

The most effective way to develop a relationship of trust is by contacting parents about their concerns before they raise them with us.

This is not always possible. Sometimes we don’t know a concern in advance. But often we do. Communicating preemptively, when and where it is possible, both defuses many specific situations and establishes a general pattern of trust.

Imagine Ms. Jones, in addition to all the excellent things she did in the classroom in response to the incident of Leslie’s comment and Jonny’s response, had also sent the following message to Mrs. Wynn:

Hi Mrs. Wynn,

I noticed that Jonny seemed a bit withdrawn today. It might be nothing more than a low energy day, but I want to see if he says anything to you. If you think it’s a good idea, could you chat with him to see if he’s enjoying school, and let me know if he says anything? I’ll of course keep an eye on him the rest of the week and see what happens. He’ll probably bounce back tomorrow!

Thanks for your time,

Ms. Jones

Ms. Jones does not get into any details, or take a long time to lay out her hypotheses. All she does is take two minutes to send a quick message alerting Mrs. Wynn to the concern.

But by taking that simple step, she either entirely avoids or mostly minimizes the situation the next morning. Ms. Wynn has evidenced perceptiveness and care, and put herself on the same team as Mrs. Wynn. No matter what Mrs. Wynn hears or thinks, no matter what else is going on in her life or what other concerns she might have, one simple email transforms an adversarial relationship into a relationship of trust.

I can’t stress enough the massive difference this small extra step makes. In the original scenario, Ms. Jones handled the situation incredibly well. She became acutely aware of the needs of the children under her care, and showed dedication to exploring the issue and supporting them. But in the original scenario, because she did not preemptively reach out the parent, despite her great and effective efforts, it did not matter. The result was not a mindset of partnership, but one in which Mrs. Wynn was protecting Jonny from the school. Rather than seeing Ms. Jones as an ally, she was being approached as a threat.

Over time, the way we earn parent trust is to consistently be proactive about reaching out to parents about the things that concern them. Even if we act in loving, responsive, and inspirational way in the classroom—if a parent has to approach us first rather than the other way around, we will not earn trust. We are risking the parent’s confidence, and risking the enormous amount of work that it would take to win it back—and in a way vastly greater and more difficult than the work of sending a two-minute email.

The preemptive contact principle is the principle that reaching out first—preemptively—is mission-critical to building trust. It seems deceptively simple, but actually it captures so much to be proactive. To be first means that we’ve noticed independent of a prompt, which means we’re paying attention, which means we care.

The single biggest concern parents properly have, that it is their parental responsibility to have, is whether we fully see their particular, unique, individual child. Observing and knowing the particular child is the fundamental task required of educators. It is a task that, sadly, most educators in the world do not perform well, and that is why parents are rightly paranoid when delegating part of the upbringing of their precious children to us.

Not every possible concern can be raised preemptively, and fast responsiveness is also immensely valuable. But if we have the habit of proactively raising concerns, it also helps when we cannot do so (or very occasionally fail to). A pattern of preemptive communication builds trust more quickly and deeply. It means that we are developing a radar for making individualized judgments about both children and their parents. It fosters more authentic connections and more genuine joy in work. And, over time, it saves time.

The principle of preemptive contact, especially when applied to those whose trust we have not yet earned, recognizes that it is our obligation to demonstrate that we are capable of exercising the responsibility parents have given us; it recognizes that many parents are properly insecure about whether they are making the right choice for their children, and that we can play a role in reassuring them; it recognizes that each individual parent has a different set of assumptions and worries, and that a one-size-fits-all approach to communication is not sufficient to address those concerns; and of course, it recognizes that excellence in what we do means developing the skill of identifying when and what we need to communicate to which parents, and consistently doing so.

The Follow the Parent Principle

So, it makes sense to preemptively contact parents about their concerns. But how do we discover what concerns they have, and how do we know whether a quick email (or call) is warranted? The answer is that we have to observe and know our parents.

