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Collaboration Column
Kimberley Paulsen, Associate Editor
Using Active Listening to Improve
Collaboration With Parents
The LAFF Don’t CRY Strategy
DaviD McNaughtoN aND Brooks r. vostal
Keywords:  collaboration; parent–teacher communication; active listening
251
Effective parent–teacher communication builds
working relationships that can support strong
home–school collaboration and improved educational
outcomes (Gelfer & Perkins, 1987; Sheridan, Clarke,
Knoche, & Edwards, 2007; Shivers, Howes, Wishard, &
Ritchie, 2004; Turnbull & Turnbull, 1990). Christenson
and Cleary (1990) repo rted that parents’ involvement
improved students’ grades, test scores, attitudes, and
behavior. These positive effects of parental involvement
on students’ academic grades are apparent from the early
years throughout high school (Keith et al., 1998). And,
as teachers of students with disabilities know, the
Individuals with Disabilities Educ ation Act (1990)
emphasizes collaboration between parents and teachers,
encouraging schools to recognize parents as key partici-
pants in educational decisions for their children (Turnbull
& Turnbull, 1997). Bec ause many family members play
important roles in providing care for a child, the term par-
ent is used throughout this column to describe the family
member or guardian who most typically communicates
with teachers.
Even though many teachers value the participation of
parents, it can be challenging to communicate this posi-
tive intent. Pruitt, Wandry, and Hollums (1998) inter-
viewed 78 parents and reported that many thought that
both the quantity and the quality of communication
bet ween parents and teachers should be improved. Several
parents emphasized that teachers needed to use a “humane
demeanor when discussing their children . . . interacting
in an honest manner and treating them with dignity and
respect” (p. 163). They found that parents wanted to
know that professionals valued their contributions and
suggestions about their children’s education. Martin
et al. (2006) conducted observations of 109 middle and
high school Individualized Education Program meetings
and found that special education teachers talked 51% of
the time, whereas family members talked only 15%.
This lopsided ratio may be a product of the pressure
teachers feel to report student progress to parents, but it
does not leave much opportunity for parents to express
their goals and interests. Parents may feel their concerns
are not valued, eliminating any opportunities for mean-
ingful collaboration (Valle & Aponte, 2002).
Effective communication is central to authentic col-
laboration and relies on involving parents in the school
Authors’ Note: Please address correspondence to David McNaughton,
Pennsylvania State University, 227A CEDAR Building, University
Park, PA 16802 (email: dbm2@psu.edu).
Intervention in School and Clinic, Volume 45 Number 4, March 2010 251-256
DOI: 10.1177/1053451209353443 © 2010 Hammill Institute on Disabilities
http://isc.sagepub.com hosted at http://online.sagepub.com
252 Intervention in School and Clinic
through meaningful discourse (Ferrara & Ferrara, 2005).
In a review of effective family–school collaboration
programs, Hardin and Littlejohn (1994) found that trust
and openness characterized interactions between par-
ents and teachers. Good collaborators displayed flexibil-
ity, patience, humor, and active listening (Hardin &
Littlejohn, 1994). In contrast to these effective interac-
tions, any form of adversarial relationship between teach-
ers and parents will complicate collaborative efforts
(Lazar & Slostad, 1999). Moreover, when teachers and
parents come from different cultural and linguistic back-
grounds, collaboration can be challenging. These barri-
ers may result from differing expectations of the school
system, past negative experiences with schools, or dif-
ficulty with the print materials often used by schools to
share information (Fitzgerald & Watkins, 2006; Joshi,
Eberly, & Konzal, 2005). Teachers surveyed by Joshi
et al. (2005) reported that face-to-face parent–teacher
conferences were one of the best ways to reach out to
culturally diverse parents and encourage involvement.
