Nov 15
8 step system for handling difficult conversations early childhood education and care workshops Melbourne

Whether it's with a parent, one of your staff or a colleague, some conversations are difficult or uncomfortable.  Especially when emotions are involved!  Follow these 8 steps and with practice, these interactions will become more manageable.

(We've also prepared a printable version of these 8 steps to share at your service. Click here for the free checklist.)

1. Don't ignore the issue

Don’t ignore the problem, situation or issue. Deal with it as soon as possible so that the problem doesn’t become worse. But if you are feeling a strong emotion, allow this to calm first so you can think and communicate it clearly.

2. Plan ahead

Think about how you will approach the conversation. Talk it over with someone you can trust first if you need to. If you don’t already know, check what is your service’s policy and process for resolving difficulties or conflict with families or staff.

Although it may be tempting to just write a quick note or make a phone call, face to face communication will usually have the best results when it comes to challenges. In face to face interactions, both verbal and non-verbal communication methods are used and it’s easier to guage the other person’s reaction and engagement. This will be especially important if you are communicating with a parent or staff member from a different culture or language background.

Think about where it would be best have this conversation. You’ll need somewhere that is uninterrupted and private. And plan when it would be best to have the conversation - morning, afternoon etc.

And be prepared for an emotional reaction - allow/invite a support person to attend if you think it would help

3. Outline the issue

When the time comes, start the conversation positively and professionally.  Manage own emotions, notice how you are feeling, stay calm and focus on issue objectively. 

TIP: There are mixed opinions about using a “hamburger” or “sandwich” conversation method where you start with a positive (eg. something great the child does), then follow up with the difficult issue and finally close with another positive (eg. and your child also does that). Experiment for yourself but our advice would be to keep the positive sections brief and check  that you’re not just using them to try and distract, avoid or delay the real issue at hand.

Stick to the facts - focus on the issue rather than the person. If it’s an issue regarding a child, focus on the child’s perspective. Use “I” statements eg. "I know we are both concerned about John biting other children" or “I really want to find a way to solve this”.

4. Listen

Listen to the other person - ask questions and for their perspective.  Approach the conversation as a two-way sharing of information. “Would you be open to finding other ways to approach this?” “What works at home when this behaviour occurs?”  Summarise what they say to ensure that you’ve understood what they said.

Keep an open mind, be honest, professional and respectful as you listen.

5. Reach an agreement

Now that you know the other person's point of view, reach an agreement as to the next steps and what things will look like when the issue is solved.

Partner with the parent or other person to develop a plan together. Look for ways to strengthen your relationship or partnership rather than competing with the other person.

Find the areas that you can agree on or agree to work on. Eg. We both agree that we don’t want John to bite other children. If we were to try this strategy, would be something that you could try at home too?

If not, acknowledge the difference in opinions and ask what the other person would be willing to try. Eg. "We both agree that arriving late to work is disruptive to everyone else. I know you’ve said that you don’t want to set the alarm on your phone but what would you willing to try?"

 If this doesn’t work, agree to both go away and think about it and make a time to come back with other solutions for discussion or to meet another time with someone else who could help resolve the issue.

End the conversation positively and professionally, confirming the next steps.

6. Follow up and check if resolved

Follow up by taking any action that you agreed to.

Check that the situation has improved or has been resolved eg. Fazad is now bringing healthy food for snacks or the staff member is working more positively with other educators.

7. Keep communicating

Keep the communication channels open - check back in with the other person. Is the agreement or plan working? Does anything need to be adjusted?

Acknowledge improvements. 

If the plan needs to be changed, repeat the process of putting the new plan into action and checking back for the results.

8. Reflect

Reflect on the conversation - what can you learn from this experience? Would you approach a similar conversation in the same way? Did you learn something that you would try next time? How did you feel before, during and after the conversation?

Even when there is no issue or problem, work on getting to know the families, your staff and your colleagues. Building and strengthening these partnerships and relationships through regular conversations can really help.

Additional Resources

At Excellence Matters, we can help you and your team with difficult conversations through a workshop run at your service at time that suits you. We can also provide one to one consulting or coaching for Centre Directors, educators or other staff members. Click here to contact us for a no obligation discussion.

Additionally, you may find these resources useful:


  1. A free short course for managers from Fair Work Australia on difficult conversations in the workplace.
  2. Article from Kids Matter “Effective communication between families and early childhood staff”.
  3. Video from ECA Learning Hub. This is part 3 of a series called Talking About Practice: Partnerships with families and is the topic of challenging conversations and tensions with parents.

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