How to deal with difficult parents and principals as a PTO PTA leader

Dealing with Difficult Parents and Principals

Dealing with difficult people is last on the list for things PTO and PTA leaders and volunteer ever want to do.

Heck, it’s last on the list for everyone in this world, right?

Today we’re going to get into this topic and I’ll give you some great advice on how to deal with difficult parents and principals as a PTO leader that you’ll come back to again and again.

Here’s a video from the PTA/PTO Super Star Leaders Facebook Group on this very topic!

Dealing with Difficult Parents and Principals as a PTO Leader

Be Kind

The first, and best, piece of advice on how to deal with difficult parents and principals as a PTO leader is plain and simple: be kind.

It’s a lesson you learned early on in life, but the lesson totally works here.

Listen, everyone has stuff going on in their life.

And chances are, you’re not going to know about it.

Their mother might be sick.

Their spouse could’ve just been laid off.

Maybe they’re just going through a rough patch right now.

Most people aren’t jerks.

They’re not out to make your life miserable.

And it’s also true that most people don’t have good skills for dealing with conflict or differing opinions.

If you’re kind, then chances are, you’ll find kindness return.

Serve up lots of honey and you might just find that that difficult person starts to be nicer, or at least soften a bit!

The kindness is what you’d expect if you were having a tough time in life, so serve it up graciously.

Difficult parents

Now, let’s really get into this topic.

Let’s talk about difficult parents for a minute.

If you’ve been involved with your PTO in any capacity for any length of time, no doubt you’ve encountered difficult parents.

Some of these difficult parents are active in the PTO and some are not.

And there’s a zillion reasons why they may be giving you a hard time.

A few possible reasons…

Maybe they want to be involved (more), but can’t, and they’re taking it out on you.

I really believe that on some level, they’re jealous or feeling guilty about not being able to do more and they’re expressing that in a negative way.

Or it could be that they’re not very happy with themselves and that’s coming out as negativity with others.

Or maybe they’re just a negative person and they are always uber critical about everything.

Whatever the real reason it is, it stinks.

But you cannot control or change how they are acting.

You’re only control of you.

So be circle back to the first suggestion and be kind!

Let me tell you about this one time I almost lost it…

Early on in my PTA leadership career, I was working the membership table at a back to school ice cream social event.

I was greeting everyone who came to the table and giving them an idea about what the PTA looked like and how it operated at our school.

One conversation with a parent still stands out in my memory clear as day.

She wasn’t a parent that had been involved, and launched into a rant about all sorts of things she thought the PTA should be doing.

She had all sorts of ideas about how I should be spending my time and what I should be working on for PTA.

None of which was actually part of our mission as a group, by the way.

I patiently listened to her, even though my blood was starting to boil under my skin.

But instead of getting defensive or coming back at her with a saucy retort, I invited her to come to a meeting.

“Those are great ideas! Come to our meeting on September 8th, share your ideas and see how you can make those ideas come to life!”

A kind (and sensible) response, in the moment, right?

She responded that she didn’t have time to come to meetings because she worked.

I smiled, and then shared with her that pretty much all the PTA members had to juggle schedules because they, too, worked outside of the home.

She made another (lame) excuse and left the table.

I literally never saw her again.

I started to feel bad for a second.

Why weren’t we doing all of those things she mentioned?

Because PTA wasn’t (and still isn’t) my job.

I’m a volunteer, trying to do the best that I can!

I cut myself some slack and then found a PTA friend and complained to her about the uber negative parent.

That made me feel much better than getting upset with the woman ever would’ve!

Moral(s) of the story:
Some people have a lot of nerve piling onto others.

It’s way easier to identify what others could or should be doing than to get involved and make those things happen.

But, you’ll have to learn how to grin and bear it to not go crazy as a PTO leader!

Also, remember what I said about being kind.

That complaining parent could’ve just had the worst day of her life.

I stayed kind and welcoming in hopes that she would take me up on the invitation to get involved.

She didn’t, but that’s on her.

I’m pretty sure she’s off somewhere, criticizing someone else right now… (ha!)

Difficult PTO Officers and Committee Chairs

Turning now to a more delicate subject…

What if the difficult parent is a PTO Officer or Committee Chair?

That parent who never agrees

Almost every PTO has parent like this- the one who never agrees or who always seems to have a negative comment.

First, let me say that the point of PTO is NOT to have everyone agree all the time.