The use of active listening skills may be an important
first step to establishing effective two-way communica-
tion and successful collaboration. Active listening allows
the listener to simultaneously gather information while
conveying his or her interest in the other party (Friend
& Cook, 2007). The process typically includes making
empathetic comments, asking appropriate questions, and
paraphrasing the speaker’s comments as a means of dem-
onstrating attention and confirming understanding (Cramer,
1998; Gordon, 2003). Although the value of the indi-
vidual components is well recognized, it can be chal-
lenging to remember and make coordinated use of these
skills in stressful situations. To support teachers’ effec-
tive use of active listening skills when working with
parents, the following specific steps may be beneficial.
Active Listening: LAFF
Don’t CRY
One strategy for making effective, coordinated use
of active listening skills is the LAFF don’t CRY strat-
egy (McNaughton, Hamlin, McCarthy, Head-Reeves, &
Schreiner, 2008). This strategy provides a flexible
framework through which teachers can demonstrate the
listening behaviors that clearly communicate respect
and empathy (see Figure 1). In an investigation of
the impact and perceived importance of these skills,
McNaughton et al. (2008) taught LAFF don’t CRY to 7
preservice teachers; a control group of 7 preservice teach-
ers did not receive the training. These 14 preservice
teachers then participated in role-plays with parent
surrogates (i.e., doctoral students trained to act as com-
munication partners). Parents from a wide variety of
cultural and linguistic backgrounds (e.g., African
American, Native American, Asian American, and
Hispanic American, as well as White English-speaking
parents) then watched the videotaped role-plays and
evaluated the teachers’ communication skills. The parents
overwhelmingly selected those teachers who had learned
LAFF don’t CRY as more effective communicators and
identified the key features of the strategy as important to
their positive perceptions of the teachers.
Listen, Empathize, and
Communicate Respect
The LAFF don’t CRYstrategy provides a method for
teachers to clearly communicate to parents their interest in
the parents’ perceptions and beliefs. The L step reminds
teachers to listen,  empathize,  and  communicate  respect.
After listening to the parent’s concern, teachers are encour-
aged to make a statement of empathy (e.g., “I can under-
stand why you are concerned; this is a serious problem”).
Teachers communicate respect by thanking the parent for
contacting the teacher, giving the parent their full attention,
and making use of appropriate body language (e.g., turn-
ing, if needed, to face the parent) and attentive facial
expressions (e.g., appropriate eye contact). Table 1 depicts
a sample conversation between a parent of a seventh-grade
student with a learning disability and the student’s resource
room teacher. The student attends general education classes
but receives resource room assistance for one period each
day. In the LAFF example, the teacher makes use of active
listening skills to gather information and demonstrate a
willingness to understand the parent’s point of view.
In contrast, the CRY example in Table 2 illustrates
some of the inadvertent behaviors, such as criticizing 
those who are not present, that sometimes occur when
teachers do not have a well-practiced communication
strategy. Ironically, the C step is sometimes misperceived
by teachers as a way to act as a confidant to parents,
positioning themselves on the side of the parent in con-
trast to their absent colleague. In fact, these behaviors
L
A
F
F
Listen, empathize and communicate respect
Ask questions and ask permission to take notes
Focus on the issues
Find a first step
Don’t
C
R
Y
Criticize people who aren’t present
React hastily and promise something you can’t deliver
Yakety-yak-yak
Figure 1. The LAFF don’t CRY mnemonic reminds teachers to use
positive active listening steps.
McNaughton, Vostal / Collaboration Column 253
may serve to only further shake the parents’ confidence
in their child’s teacher.
Ask Questions and Ask
to Take Notes
The A step reminds teachers to ask questions, includ-
ing asking permission to take notes. Good questions
gather information on how the parent sees the problem
and communicate respect for the parent’s point of view.
One useful strategy for developing questions is to ask
the parent what the teacher would see “if the teacher
were there” (e.g., “What does the behavior look like?”
