Monday, March 23, 2009

Three Ways to Ground Helicopter Parents

Last week I was flattered and honored. I had the pleasure to work with Northeastern Illinois University, an important school with an attrition issue it is starting to aggressively tackle. I came there to do a study, provide some presentations and help obtain thoughts and issues from everyone to improve retention and academic customer service across the university community. This is a serious effort from some sincere and wonderful people who want to enrich the lives of their students and community.


The flattery came from the use of my tag line Great Service Matters for the entire conference and effort. More came from the attention and kind comments from the wonderful people from Arthur (the birthday boy in public works) all the way down to President Haas at NEIU. They all seemed so eager to work with the ideas and techniques we discussed.  But the greatest praise came from the email from the Director of Enrollment Services, Dr. Janice Harring-Hendon.


Thank you again for helping us to launch Northeastern’s customer service initiative.  Every employee I passed this morning on my way in made eye contact and said good morning.  One of my managers stopped in to say that her staff has vowed to practice “Meet and Greet” program.  We are thrilled with the positive feedback from conference and can’t thank you enough for all you did to help us get this started…customer service is indeed a gift that keeps on giving.   Thanks again.


Not just talking the talk but walking the walk and greeting!  This is a group of people who will succeed so their students succeed.


Helicopter Parents   


While there, the issue of helicopter parents came up. As a problem. Seemed that helicopter parents were providing NEIU more help than they needed – or wanted. (Sort of like the College of DuPage’s Board of Trustees who may be more like drone bombers than helicopters). They wanted to find ways to eliminate them; to stop them from landing.


That’s not necessarily going to happen nor even good for the school.


First, helicopter parents are not going to go away if they feel they need to be helping their kids. This is actually a value to be lauded. Parents who care! Haven’t we been told that parents are detached and that’s why our society is slipping? These are parents who are fully involved so they will not just go away. The real issue is how to channel the interest.


Second, they can bring you good information on issues that are harming retention and students. No, not the ones about my daughter is a genius and should have gotten an A on the exam. If she really were a genius she should have gotten the A on her own. More the ones with issues about how their son was treated, a policy or procedure that is problematic, professional indifference or a problem with an employee of the school. If any of these come up more than once, you have just been given free consultation on a problem that likely affects more than just two students.


Three Steps to Ground Helicopter Parents


There are ways to get the helicopters from flying as often as they may be right now. Here are three things you can do to keep the grounded more.


1)    Have All Students Sign A FERPA Release. An issue that will always get the engines revving starts when a parent calls to get some information on how someone is doing in school or even if they have simply been showing up. They call and make a reasonable request. We tell them we cannot talk to them because of FERPA. “Because of what?” Then we try to explain what FERPA is and they respond by telling us they are paying the bills so take FERPA and….  Can you hear that helicopter engine starting to warm up? Oh yes, and they are starting to consider loading stinger missiles too.


Little angers people than when they feel we are hiding behind a smokescreen and that’s how they see FERPA. They may have to accept what we tell them right then but they do not believe us.  That just makes them angry and distrustful . That in turn make them ready and looking for a fight, or a pre-emptive helicopter strike. Give them a semblance of a reason and they come swooping in.


So, take away the issue. Have all students sign a FERPA release. With that in hand, you can discuss issues and supply answers that will keep the engine from warming up.


2) Give Them a Landing Pad. There are going to be some parents and spouses who will want to fly in for a check of the landing site no matter what one does to dissuade them.  Give them places to land so you can control some of the air traffic. Moreover by providing landing pads set far enough off campus, you might have them be happy not to keep coming forward after they have landed. Give them places they can make contact, get information and send comments from off-campus such as:


          A parental liaison: identify a person who will be the point of contact between pilots and the school.  After studying and talking with helicopters parents, I have found that many take off because they do not know where or who they should talk with on an issue or problem.  They start to fly around the institution trying to find someone who might help them resolve the issue or provide information.  Provide them with a person who will take all questions, issues, concerns and complaints; get information and report back. And, though it should not be necessary to do so (it is unfortunately) make sure the liaison can provide great customer service.  Don’t use the position to banish or punish someone who is miserable to work with. Just adds to the problem.

          Email Landing Pad:  Create an email address that is just for parents/spouses to use to send in questions, issues, complaints, whatever, even compliments (heaven forbid).  Make sure it has an automatic responder saying that the email will be responded to by a real person  by the end of the day. Have the liaison check it every day and respond with either an answer, proposed resolution or an assurance it is being looked into and “I will be back by….(date). I will keep you up-to-date as I can”  Then get on it.




          Parent’s Website: A number of schools have established a web site just for parents and others interested in what is going on, when things are happening and other relevant information. These can provide information and an outlet for parents so they can be involved and get information they may want without even glancing at their Hughies  A couple of examples of different approaches are James Madison University; Purchase College-SUNY  Hope College;  and Harford Community College

Parent’s Blog or Wiki: Provide them an opportunity to communicate with you and other parents. It is quite possible that by talking/writing about issues, concerns or confusions with one another, they can actually help one another in a non-threatening manner.  Yes, it is possible that someone might write something negative about the school or an experience.  So?  Realize that if they wrote about it they are certainly talking about it. This gives you a chance tio hear what they are saying and even respond starting with a thank you for your comments…. It is also very possible that if you can promoter and build the interactions, another parent will have an experience that counters the complaint. If it should lead to a thread of complaints, congratulate yourself. You now have an issue to solve and save students, parents and time in the future. And, yes tell the writers you have heard them, looked into it and…


A Blog or wiki also provides many helicopter parents just what they want – to be heard.  


3)         Keep in Touch Regularly: Don’t just send parents and others just bills and warnings. Include them on the possible donor list because they are. They will donate tuition, fees, housing, books and other expenses. Okay, they aren’t exactly donations but they are revenue and I am not aware of many schools that do not want that. Treat them as if they were potential donors and they will return your reaching out to them with not reaching back in a helicopter. They could even become a real donor later on.


Realize of course I am not saying to send them the same materials as you might alumni or potential donors but treat then to mailings and contacts on the same sorts of positive information. Have the student’s major department do the same. Keep in touch on the good days to offset the bad ones such as payment dates that just add fuel to the helicopter tank.


Will these suggestions end all helicoptering? No. But they will certainly slow it down. And they will also provide you with important information that can only help you make the school better.


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