Unexamined Habit #2: What to do when parents just don’t care

Dear Educator,

Have you ever felt like you asked someone a question two, three, or four times - only to get zero response?

I’m sure it’s happened with your own biological children - it happened to me all the time when mine were young!

But if you’ve ever felt like you’ve reached out to families to try and engage them, to hear only crickets and walk away feeling like they just don’t care… this blog is for you.


Quick recap on our topic status this spring: We’re on month #2 of our conscious habit champion campaign. Last month we examined how an “open door policy” could be hurting your school. Next month we’ll explore what to do when families just don’t get what you’re doing.

But for now, let’s dive into the deep end right here… We hear this complaint a lot when we start coaching school teams.

Unexamined Habit #2: What to do when families “just don’t care!”

Tell-tale symptom: Someone says, “We ask families for input, it’s just that most families don’t care enough to answer.”

Now, if you hear a teacher or administrator say something like this in your school this should raise a BIG, red, “ineffective habit” flag.

While it’s true that parents are adults and we can’t force them to respond to our requests for feedback, what we find when schools start working with us is that parents often stopped responding months or years ago… because no one responded to the real concerns they voiced.

We’ll share a really common issue & something one elementary school in Texas experienced:

For years, parents told the principal that the school pick-up and drop-off wasn’t working. Years. It was a horrible experience for parents because traffic snaked around for blocks. If one family spent more than a few seconds at drop-off, it ballooned into major delays.

The behind-the-scenes reason the pickup flow didn’t work was because of the trash pickup schedule and location, and that was out of the Principal’s control. While he agreed with what parents were saying, he felt powerless to change anything—so he didn’t. He felt this was too big of a problem to tackle.

The end result, though, was that after years of frustration parents stopped talking and responding altogether. They became demoralized, as any of us would, by expressing a pain point, interest, or concern and not hearing anything constructive back from the school itself.

Without addressing this, the school would likely see little progress with parent engagement.

After coaching thousands of parents, teachers, and administrators, and after decades as a superintendent, parent, and special needs teacher—I can adamantly say that parents DO care, deeply. This is their children we’re talking about!

The deep, ingrained institutional habit of not listening to parents’ uncomfortable or inconvenient feedback could have started way before you got to your role at your school. It can seem easier to disregard what parents are saying when it’s challenging, but when this happens families get the hint real quick. The message is clear: We’re not interested in what you really have to say.

Developing trust in relationships depends on both parties being fully heard.

For parents, if they feel they’re not being heard about the “silly pick up and drop off” issue, or breast cancer awareness, or the water fountains (all real examples!) they will feel they aren’t being heard about anything, and they will stop talking about everything: including their children and what’s dearly important to them.

Parents will think, “If I can’t trust you [the educator] about the most mundane thing, I won’t trust talking to you about the most important thing to me: my children.”

While it might not be your fault, changing this habit is your opportune path to building a family engagement dream team that includes parents, and get the better test scores and attendance we’ve seen come along with that growth.

So, what do we recommend instead?

Highly successful family engagement teams seek out and lean into uncomfortable or inconvenient feedback.

Highly successful family engagement teams have cultivated the habit to listening intently to what parents say, however mundane it may seem at first, because they know this leads to other important conversations.

This kind of listening is a trainable skill, and your family engagement team can learn these together. Each situation and each parent will be different, so the solutions for your school aren’t cookie cutter but the skill needed to make a difference is.

You can hold productive community discussions on your own and challenge yourselves to find solutions that work for everyone’s interests, but for this kind of intermediate-level family engagement challenge, we suggest partnering with a guide to help.

You’re going to want to talk to an expert that’s walked this walk before; someone who will listen to you and not tell you what to do.

Here are four ways we suggest:

Going back to our example, In our workshop with the Texan elementary school, we gave the staff the time, space, and guidance to examine these real issues and the ineffective habits that brought them about.

Together we did the strategic thinking and communication to get to the root problem, and they decided to take on upgrading the pick up and drop off experience for parents. With those changes, the pick up and drop off spot became more functional for parents, it was safer for the kids, and the teachers liked the more smooth experience. Everybody won.

Once that issue was tackled, the parent-educator family engagement team could take on other issues one by one. The school grew and parents were excited to participate because they knew they could be heard.
Yes, this really happened.

And the real gold? Coaching from FFS staff after the workshop really helped refine and solidify any habits that needed changing and ensured the school’s success.

Whichever route you take, commit yourself to leaning into any uncomfortable or inconvenient response from parents.

This is a BIG conversation. What’s your biggest takeaway? What insight or action is now really clear for you? Leave a comment below so we know.

And, if your school has made progress here then let’s help you celebrate your successes. We can all learn and get inspired by what you do really well.

Committed to your success,

Dr. Joni, Amanda, and Team FFS

P.S. Want to learn more? Here are our suggestions for in-depth study.