“How long does it last?” “What happens before?” “What
happens after?”). In addition, by asking a broad range of
open-ended questions (e.g., “How long has this been a
problem?” “What does he say about the work?” “Who
else have you spoken with?”), teachers gather important
information and also communicate their interest in the
parent’s perceptions. The LAFF teacher in Table 1 is
able to use the A strategy to develop the parent’s willing-
ness to talk by asking questions and, equally important,
asking to take notes. Recording the parent’s complaint
is an effective way to convey respect for the seriousness
of the issue and provides an efficient way for special
education teachers to document a parent meeting. It is
easy for teachers to lose track of details from parent
conversations, especially when in the midst of a hectic
teaching day. People typically remember few details
during stressful situations, and taking notes provides an
TABLE 1
A Teacher Employs LAFF During a Conference With a Parent
LAFF Steps
Listen, empathize, and
communicate respect
Ask questions
Focus on the issues
Find a first step
Parent–Teacher Conference
Parent: My son, Ethan, is having trouble in his math class. He’s gotten a D or an F on the last three quizzes.
Teacher: That must be frustrating. I appreciate you coming in to talk with me.
Parent: He really struggles with his homework each night.
Teacher: May I take notes so I can be sure to remember all of your concerns?
Parent: Sure, that’s fine.
Teacher: What does Ethan say?
Parent: Ethan says he can’t keep up with the teacher in class, so he doesn’t understand what he is supposed to
do without help.
Teacher: Let’s talk more about the homework; what do you see when Ethan is working at home?
Parent: Sure, that’s fine. He gets some of his homework done in resource room, but by the time he gets home
he’s confused again. He works through the example problems, but he can’t figure out where he’s making his
mistakes.
Teacher: I want to make sure I have got all this, so I’d like to check my notes with you. You are saying that
he has struggled on the last three tests; he can do his homework at school when he has help, but he
really struggles at home. Have I got it? Is there anything you would like to add?
Parent: Yes. Our nights are getting pretty frustrating. We try to help him, but that’s not working very well.
Teacher: As a first step, I’d like to meet with his math teacher. I want to find out what he is seeing. I will
call you by Friday and we will make a plan for next steps.
Parent: Thanks for listening. I wasn’t sure quite what to do, but I’m glad I came in.
TABLE 2
A Teacher Demonstrates CRY Behaviors During a Conference With a Parent
Don’t CRY
Criticize people who aren’t
present
React hastily and promise
something you can’t
deliver
Yakety-yak-yak
Parent–Teacher Conference
Parent: My son, Ethan, is having trouble in his math class. He’s gotten a D or an F on the last three quizzes.
Teacher: Ethan has Mr. McDonald, a first-year teacher. He may not be familiar with Ethan’s
accommodations.
Parent: Ethan had a first-year teacher last year! Why should he have to suffer because there is so much
turnover?
Teacher: That’s really frustrating. You know, there are other algebra sections, other teachers. Maybe I
can switch Ethan to a more experienced teacher.
Parent: What is going to happen about the low quiz grades he’s already gotten? Why should Ethan get bad
grades because things are so disorganized?
Teacher: I understand how important grades can be. My daughter is applying to colleges and she is
under so much pressure. . . .
Parent: But what are you going to do for Ethan? Perhaps I should talk to the principal about our problem.
254 Intervention in School and Clinic
effective method of documenting concerns for immedi-
ate and future use.
It can be tempting when faced with a problem to blame
someone else, either a colleague (as in the example) or
the student (e.g., “He doesn’t seem to be giving his best
effort in class”). Too often the use of the criticize step
backfires and fuels the parent’s frustration. As a result,
teachers who do not make use of active listening may
start to CRY, as lack of progress from the C step lures
teachers to react hastily and promise something they can’t 
deliver as they search for resolution. It is important to
note that the CRY teacher in Table 2 is attempting to solve
the parent’s problem, so much so that the CRY teacher
jumps right to a solution without ever really understand-
ing the scope or nature of the concern.