Just the majority of the group needs to be in agreement.

That’s why you have voting!

There’s absolutely no requirement on having everyone in agreement in order to proceed.

If you’re waiting for everyone to like every aspect of what’s going on in your PTO then you’ll never get anything done.

No one PTO member should be able to shut things down from happening.

So if you find that your PTO has come to an impasse about a particular item during a meeting, call for a vote.

Have someone make a motion and the group can then vote to move forward.

Not doing their job

If the difficulty of the PTO leader is coming from the fact that they’re not doing their job, then I have a different strategy for dealing with them.

First, don’t say anything publicly about the fact that they’re not doing their job.

That’s just mean girl middle school behavior.

Instead, have a private conversation with them.

Ask them what’s up, but don’t lead with the fact that they’re slacking off.

That’ll just cause them to get defensive.

Instead, ask where they are with the task?

If they say they haven’t started yet, ask how you or others can help.

They could be over their head with tasks and need a little help to get their head above water.

Maybe they’re unclear on what they need to do, so that tasks have been put off.

They could be ashamed or embarrassed to let others know they don’t know what to do.

Everyone who volunteers to take on a position, actually wants to do a good job.

They just might need a little help.

More on what to do if you need to fire a volunteer here.

Not following bylaws/ standing rules

Now, what if there’s a PTO leader who’s not following the PTO bylaws or standing rules?

First, rules are NOT meant to be broken in PTO land.


Why even have rules if they’re not going to be followed?

But that’s not so say that the bylaws and standing rules can’t ever be changed.

Figure out some reasons why the rules aren’t being followed to the T.

Are the rules outdated?

If so, then it’s time to update those puppies to reflect that’s actually going on in the group.

But know this: Sometimes the group’s needs outweigh the need to strictly follow the bylaws and standing rules.

Take the example of a PTO officer who’s serving in her 3rd year as fundraising chair, even though the PTO bylaws state that no one can hold the same office for more than two consecutive years.

If no one else was willing to step up into the fundraising role, and it wasn’t that the fundraising chair was blocking others from holding that position, then it’s not such a big deal.

The PTO needs a Fundraising Chair and there was someone willing to serve when no one else would.

Technically, that’s not in compliance with the bylaws, but in this case, I’d overlook it.

But if she’s camping out in that position when others are waiting in the wings, then that’s another thing altogether.

I’d argue that she shouldn’t be allowed to serve in that role again to give another person the opportunity.

The bylaws should be strictly followed in this instance.

More on Bylaws and Standing Rules here.

Difficult for another reason

What if the parent is difficult for some other reason?

If you have some really difficult, maybe even dysfunctional people in your group, stay in your own lane.

Don’t worry about what they’re doing.

Figure out how you can be successful in your role, personally.

Limit your contact with the difficult person as much as possible.

My experience has been that eventually the dysfunctional people will leave the group, especially if others don’t play the dysfunctional games.

Read more on dealing with mean girls in PTO here.

Difficult Principals

Let’s turn our attention to difficult Principals.

What if you don’t feel like they’re supportive of the PTO?

Maybe the Principal is shutting down ideas and opportunities left and right and you don’t know what to do?

Get some perspective first.

Principals have more on their to do list than can actually be done in reality.

Their wish is for the PTO to run smoothly so they don’t need to sort out any mess.

Dysfunctional PTOs can eat up a lot of their time.

Time that they just don’t have, so they seek to implement some greater control.

And as annoying as that might be for you, the eternally prepared and organized PTO leader, you should know that it’s nothing personal.

She’s doing it literally for self preservation!

What’s more, some Principals may have been burned in the past with other groups, or even a prior version of your own PTO.

So they may be seeking more input and control to proactively not make it more difficult for them.

Schedule a meeting and have a conversation with her about

Seek common ground

Figure out how to make it work.

In your meeting, be clear about:

What you want.

Your expectations.

What you can do.

More about creating a good relationship and partnering with your Principal here.

How to Ease Most PTO Difficulties

In my experience, most of the difficulties that come up in PTOs is a result of a problem with planning or communication.

Or both!

Here’s perfect solution to tackling both of those problems, all while equipping your PTO team with all the resources they’ll need for a successful year: the Success Kit for PTO and PTA groups.

colorful binder and planner kits for pto pta leaders on white background

There are resources for every leader in your group that’ll save hours of time figuring out what or how and give you resources to start doing right away!

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