Problem-Solving in Action

Determine what is bothering the person.

Give the parent or caregiver an opportunity to explain the problem without interruption. Allow them to piece together basic information about the situation, such as: how, how often, when and where the bullying or inequity occurred; who was present; etc.

Describing the situation may evoke many painful feelings for parents and caregivers and it is important to validate these to ensure the person feels understood (see Empowerment Listening). It is important to give the parent or caregiver ample space and time to describe the situation, and to avoid interrogating or pressuring for information.

In the course of this process, the parent or caregiver may share information about the history of the situation their child is facing, including any steps they have already taken to try to protect their child (if they are being bullied), or to change her or his behaviour (if their child is bullying others), in the past. Such information will be useful when identifying strategies (see Point 3).

For example, if the parent or caregiver has attempted some kind of consequence that has not brought a change to their child’s bullying behaviour, you can include this information in your assessment of different possible strategies.

Be aware that the parent or caregiver may feel ashamed if their child is being bullied and has not taken any action to stop the situation. Our culture is saturated with victim-blaming messages that many people – adults and young people alike – have absorbed. It will be important to remain aware of such feelings or attitudes at this point and to take the opportunity to emphasize that no one is ever to blame for abuse, no matter what they have done or not done to stop it.

Once a collaborative connection with the parent or caregiver has been established, it may be necessary to seek additional information or to clarify certain aspects of the situation. In this case, open-ended questions are most effective.

Saying it

Here are a few phrases that express many of the ideas discussed at this point in the process:

  • "Thank-you so much for letting me know your concerns about your child’s safety. I know it may have been scary for you to get the school involved. I really appreciate your courage."
  • "I understand that it’s very difficult for any parent/caregiver to talk about such a painful situation. It really hurts to see your child being mistreated/mistreating others."
  • "So many factors can influence young people’s behaviour. They can learn attitudes and behaviour that encourage bullying in all kinds of places. This isn’t about you or your childrearing. We need to focus on your child and helping her/him take responsibility for her/his behaviour. Together – you, along with me and others in the school – we can all work together to figure out some ways to do that."
  • "It’s not your child’s fault she/he was bullied. She/he wasn’t bullied because of anything about her/him. No one is to blame for abuse they experience, no matter what they have done, or not done in order to protect themselves."

Clarify your role and its limits.

It is important to avoid making assumptions about what the parent or guardian is looking for when they approach you to talk about bullying or inequity. They may expect you to act upon a plan they have devised. They may be hoping you will take over and resolve the problem all on your own. They may have unrealistic expectations about what you will be able to achieve. For example, they may hope that you will be able to protect their child by expelling the person who is bullying. Or they may expect you to replicate or reinforce the severe disciplinary approach they have imposed upon their child for his/her bullying behaviour.

While clarifying your role, be sure to clearly explain your obligations, both in terms of your duty to report and your school board’s policies on bullying, whenever these are relevant. In some situations, you may be required to take specific action such as reporting certain situations to the Children’s Aid Society. (See Child Protection and Advocacy.)

Saying it

You can clarify your role and its limits with the following positive statement:
“I am here to listen, let you know some of the things we will be doing to put an end to the situation, and help you explore some ideas of things you can do to work with us and to support your child through this difficult situation. I hope I’ll be able to offer you some support as well.”

Once the parent or guardian has a clear idea of your role and its limits, you can find out what they are hoping for or expecting from you.
“Is there anything in particular you were hoping I would do?”
“How would you like me to help you?”

Brainstorm options for possible solutions.

This is meant to be a creative and unfettered process where all suggestions are accepted and noted without discussion or judgment. In the context of a fairly well balanced power dynamic between two adults, both parties can participate equally at this stage.

When the parent or caregiver seems less confident or doubtful of their own skills, we can make an attempt to share power equally. In this situation, it may be helpful to frame our ideas as tentative suggestions, though it is preferable to wait until the parent or caregiver has completed their brainstorming process. When people are able to identify their own strategies, this contributes greatly to building their self-confidence and sense of personal power. For parents and caregivers who lack confidence, it is particularly important that they be encouraged to participate actively at this stage. This will have a real effect on the commitment they feel to the action plan. If the plan is based on our ideas, it is less likely to resonate for the parent or caregiver and to reflect the realities of their home life and their relationship with their child. The process of reflection and assessment of the action plan can follow.

During this phase, you may find it useful to jot down ideas as they are expressed or to record the situation as it unfolds. Out of respect for the parent or caregiver, it is important to ask them if they feel comfortable with this before you begin. Some may feel uncomfortable with this practice or react to a perception that they are being evaluated.

