Scanlan Center for School Mental Health
parents and child meeting with teacher

Partnering for Progress: 4 Strategies to Support Challenging Behavior with Family-School Collaboration

Beth Provis
Beth Provis
written by

Beth Provis

Teaching & Learning

Close your eyes and imagine you’re a teacher in a classroom of 20 energetic students, coming in from recess on a hot Iowa day. Your paraprofessional called off for the day, and you are the only adult in the room.

You don’t have the perceived ability to assist the student who struggles with switching tasks, especially from recess to math. Suddenly, this student has an anger outburst, kicks the desks, and disrupts the other students from learning.

Now, imagine you are this student’s parent. Your child comes home from school as you arrive home from a full day of work. You ask your child questions about their day, and they refuse to answer. You know your child had a rough morning, but you did not talk to the teacher about it and did not follow up in the afternoon. You continue trying to get responses out of them because you are desperate to have a deeper connection with your child. Your child gets frustrated and begins to hit you. This cycle happens nearly every day; you feel defeated, and you allow your child to play games alone.

Finally, imagine you are the child. You felt alone all day at school when you just needed to be supported. You were sad all day because you felt like all your classmates were better at math than you. You don’t feel your best because you didn’t sleep well last night. You feel like your parent is going to be disappointed in you for getting upset at school. You do everything you can to get away and be by yourself to avoid your parent’s disappointment.

How did it feel to be in each of those positions?

A lack of communication between the above parties and a perceived lack of support can make school and home difficult and frustrating for all positions.

To improve this situation, if the teacher, parent, and student had a relationship with regular communication, each person may have experienced more support from one another, and this scenario could have had a different and more positive result.

Collaboration between families and schools allows for targeted supports in school and at home, which can improve educator, family, and student well-being.

A collaborative family-school model involves strong partnerships and cooperation between families and educators (Moorman Kim, et al., 2012). Research has consistently shown positive effects of family-school collaboration including reduced stereotyping of families, increased student academic achievement, reduced student disruptive behaviors, and increased school enjoyment (Booth & Dunn, 1996; Weist, et al., 2017).

There are 4 essential elements for establishing and maintaining positive family-school collaboration for all students, regardless of student need. However, these key elements are particularly beneficial for students with challenging behavior and their families.

#1 Frequent, Two-Way Communication

It is essential that schools provide opportunities for frequent communication between educators/school staff and parents/caregivers. Formal and informal communications make this possible – whether it is report cards, positive notes, or through communication software (such as ParentSquare).

Two-way communication made easy for both parents and teachers allows for frequent interaction and can build trust and empathy (Minch, 2020). Frequent communication before any indication of challenging behavior is ideal, as it lays a foundation of support so families know they can rely on the school to report both accomplishments and concerns about the child.

Communicating with families about positives (i.e. Did they make a new friend? Help a classmate or a teacher? Share a novel idea?) in the child’s school day creates a nurturing and trusting environment. Then, when classroom behavior becomes a concern, the prior positive communications can indicate that both families and educators have a shared goal of doing what is best for the child.

#2 Focus on Child’s Strengths

Focusing on the positive aspects of the situation and the child’s strengths helps to support the child, allowing them to feel capable and supported (Witte & Sheridan, 2023).

For instance, educators can create opportunities for children to build new skills based on the strengths they already have. This could look like using social strengths (peer interaction) to mediate behavioral challenges (noncompliance) that occur when a child feels incapable of completing a task (math); this scenario is laid out in more detail toward the end of this section.

Concentrating solely on problematic behaviors while neglecting strengths can undermine positive connections with families. Families may feel that the school has a negative bias toward their child.

Focusing on student strengths may be particularly beneficial for children with challenging behavior because they may feel more discouraged by their difficulties and feel unable to bolster their abilities.

For instance, the child who had an outburst and performed poorly in math felt incapable of doing well and making their teachers and parents proud. Rather than accepting the student’s weakness and lack of self-efficacy, the teacher could focus on the child’s classroom contributions and skills (e.g. peer interaction) and incorporate those into the math assignment, thus potentially avoiding the challenging behavior.

In this situation, the teacher could offer support from his peers through group work in the challenging subject to avoid the outburst.

