Communicating Effectively With All Colleagues, Even “Difficult” Ones
By Heidi H. MacDonald
To help create a supportive learning environment for students, school psychologists must collaborate daily with parents, teachers, and other professionals. Effective communication is an indispensable tool for helping to ensure that all parties understand how they play an essential role in a student’s development. The ability to communicate effectively becomes particularly critical when faced with an oppositional, unsupportive, or adversarial colleague.
Whether it is a controversial IEP meeting, professional development workshop on a difficult topic, or an informal consultation on a difficult case, it is almost guaranteed that you will eventually meet a staff member who challenges your ideas, unintentionally (or intentionally) undermines your goals, or just is not on board with your view of what is in the best interest of the student or students with whom you both work. However, using effective communications skills can help to both prevent such situations from occurring and provide you with tools to collaboratively resolve issues when they do.
As school psychologists, we have the knowledge and skills to apply relevant expertise to adult interactions, as we do with students, and can more often than not approach difficult relationships as behavior that requires changing. Trying to understand the underlying motivation of the other person’s position and being openminded about your own can set the stage for an amicable resolution. Indeed, reflecting on how your own attitudes and communication style might be contributing to a difficult situation is the first step toward lowering barriers to improved understanding and collaboration.
Let people know who you are. Proactively communicating your role is the first step to preventing or lowering potential obstacles with colleagues. Discussing your role and expertise with colleagues, and how you might be able to help them individually, can go a long way to putting potentially contentious relationships at ease. Think of yourself as a resource to the entire school, not only to special education students and teachers. Make sure professionals within the school community feel comfortable approaching you with issues that may impact their effectiveness with the students. Consider addressing your role with a letter at the beginning of the year, in person, or via e-mail. Use NASP resources such as “What is a School Psychologist?” and/or the NASP Practice Model (www.nasponline.org/practicemodel). Offer to meet with staff to find out specifically how you might help them during the year. When colleagues categorize you within a specific role, it has the potential to limit your effectiveness on a team. If you notice that a person demonstrates a lack of understanding of your comprehensive training and role as a school psychologist, consider spending time oneon- one with that individual to problem-solve a situation they have with a student so that person can see firsthand your ability to help analyze the situation and present possible solutions. Also, ensure that the leaders within your school (i.e., team leaders, administrators, etc.) have a clear understanding of the role of the school psychologist so that they might reinforce your message. Provide these leaders with literature from NASP’s website or publications that demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge and the role of school psychologists.
Be present and accessible. In order to communicate our role, function, and indispensability, we must be a familiar presence in the school. The amount of time that a school psychologist spends in a school building per week will vary drastically based on the individual’s caseload and district. However, when in a school building, we must be visible to staff. This can be done by taking a quick “loop” through the hallways in the morning or after dismissal to check in with teachers. Most school psychologists have mountains of paperwork to dig into and it is tempting to use these few minutes before or after the school day to tackle them. However, these are valuable minutes for face-to-face communication with teachers and other staff. Although we are a technologically savvy profession, there are many teachers who are not comfortable jotting off an e-mail when concerned about a student. It is often during these hallway meetings that one can personally follow up on an issue with a colleague. Frequent the teachers’ lounge during lunch periods. This face time is an important part of the day and may open the door to an opportunity to help one more child, a classroom, or teacher. An even bigger challenge is to be present in people’s minds when we are not physically in the meeting. Consider suggestions from the November 2010 Communications Matters column for these strategies. Adversarial colleagues are most likely the ones who might ask, “What do you do?” or “How could you understand?”
Be intentional and flexible. Challenging or resisting colleagues may act the way they do because they do not feel that their voices have been heard. Consider scheduling drop-in office hours weekly or monthly so that teachers and other school staff can discuss students and issues or anything else that is occupying their mind and which they see as problematic or difficult. To be available to all members of the school community, consider scheduling the available slots at different times during the day so that it works for different teachers’ schedules.
Teachers and other school staff often respond behaviorally to frustrations with specific students, challenging instructional groups, or pressures from administration to make strides in achievement. One way of assisting and keeping the lines of communication open with teachers is via a monthly watch list. This list can include students of academic, social, or emotional concern who are or are not formally in support services. This watch list can be sent out monthly to the appropriate teachers (on paper or by e-mail). The required responses should not necessarily be lengthy as the teachers are asked to provide a brief description of how that child is doing in the area of concern. This further opens the door to communication with teachers regarding these students and often leads to the teacher bringing up other students of concern as well. This is a great strategy that enables the school psychologist to stay in the loop and decreases the likelihood of learning about a longstanding issue when intervention could be more challenging.