Saying it

“Would you like us to talk about some strategies that might work to help you support your child through this?”
“What do you think you could do?”

If their child is the one doing the bullying:
“How can you help your child understand her/his responsibility and the impact of his/her behaviour?
If their child is targeted by bullying:
“How can you help your child understand that she/he was not to blame?”
or “How can we work together to make sure your child stays and feels safe?”

It is important to note that children and teens need to be involved in identifying strategies to resolve a bullying situation. They are the most knowledgeable about the dynamics and the context of the situation. Strategies need to take into account the importance of students’ peer relationships, with the goal of maintaining and not rupturing them. This is most critical at the high school level.

Help the parent or caregiver to assess the options, identifying the potential risks and benefits of each one.

Now is the time for critical thinking on the part of both the parent or guardian and the teacher. This step can proceed with equal participation from both parties. If power sharing is needed, the parent or caregiver can remain in charge at this stage, though some input from the teacher can be helpful.

The teacher can stimulate reflection and raise concerns by asking questions enabling both parties to reflect and arrive at independent conclusions.

Saying it
“What do you think might happen if you call the parents of the child who is bullying and tell them to make their child leave your child alone? How might they react?”
“How do you think grounding your child for a month will help them stop bullying?”

Our tone and attitude are very important during this process. We need to find many ways to communicate: “I respect and have confidence in your abilities and your competence as a parent/caregiver.” This can be communicated through words, tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, etc.

Saying it

“You know your child best. Based on your experience at home, is this something you think would get the message across to her/him?”
“What are the advantages/risks of this option?”
(Repeat for each option.)
“What do you think of this strategy?” (“… of these strategies?”)
“I can see how much you care about your child and how concerned you are about this situation. I appreciate how committed you are to finding an effective strategy.”

Encourage the parent or caregiver to choose the strategies they will implement.

Once a thorough discussion of the pros and cons of the various options has taken place, it is crucial that the parent or caregiver be the one to make this decision since they will be responsible for the implementation of the strategies they choose. It is important for both parties to remember that, if the strategies are unsuccessful, it is always possible to try others.

Saying it

“Which one(s) would you like to try?”

Help the parent or caregiver make an action plan.

Encourage the parent or guardian to be as concrete and detailed as possible when devising an action plan. Again, we can help to facilitate this process through the use of respectful questions with the goal of probing and fully exploring the situation.

Saying it

“When do you think is the best time to try it?”
“How will you explain that to your child?”

Implement the action plan.

Try to ensure that the parent or guardian has support, if it’s wanted, during the implementation of the action plan. For example, seeking support from a friend, a trusted family member, or a professional can be built into the action plan at the time it is developed. In some cases, we may choose to offer some additional support ourselves.

Saying it

“Is there anyone you’d feel comfortable talking to as you try out your plan? Is there someone you are used to talking things through with?”
“Thanks for coming to see me. Please feel free to contact me again if you think I can help further. I’d like to find out how your plan worked.”

Follow up with the parent or guardian on the action plan once it has been
implemented and assess the results.

This is a crucial step, as it is easy for a person to become discouraged and possibly to withdraw from contact with the school if the initial attempt to implement the action plan has not met with success. It will be important for us to maintain an attitude of optimism and confidence in the student’s resilience or in her/his ability to change. We need to frame the parent’s or caregiver’s experience in supporting their child as a natural part of the problem-solving process, rather than a failure.

Saying it

“How did it go?”
“How do you feel about how it went?”

Review strategies and make a new action plan (remember follow up for all steps).

The process of problem-solving is ongoing and often involves a great deal of trial and error. Unsuccessful strategies can be framed as a constructive part of the learning process.

Saying it

“How about if we talk about another strategy that might help you support your child in making a change?”
“I really think your child can do this. Let’s figure out another way we can work together to improve the situation for her/him.”

A problem-solving approach provides a generic basis for any response to someone involved in a difficult situation. For parents or caregivers whose children are involved in a bullying situation, it is important to tailor strategies and responses to the different needs and responsibilities of each individual family, depending on the role their children have played. Assessing the impact on the safety of the student(s) who has been targeted by bullying is always a key factor to consider in assessing any action plan.

Problem-solving constitutes a respectful, reassuring and constructive approach for offering support to address a difficult situation. It is consistent with our goals of sharing power and fostering collaboration with parents and caregivers.

It is also reflective of many of the values and attitudes that contribute to developing a safe and inclusive school culture, such as compassion, courage, respect, presence and a positive use of power. When we communicate in ways that are coherent with our vision of bullying prevention, it reinforces the messages we wish to transmit. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that parents and caregivers will participate in transmitting the school’s culture both at home and at school.