Focus on the Issues
In the scenario highlighted in Table 1, the LAFF par-
ent responds well to the ask questions step and begins to
share more concerns. Once sufficient information has
been gathered, the LAFF teacher can shift to the first F
step, focus on the issues, with confidence. At this stage
of the conversation, the teacher carefully reviews the
information that has been conveyed, checking for accu-
racy. This checking of understanding ensures that the
LAFF teacher has the appropriate information as the
parent–teacher team moves toward problem solving. In
addition, the teacher can provide clear evidence that he
or she has listened to the parent and accurately recorded
the parent’s concerns.
In contrast, Table 2 shows the CRY teacher, in a mis-
directed attempt toward empathy, describing a personal
experience and shifting attention away from the stu-
dent’s problem. The CRY teacher falls into the Y of CRY
and yakety-yak-yaks, effectively squelching any possi-
bility of problem solving. In stressful situations, many
find silence to be intimidating and may talk to reduce
the stress. Introducing a new topic, however, does little
to move closer to a solution and may just serve to dis-
tract from the concerns of the parent. CRY behaviors are
typically observed prior to training in the LAFF strategy
(McNaughton et al., 2008). Once the preservice teachers
are competent in an active listening strategy (e.g.,
LAFF), their use of these positive skills appears to
replace the problematic behaviors.
Find a First Step
The final step in the LAFF strategy, find a first step,
directs the teacher to consider the information obtained
up to that point and to think about next steps. If the
student is in danger of being harmed or doing harm to
others, immediate action is needed. Most problems, how-
ever, benefit from the gathering of additional information
and careful thought. One possible approach, especially if
the concern is unexpected and the teacher wants some
time to think things through, is to ask the parent for some
time to speak with others and to offer a specific follow-up
time (e.g., “I will be back in touch by Friday”) for further
discussion. Both teacher and parent will have time to
think about the problem and possible solutions. In the
problem depicted in Table 1, it may be that the best thing
the teacher can do is facilitate a meeting between the par-
ent and the math teacher. It will be important that the
special education teacher be effective in alerting the math
teacher to the parent’s concern, so that it does not appear
the conversations are taking place without the knowledge
of the math teacher. However, by spending some time
with the parent in this first brief exchange rather than
simply saying that it is not the special education teacher’s
problem, this teacher has clearly communicated interest
in helping the parent, thereby establishing trust in the
event of future challenges. The teacher has also learned
valuable information about the challenges that the student
faces in other classes and in completing work at home
and can use this information to guide the instruction the
student receives in the resource room.
The parent in the CRY scenario has made little prog-
ress and is forced to take the complaint to a higher auth-
ority in search of a solution. As Table 2 depicts, the
discussion will continue, although probably not with
this teacher. The parent leaves feeling that her concern
has not been understood, that the teaching faculty is
more interested in criticizing each other than in helping,
and that they would prefer to talk about themselves
rather than about her concern. In Table 1, the LAFF
teacher is able to provide closure for the parent with the
last F, find a first step. This strategy brings the conversa-
tion full circle, from complaint to the initial step in a
resolution. The problem is not solved, but the parent and
teacher have gained a better understanding of each other
and will be taking action together, a hallmark of a suc-
cessful collaborative relationship.
Conclusion
The steps in LAFF don’t CRY provide a logical and
easily remembered approach for demonstrating empa-
thy and learning about parent concerns, and the strategy
can provide a good start for the development of collab-
orative home–school teams. Although the steps are perhaps
most easily implemented during informal parent–teacher
McNaughton, Vostal / Collaboration Column 255
meetings, the same key principles of communicating
empathy and respect and seeking a full understanding of
parent concerns are important also in more formal and
larger meetings. These first steps in trying to better
understand a parent’s concerns and perceptions may be
especially important in those situations in which parents
(a) are new to the U.S. educational system (Miretzky,
2004; Moles, 1993), (b) have difficulty understanding
the curriculum (Booth & Booth, 2003), or (c) have been
frustrated with previous communication with teachers
(Ranson, Martin, & Vincent, 2004; Stanley, 1996).