Sometimes, focusing on strengths can seem incredibly difficult, especially in escalated situations. However, it can change the child’s outlook on themselves (and the parent’s outlook on their child) when they feel empowered to make progress and capable of accomplishing their goals.

#3 Address the Concern Immediately

Schools and families should address concerns of challenging behavior at the earliest signs of the child’s difficulty.

Research shows that early identification and effective early intervention have more positive outcomes for the child’s behavioral problems in the long-term (Durlak & Wells, 1997). For example, schools can reach out to families, or vice versa, when they notice mood changes within the child, even if they seem insignificant at the time. The saying “better safe than sorry” holds true to make early identification and intervention possible.

With a strong relationship and frequent communication, the family may be more inclined to disclose varying concerns about their child (such as mood swings).

Consider the opening scenario, but now imagine the student’s behavioral concerns were identified sooner through frequent, two-way communication.

The student’s parent let the teacher know the child was having a rough day during morning drop-off. Because of this communication, the teacher allotted time to planning and implementing individualized supports throughout the day. The teacher prepared for task switching and added a fun activity to transition to math by incorporating physical activity (tossing a ball) to work on addition problems. The teacher had time to plan for this support (because difficulty was identified early in the day), which allowed the child to gradually transition from physical activity (recess) to academic work (math) and prevented the student’s challenging behaviors.

#4 Provide Structure

Providing structure to the collaborative system makes it possible for all parties to share information and make informed decisions collectively (Witte & Sheridan, 2023).

Parents and teachers need opportunities to participate in meetings and express their concerns. This can be done through creating schedules and agendas, specifically carving out time to allow the sharing of information. Additionally, recurrent scheduled progress monitoring and data review allows for supports to be adjusted and to help ensure the supports fit the child’s needs.

Knowing that there is structure and predictability when it comes to meetings, assessments, and interventions may make families feel more comfortable and confident in the ability of the school to effectively provide support. The process will be less intimidating and encourage families and teachers to partner on planning effective supports for both home and school.

Schools can also offer resources that make it easier for families to reach out with concerns. The Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) has a resource “Questions for Families to Consider when Concerned about their Child’s Behavior” to connect families and schools. It includes specific scripts on how to approach their child’s teacher or school about challenging behavior.

Now imagine yourself again as the teacher, parent, and child. However, this time the school has strong family-school collaboration systems.

The teacher has experience with the child and knows what typically leads to the challenging behavior. Because concerns were identified early, the teacher already knew what to expect when the student’s emotions became elevated.

The focus on strengths enhanced relationships between all parties and allowed the child, parent, and teacher to feel more capable of handling challenges. Strong relationships and respect of individuality led to the understanding of perspectives and empathy.

Finally, the structure of the support process has made the parent comfortable enough to express concerns early on. With more collaborative support in these home-school connections, more people will be cooperating to do what is best for the child, regardless of behavioral difficulties.

Beth Provis is currently a workforce expansion trainee at the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health and a doctoral student in School Psychology at the University of Iowa.


  • Booth, A., & Dunn, J. F. (Eds.). (1996). Family–school links: How do they affect educational outcomes? Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Durlak, J. A., & Wells, A. M. (1997). Primary prevention mental health programs for children and adolescents: A meta-analytic review. American Journal of Community Psychology, 25(2), 115–152.
  • Minch, D.R., Garbacz, S.A., & Weist, M.D. (April 2020). Advancing Family-School Collaboration in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports Through the Family-School-Community Alliance. Eugene, OR: Center on PBIS, University of Oregon. Retrieved from
  • Moorman Kim, E., Coutts, M. J., Holmes, S. R., Sheridan, S. M., Ransom, K. A., Sjuts, T. M., & Rispoli, K. M. (2012). Parent involvement and family-school partnerships: Examining the content, processes, and outcomes of structural versus relationship-based approaches (CYFS Working Paper No. 2012-6). Retrieved from the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools website:
  • Weist, M. D., Garbacz, S. A., Lane, K. L., & Kincaid, D. (2017). Aligning and integrating family engagement in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): Concepts and strategies for families and schools in key contexts. Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education). Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Press.
  • Witte, A. & Sheridan, S. (2023). Family-school partnerships: Five tips for successful problem solving with parents. National Association of School Psychologists.