Principal Corner: Messaging During Difficult Decisions

Communication, Engagement, Leadership, Possip / /

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When the pandemic shut down schools, the Possip team read through tens of thousands of parent comments while reporting on our district re-enrollment Pulse Checks™. We asked parents to make decisions around their preference for reopening schools. They chose between in-person, distance learning, or a staggered hybrid schedule. The data was eye-opening, to say the least.

After reading through the data, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the principals and district leaders who were in charge of making the decision on how to reopen schools. Most of my schools were split into thirds between parents who wanted to continue in-person schooling, distance schooling, and the staggered hybrid model. 

A lot of questions also came to mind as I reflected on this data, but the first one is around how to strike a balance between making parents feel heard and valued, while also having to make a decision that is most likely going to make over half of the parent population unhappy. 

As leaders, how do we message this decision in a way that “lessens the blow” and allows families to believe they are being heard? How do we keep their trust while making a decision that they may not agree with? What can help them better understand the decision that was made, even if it wasn’t what they thought was best for their child?

If schools didn’t get the reopening in-person decision right, not only was people’s health at stake, but enrollment numbers and trust could have been significantly impacted.  

All of these questions were extremely difficult to tackle but crucial to school and district reopening plans.

What did we learn from those moments?

Here are four actions leaders can take to message a difficult decision: 

1. Be Transparent Through the Process

Let families know the options before deciding and rationale for each option

When there’s a big change or decision happening, it’s best to keep families aware of the possible routes you may take. In some decisions, it’s not possible to be transparent due to confidentiality or other protections, but when possible, be open and honest about your thoughts along the way. Perhaps that means releasing some of the options you’re weighing to see how families react. 

Along with that, provide a rationale in terms of the safety and learning impacts of each choice. Doing this keeps parents “in the know” and lessens the anxiety of a totally unknown change that will greatly impact their life. Families can begin thinking through the options and creating a potential “game plan” for each option. This will help the parents with the transition and have more time to think through each potential option which will ultimately help the students.

Transparency is transformational in building community. In the end, even if the option they wanted didn’t happen, families will feel valued and informed on the decision. Treating parents as important stakeholders and communicating proactively helps create advocates and loyal community members. It’s best to over-communicate and make families feel like they have too much information than left in the dark. They feel a part of the larger community. Knowledge is power, and being able to provide families with that power is a necessity in building community and family engagement. 

2. Show the Data

Help families see what you see

The role of an education leader can be isolating and overwhelming. The amount of information, data, and decisions you make in a day is probably the reason that the average tenure of a school principal is only four years (,for%2010%20years%20or%20more). 

Showing families the data that is helping you make the decision will help them see what you see. It may make your decision seem more obvious to parents. Or it may help them understand the incredibly difficult decision you are making. Either way, showing data when possible can help to prepare families for difficult decisions. 

3. Evoke Empathy Through Storytelling

Show them you understand their reality 

Storytelling can bring realness and understanding to so many different areas of life. We tell stories to make connections with others. We tell stories to cheer people up or evoke emotions. During a time of difficult decisions, storytelling can not only build community and create a sense of empathy for others, it lets families know you hear and feel their pain. 

At Possip, we hear stories. Every week thousands of parents share their thoughts, feelings, and challenges. If you are a Possip school partner, get comfortable sharing anonymous comments with your community to let them know you hear each unique situation or belief. Allow parents to feel the stories of other parents in totally different situations. Build a shared understanding for all families that no matter what happens, someone will be negatively and positively affected. Decisions are most difficult when the final decision isn’t popular. Help families get in touch with the reality that the community has diverse needs and that either way, your decision is going to be unpopular with a portion of your families. 

4. Hear Feedback

Close the feedback loop and help them know you’re listening

Ask for parents’ opinions, thoughts, feelings. Don’t be afraid of what they’re going to say or not say. Asking can help parents feel valued and a part of the community conversation. Parents all have different opinions and desires. It’s good to know what kind of pushback or negative feedback you will get ahead of time. This pushback will always come to some extent when making difficult decisions. Asking families will help you create a plan to proactively address any opposing thoughts. In the end, we want to hear parents to create the best plan for the most students. Hearing feedback and taking action based on it will help ensure you do the most good for the community as a whole. 

If you have questions about this topic, email