Keeping the “I” out of TEAM. Participating on school teams offers many communication challenges and opportunities. Whether in IEP, behavior/discipline, school improvement, student support, problem solving, or response to intervention teams, and/or professional learning communities, as school psychologists, we spend a majority of our days in collaboration with groups of adults. School psychologists are essential members of these teams, and are often team leaders. It is important, however, that these meeting are considered team meetings and not the school psychologist’s meetings. The school psychologist should serve as an equal team member and facilitator, as appropriate, assisting in collaborating with colleagues toward a common goal—student achievement. In order to be a valuable contributor to these teams, we should possess knowledge of the curriculum and instruction. This contributes to effective communication because all members are speaking a common language of curriculum and grade-level expectations. One true measure of an effective leader is the ability to set up a system where the team can continue when he or she is not present, at least for one meeting. For example, if a crisis or illness takes you from the building, a problem-solving team would ideally be able to function if they are familiar with the process and agenda of the meeting. It is useful for psychologists serving as facilitators to have cofacilitators or other members of the team who might also serve the facilitator role.
Use electronic communications appropriately. E-mail and other forms of electronic communication are tremendous tools in our work. They make it possible to communicate remotely, quickly, and to more than one person at a time. However, the always-present danger with technological communication is that people cannot read nonverbal cues or tone, or even know for certain when the message was delivered. Additionally, some people simply are not comfortable communicating through cyberspace. These issues must always be considered, and particularly when communicating with challenging colleagues. Electronic communication is rarely effective when trying to resolve a disagreement or work through complex issues. Electronic communication is best used to ask and answer questions, query how someone is doing, provide a quick update, share a resource or simple suggestion, offer to help, or schedule some time to meet. A rule of thumb that seems to help is to keep e-mail communication to a paragraph or two. Longer e-mails likely require a face-to-face meeting to discuss issues.
Always consider technology etiquette. Set a standard for response time that is realistic for you and considerate to others. There is no hard and fast rule regarding how long one has for responding to e-mails, but most people expect e-mail communication to be fairly instantaneous. Many businesses expect their employees to respond within one business day, even simply to communicate to the sender that the initial message was received and that action is being taken. Additionally, if you are going to be away from your computer for an extended period of time, an automated away message should be used to let people know when they should expect a response or whom they might contact in your absence.
Use technology to streamline collaborative workflow. In addition to e-mail, there are many useful technology tools available that can enhance communication and collaboration between school psychologists and teachers. Such tools (e.g., Microsoft Office’s OneNote, Google Documents, or online Wikipages) offer teams the ability to share an electronic “notebook” in which all team members can add and edit information. This is a valuable resource when working collaboratively on a project or with students. Obviously, precautions need to be put in place to ensure the confidentiality of these shared records. For example, if student information is going to be shared, protect student identity by only using initials and ensure that a password is required for reading and posting.
Be prompt and professional. Some “housekeeping” practices can increase communication between school psychologists and educators as well. Annual review meetings can be scheduled as much in advance as possible. Meeting due dates are typically known at the beginning of the school year because they are based on the child’s “anniversary date” into special education. Some school districts choose to set the schedule of annual review and re-evaluation meetings for the entire year during the first few weeks of school. Teachers are then notified months in advance of the meeting. Teachers in schools with such practices appreciate the advance warning to allow for ample preparation time for reports as well as preparing to be away from their classes while attending the meeting. If you are not the person setting the agenda, help out by asking to meet with the teacher weeks ahead of the meeting to review the student’s progress academically and behaviorally to that point. Take notes and send a quick e-mail summary of what the teacher has related. This becomes both a record for the teacher and for you and has the positive side effect of the teacher knowing you are listening.
Use your personal communication skills all the time. In this busy world, school psychologists are often forced to multitask. However, personal communication should not be sacrificed when busy. The basic guidelines for effective communication should be followed in meetings with teachers, whether formal or informal. As school psychologists, it is likely that we are better communicators/listeners with our students than with our colleagues. Use those same skills in meetings. Give your undivided attention to the speaker. Orient your body toward the person. Look directly at him/her and do not text or e-mail when you should be listening. Let the speaker finish before you begin to talk. Ask clarifying questions. Finally, at the end of each meeting, if you are the leader, take the last minute to review who will be responsible for follow-up tasks.
Build and earn trust. In order to have effective communication, individuals must trust and respect the school psychologist. One of the ways to build trust with coworkers is to act consistently and with integrity. School psychologists maintain a high level of confidentiality with regard to information about students and families. This same standard should be applied in regard to staff. Your reputation as a reliable support for students and parents is hinged on the opinions that teachers hold of you. Communicating clearly, with respect, collaboratively, and confidentially with staff will increase the chances that teachers and administrators will seek your knowledge and opinions.
School psychologists are members of a complex educational community involving students, parents, community members, school staff and administrators, and central office staff. To help all students succeed academically, socially, and behaviorally, we must help all of these groups maintain open communication. In this way, school psychologists help to better serve all students. Ultimately, communication matters. We are all part of the educational puzzle and we strive to create a complete picture of academic, social, and behavioral success. We need to have open lines of communication between all team members in order to better serve our students.
Heidi H. MacDonald, PhD, is a school psychologist with the Granby, CT, public schools.