High Conflict in the Schools: Tips for Teachers and Parents

©2022 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

In the world of high conflict there’s always something new—almost! Now teachers have become the new targets of blame for everything from which books teachers are using to when teachers take their breaks.

With the school year about to begin anew, we would like to extend a lot of empathy and respect for the hard work that teachers do and suggest a few tips for teachers and parents. (I might add that my own teaching experience was as a Kindergarten teacher for four years, where I first learned about high conflict behavior in the 1970’s, and continues now as a law school adjunct professor, where I teach how to deal with high conflict behavior in legal disputes.)

Jackhammer Parents

A recent article in the Washington Post described “jackhammer parents” as a successor to “helicopter parents” and “lawnmower parents” who hover over their children and mow down any difficulty that may face them. (Rise of the Jackhammer Parent) The article was written by a teacher who was on the receiving end of endless emails and complaints about how she was teaching, taking breaks, and that her curriculum was too hard one day in one parent’s opinion and too easy in another’s—about the same day! The author made up the term “jackhammer parent” because they were unlike worried parents in the past in that they were relentless, loud, destructive, and powered by fear. Fortunately, most parents are not like this.

This teacher had to come in two hours early before class each day just to deal with their angry emails. While in the past this teacher had always been able to forge a positive working relationship with upset parents, there was no calming down for these jackhammer parents. This may be one of the reasons that there are reports that half a million teachers have left the profession nationwide since 2020, partly due to the pandemic but partly due to anti-school rhetoric that has arisen during this period. (Why Thousands of Teachers are Leaving the Classroom) Many teachers feel that they are now being treated as the enemy.

A Case of Blamespeak?

In my book, BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns, I use the first chapter to describe Blamespeak: a term I use to describe the world’s increasingly negative and adversarial language, especially as it appears in emails, texts, and social media posts. It seems to have seven key characteristics: it is emotionally intense, very personal (your intelligence, sanity, morals), all your fault, out of context (ignores all the good you’ve done), often shared with others, causes intensely negative gut feelings in the recipient, and it often triggers more Blamespeak in response by the recipient (resisting this urge is where BIFF comes in). This appears to be what today’s teachers are dealing with on an ever-larger scale.

I also explained that the people who primarily use Blamespeak may have high conflict personalities (estimated to be 5-10% of adults), which means that they are preoccupied with blaming others, all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behavior. What we have learned about high conflict people (HCPs) is that they see all relationships as adversarial, lack self-awareness, rarely change, and have been increasing in society over the past twenty to thirty years. This means that the goal in dealing with them needs to shift from getting emotional, trying to give them insight into themselves, and trying to resolve the past (forget about it), and instead focusing on calming language, the choices they have for the present and, when necessary, setting limits on future behavior.

BIFF Communications

These realizations led to the development of the BIFF communication method. While originally developed as the BIFF Response®, this can be used in initiating a correspondence as well. This can be used by teachers, parents, and anyone in a conflict, especially in writing such as emails, texts, and social media posts. BIFF stands for:

Brief: usually a paragraph is sufficient, even in response to a much longer email or letter.

Informative: just straight information on the topic, without arguments, opinions, defenses (because its not really about you), emotions, or judgments.

Friendly: a friendly greeting (“thanks for letting me know your concerns,” “thanks for responding”) or closing (“have a good weekend”), or brief comment showing empathy or respect (“I hear your frustration and am looking into it”).

Firm: this doesn’t mean harsh, just avoid or end a hostile conversation so there are no hooks to keep it going (don’t end with “What do you think of that, buddy!”).

For example:

A parent writes a teacher: “You had your baby in June. If you’d started maternity leave right after your baby was born, you could have been back in September instead of October. I want to know how you’re planning to address the gaps in learning you created.”

A BIFF response might be: “Thank you for letting me know your concerns. I planned to stay home three months and my daughter was born on June 25th, which means I return in October. Since the teacher in September is covering my curriculum, I don’t anticipate any gaps. If you find a learning gap or have any other concerns, let’s set up a meeting to discuss. I look forward to meeting you and your son. Best wishes.”

This response was Brief (one paragraph), Informative (simply explaining her schedule), Friendly (Thank you; I look forward to meeting you), Firm (it ended the hostile conversation with an open-ended invitation to meet sometime). By keeping it simple and brief, the teacher did not have to spend much time on this email and could get through several fairly quickly.

Suppose this parent had used the BIFF method to start the conversation instead. It might have gone like this:  “I appreciate your teaching experience and look forward to meeting you. I have a concern that there may be gaps in what my son will learn this year, since you’re starting in October instead of September. Can you let me know how you are planning to address this? Thanks.” 

This opening correspondence was Brief (one paragraph), Informative (specific concern), Friendly (I appreciate your experience; look forward to meeting), and Firm (asked a specific question seeking a specific response; not an open-ended challenge). This would likely get the same BIFF response from the teacher as above, but without unnecessary tension from the start.

It’s Not About You

One of the key things to remember in written and verbal communication with anyone is that when you are personally attacked, it says more about the attacker’s lack of civility and problem-solving skills than it does about you. Personal attacks don’t solve relationship problems, yet this is a common characteristic of high conflict people in that they approach many of the people in their life as enemies—their targets of blame—and often start relationships off with a personal attack. Needless to say, they lack the awareness that their own behavior will heavily influence how the relationship goes. They don’t connect the dots.   

Contagious Anger and Blaming

In today’s world of heavily saturated news media, from 24/7 cable TV to social media, polarizing faces and voices get the most attention. It’s hard not to absorb a lot of emotional intensity, especially fear and anger. Research tells us that emotions are contagious—we can catch them from each other. With so much talk of crises, leaders in conflict, and “breaking news,” people become more and more anxious. Research also tells us that when we feel anxious we are more prone to absorbing the emotions of others, especially cultural leaders and groups. This can result in people having “contagious fear and anger,” which can drive them to be more afraid and blaming than they would be on their own. This may explain some of the intensity of jackhammer parents, who seem uncompromising and more interested in blame than solutions.

Setting Limits

With many high conflict people, such as jackhammer parents, it will become necessary to set limits, since you won’t be able to argue them out of their uncompromising behavior. Setting limits can be done with compassion and firmness—and BIFF. Focus on the choices and consequences of various behavior and focus more on what you can do than what you cannot.

Thanks for letting me know your concerns. I will get back to you on them. FYI: I get many emails each day, so I encourage you to send me short ones which offer solutions to any problems that you may want to raise. For efficiency, I usually read my emails starting with the shorter ones. I also find that encouraging words are more motivating that criticisms. I look forward to working with you this year on your son’s behalf.

Conclusion

Today’s teachers and parents are facing a world of fear, anger, and blame. By managing our own emotions and words, we can support each other and do a far better job at being parents and teachers than when we attack each other. There are tools for managing our communications better, such a BIFF Communications, which we have been teaching for over fifteen years. Face-to-face meetings, or at least visual meetings on Zoom, can also go a long way to calming our communication. We’re not enemies. The children are the future and they learn most from their role models. Modeling and teaching BIFF communications is an easy place to start.


BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries.

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