Certainly, other elements are also important for encour-
aging collaboration between parents and teachers. Teac-
hers should consider planning initial conferences early
in the school year (Margolis, 2005), ensuring a comfort-
able physical arrangement for the conference (Jordan,
Reyes-Blanes, Peel, Peel, & Lane, 1998), and avoiding
excessive educational jargon when speaking with par-
ents (Lytle & Bordin, 2001). The combination of all of
these considerations, while displaying active listening
during conferences, can lead to effective collaboration
with parents.
This active listening strategy may also be useful for
special educators as they work with other professionals in
school settings. Paulsen (2008) suggested that one barrier
to school-based collaboration is that teachers, trained to
instruct children, may find it difficult to develop team
relationships with other adults. The LAFF strategy, with
its emphasis on active listening, may be beneficial for
everything from team meetings to unplanned, but often
productive, hallway conversations. Some professionals at
first appear defensive in group meetings (Paulsen, 2008),
as discussions of teaching strategies, student progress,
and availability of resources can be stressful. A special
education teacher’s use of an active listening strategy,
such as LAFF, may help to put the other professional at
ease. Listening, asking questions, and even taking notes
can demonstrate respect to colleagues, and this respect
paves the way for shared problem solving. LAFFing with
colleagues can help to diminish any defensiveness that
stands in the way of collaboration.
McNaughton et al. (2008) showed that the use of
active listening skills summarized in LAFFwas recog-
nized and valued by parents. This suggests that follow-
ing relatively easy and flexible steps might create an
immediate impact on the collaboration of special educa-
tors who are working with parents and other profession-
als. Through demonstrating the LAFF behaviors, and
simultaneously avoiding the CRY behaviors, teachers
can improve their active listening in a manner that is
readily apparent to the adults with whom they work and
can create a strong foundation for effective collabora-
tive teamwork.
About the Authors
David McNaughton, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of
Educational and School Psychology and Special Education at the Pennsylvania
State University. His current interests include collaboration and the develop-
ment of literacy programs for students with severe disabilities. Brooks R.
Vostal, MS, is a PhD candidate in special education at the Pennsylvania State
University. His interests include interventions to promote task engagement
for students with behavioral disorders and the use of strategy instruction in
teacher preparation.
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Reproducedwithpermissionof thecopyrightowner.Further reproduction prohibitedwithoutpermission.
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... The results of the scored communication simulations support the effectiveness of instruction in the LAFF strategy in increasing the use of targeted active listening skills. In addition, as reported in other studies of the impact of instruction in active listening in the helping professions (Levitt, 2001; McNaughton & Vostal, 2010; Paukert, Stagner, & Hope, 2004; Rautalinko et al., 2007), the behaviors taught as part of the instruction were viewed positively both by the individuals who received instruction and by potential communication partners (i.e., parents) who were unaware of the nature of the instructional intervention. One of the questions addressed in this study examined the impact of teaching active listening skills to a relatively large group of students while making use of the allocated time and resources typically available to a faculty member. ...
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Purpose: This study examined the effect of instruction in an active listening strategy on the communication skills of pre-service speech-language pathologists (SLPs). Method: Twenty-three pre-service SLPs in their 2nd year of graduate study received a brief strategy instruction in active listening skills. Participants were videotaped during a simulated parent meeting before and after the strategy instruction. Simulated parent meetings addressed issues that parents of children who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) may face. Social validity measures were gathered from the participants and from parents of children who use AAC. Results: Pre- and postinstruction use of the active listening strategy was scored and compared using a Wilcoxon signed-ranks test, with statistically significant results. Postinstruction scores were significantly higher than preinstruction scores, providing evidence of the effectiveness of the instruction. Furthermore, participants and parents of children who use AAC described the postinstruction interactions more positively than the preinstruction interactions, suggesting that the pre-service SLPs benefited from the instruction. Conclusion: The current study provides evidence of the effectiveness of strategy instruction in active listening skills that may be incorporated into SLP preparation programs.
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