We rightly celebrate the Montessori principle of follow the child. This principle tells us that rather than just imposing our goals and expectations on a child, we should first observe the child’s behavior and seek to understand his or her needs and goals. We should seek to know why a child has a certain response, or exhibits a certain behavior, and try to gain a perspective on the underlying need that is not being met.

This is what, in our example, Ms. Jones is doing with Leslie and Jonny. With Leslie, rather than assuming she’s inconsiderate or rude, Ms. Jones is recognizing that she is unaware of how her words might affect her peers, and thinking about how Leslie might come to be more socially aware, if that turns out to be necessary. In the case of Jonny, Ms. Jones is not just acting hastily to protect Jonny’s possible insecurity, she’s observing him in an effort to understand the nature of that insecurity, so that she can formulate an account of where it comes from and what is the best way to support his growth, confidence, and full agency over time. Before action, there is a need to observe, to notice and parse the at-times bewildering evidence presented by the insanely complex phenomena that are developing human beings.

Follow the child is based on the Montessori perspective that a child’s behavior is informed by biological needs, that nature provides an “inner teacher” to guide the child, and that we can learn through observation.

Something similar is true with parents. To be a parent is also a natural, age-old human experience. To be a parent is to adopt a profound custodial responsibility, one that goes deep, and that responsibility expresses itself in a variety of ways that we can learn from.

So the same need and opportunity to observe is true with parents. To follow the parent means to ask: why might a parent have a negative response? Is she feeling threatened by the fact that her child is falling behind, or worried that it might reflect badly on her as a parent? Is he concerned about legitimate problems at Guidepost that make him worried that his child could fall through the cracks? Is she suspicious of the credentials of a particular teacher? Is he skeptical about a recent change at the campus? Is there some deeper issue stemming from a parents’ own experience as a child, or some other area of their life like their marriage or work?

If so, in line with our Montessori practice, can we see the better human being who is not fully present, but actually there waiting for us to speak to them? We fuel our love for children with curiosity about them, and we fuel our curiosity about them with love. Can we do the same for parents? Can we burn with a desire to understand them better? This is not always as easy to do for parents as it is for children, but it’s just as necessary.

To follow the parent means doing something else that can come very hard to us as educators: it means taking parent preferences at face value.

If a family doesn’t attend parent education nights, rather than writing them off as not interested in their child’s education, we ask: Why are they not attending? What are they interested in? In which cases do they show up? Do they, for instance, show up on field trips and events where their child is present, and if so, why? What type of career do they have, and could it be legitimately hard for them to attend? How much money do they have, and could babysitting costs be prohibitive? What are they interested in learning more about? Do we hold it against them if they just don’t care about understanding the Montessori curriculum, and would rather come to an event about what to do at home or one that’s just about connecting with other families socially? Or, as we do with children, do we take their current set of interests as our legitimate starting point?

As with following the child, following the parent does not mean that we simply do whatever our parents want. It does not mean, for instance, that we add “academic” worksheets to our classroom, or separate children by age, or do more group activities, or remove a certain book from our shelf. It never means that we just go along with something a parent suggests, merely because a parent suggests it. In running our program, we stand by our judgment as experts regarding what is actually in the interests of the children we serve.

We’re in the business of offering parents a certain, defined service: education as we conceive it should be. So following the parent cannot trump our judgment—it cannot trump following the child.

But following the parent does mean having a deep respect for parent perspectives and preferences, that we embrace the burden of understanding where our parents are coming from, and that, where it is actually consistent with the needs of the child, we see the value of adapting in response to what we hear from parents. It means recognizing that parents often—far more often than not—have unique insights into their children, know them better than we do, are the people on earth most invested in their children’s long-term happiness and success, and consistently prioritize this outcome over almost anything else.

Again, that doesn’t mean that parents always or automatically get it right. Our goal may be to inform and shape our parents’ approach to education—just as our goal is to enable our students to embrace passionate learning and a love of concentrated activity. But at a deep philosophic level, following the parent means we recognize and are humble about the fact that we, as educators, are not the child’s parent and cannot pretend to be. We are agents hired by parents to meet the needs of their child—in the same way that a parent hires a doctor to serve the health of his child, or a lawyer to protect the legal interests of his child. As agents of the parents in their child’s education, we should always, without exception, begin by treating a parent’s starting point as valid, and approaching it with sympathy.

Only if and when evidence suggests otherwise, should we cautiously conclude that a parent’s point of view is illegitimate, just as we should hesitate before drawing such a conclusion in the case of a child. Deviations exist, pathologies of motivation exist, negligence exists, and we should not deny these things when we discover them. We certainly shouldn't run away from a fact that is staring us in the face. But we should always err on the side of assuming that there is an actual, addressable underlying concern, and tread lightly before concluding that a parent is mistaken or irrational.

Above all, following the parent means that our communication with parents is based on our observation and understanding of their priorities, their worries, their style. It means seeing Mrs. Wynn’s frustration not as an irrational outburst, but as a legitimate expression of her worry that her child is being harmed, and our failure to satisfy her worry. It means, more generally, attuning oneself to what each family wants for their child and understands about their child. It means revering the parent as the child’s custodian and leveraging that relationship in one’s own work as the child’s educator.

Not only is following the parent consistent with following the child, if we understand the centrality of the custodial role to a developing child’s future psychology, character, and achievements, following the parent is a necessary aspect of following the child.

These two principles, preemptive contact and follow the parent, are not panaceas that will by themselves solve every problem. They will not stave off every potential headache, concern, or withdrawal.

They are also not easy “techniques” that we can just start implementing. They are habits of mind that demand that we are organized, efficient with our time, capable of writing well, capable of observing and sizing up situations. These are all learned skills, and it takes time and practice to learn them.

Finally, these principles are not possible to those who do not trust themselves. They require immense self-respect. Just as one cannot fully see and love the ideal in children if one does not love it in oneself, so it is with parents. If we are insecure about our own power to transform, or too disillusioned to reject cynicism about the good in those we serve, or too weak to resist the tempting safety of petty or trivial grievances, we cannot authentically practice these principles. To be an educator is to recognize and love greatness of soul—and before you can see and love it in others you must see and love it in yourself.

But if we understand and pursue them, these principles can really help us help parents experience the joy of watching their children grow, and the love of the community that makes it possible. Preemptive Contact and Follow the Child are deep practices that if we internalize, will dramatically improve the quality of experience that children and their parents have at our schools. They will equally increase our ability to experience joy in our work, serenity about our areas of improvement, and confidence in our impact.

By applying what amount to Montessori principles with parents themselves, we position ourselves to keep children in our classrooms—to educate them longer, more effectively, and more joyfully.

I would love to hear your thoughts about whether you agree with these principles or have reservations, and if you agree, how you help put them in practice.

Have a great weekend.

Ray Girn
CEO, Higher Ground Education

Meet the Author

Ray Girn

Ray Girn received a BSc with honors from the University of Toronto, with a focus on philosophy and neuropsychology, as well an Association Montessori Internationale teaching diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego. Prior to founding Higher Ground, Girn had a 13-year career with LePort Schools. Working at LePort’s K-8 lab school, he helped lead a team of educators in architecting LePort’s upper school curriculum and program. In 2010, he took over as CEO, expanded the team, and implemented an ambitious growth strategy. In five years, Girn and his team took the company from a small, local family business of three schools to the largest Montessori operator in the United States. In March 2016, Girn founded Higher Ground Education with the vision of greatly accelerating the growth of Montessori education globally. Higher Ground aims to create a comprehensive international platform to deliver high-quality, high-fidelity Montessori programming everywhere, as well as to conduct the research and development necessary to extend Montessori principles to new, innovative models of secondary education.

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