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Now that the school year is well underway, you may be aware that your child is having difficulty and his teacher is not pleased. You may be feeling that you and your child are under attack – or you might feel that your child’s teacher has already lost interest and given up on your child. How can you handle conversations and conferences with this teacher when the gulf between you seems so wide?

Here are some steps to consider.

Be Pleasant No Matter What. Don’t give the teacher a reason to dismiss you as unreasonable or to think she sees in you the cause of her trouble with your child. Any hint of anger or disrespect on your part will backfire. It is much harder to write you off as a nutcase if you are sweet and collaborative. And if you eventually must take things to the next level and talk to the principal, your reputation as a sensible, pleasant parent will contrast nicely to any unreasonableness on the part of the teacher.

Keep The Focus On Communication. The teacher should provide information, not criticism. And your role is to accept information, not defend against it. So try to listen with an open mind and avoid denial of what the teacher tells you that he sees.

If the teacher is critical without being informative, gently acknowledge the teacher’s feelings while asking for information. For example, if you hear, “Claire is so lazy!” say, “I’m sure that must be frustrating for you. But how is she lazy? What do you see that makes you say that?”

Don’t make excuses or place the blame for your child’s difficulties on someone else. If you need to fill in some circumstances that might affect your child’s achievement, do this by providing information, not by excusing bad performance. Say, “I understand that Jon is not doing his homework. He has been distracted by the death of his dog last month. I didn’t realize it was still affecting his schoolwork.”

Ask Questions, Seek Clarity. A key aspect of communication is that it is specific, not vague and fuzzy. So it’s okay to ask for specific, recent examples of whatever behavior your child’s teacher is worried about. Don’t accept sloppy thinking that lumps your child in with all the other students and reflects the teacher’s general unhappiness with the class. Insist – gently – that she describe the problems she sees in your child.

It’s okay to ask what solutions the teacher has tried and what she intends to try next, A teacher should not present a problem without having already tried to fix it or without a plan for its solution in the future. You cannot follow your child through the school day. Responsibility for school behavior ultimately resides with the teacher. So if all you’re told is the problem, it’s good to say something like, “I can see this is a challenge. Tell me what you’ve tried and what you’re planning to do next.”

Be Part Of The Solution. Although the teacher is the education professional, you have some responsibility too. Your influence over your child’s behavior is great and, of course, you want your child to do well. So stay open to suggestions. Do not immediately reject your role in your child’s success. Be part of the team.

Together with the teacher, set clear goals based on specific actions and agree on a date in the near future to evaluate progress. End the conversation with something in writing that outlines what each of you will do and by when. If the teacher doesn’t write this up, do it yourself, either on the spot or in a follow-up email. You may want this paper trail later.

Watch out for two pitfalls. First, do not let the teacher imagine that by telling you his concerns for your child that he can wash his hands of the problem and that the outcome for the year is already determined. Your follow-up with a written plan helps here.

And, second, remember that teachers should never make a diagnosis of disability or psychological problems that they are not qualified and licensed to make. They may suggest particular testing or give you their professional opinion that you can use as a resource, but it is your place as the parent to decide what to do with this information.

What To Do If You Get Nowhere. Request a meeting with the principal. Do not do this before meeting with the teacher, even if you think that you’ll get nowhere with the teacher. In meeting with the principal, explain the situation without assigning blame. Stick to the facts and avoid saying bad things about anyone. If you have emails or notes from your conversations, these can be used to support your concerns.

Then repeat all the steps above with the principal. Just remember to stay sweet!

The more you can come across as reasonable, cooperative and persistent the better you represent your child and the harder you are to ignore. Helping your child requires supportive but rational parents!

© Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

Teachers often decorate a classroom with colorful art pieces from their students. Yet a recent study conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that rooms with too many decorations or distractions could be detrimental to children’s learning.

Have you ever walked into a childcare center or preschool classroom and been overwhelmed by all the colorful stuff on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and even laid across the floor? I have! Now a study by psychologist Anna V. Fisher, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that all that visual clutter might have a negative effect on learning.

Fisher used a classroom of 24 kindergarteners and six science lessons as the basis for her study. Three of the lessons were taught to the children in a sparsely-decorated space; the other three lessons were taught in a heavily-decorated classroom. After each lesson, students were quizzed on the content. The result? Lessons taught in the plainer classroom resulted in higher quiz scores (55 percent correct) than did lessons taught in the visually-busy room (42 percent correct).

Certainly this is a small-scale study of limited scope but it suggests something you might have suspected to be true: that children’s attention can be diverted by their surroundings and can result in paying less attention to what we might want them to notice. In fact, it’s been established that children have “open attention” – meaning they process all sensory information equally – in contrast to adults’ more focused attention, in which we are able to filter out what is important and attend only to that.

It seems to me that it’s not just teachers and classrooms that might be a problem. If your young child seems to have trouble focusing, seems easily distracted, and never listens look around. Is there a lot of clutter?

Goodness knows, it’s hard to keep things neat with children in the house. But if clutter in classrooms makes children perform less well, it seems reasonable to guess the same might be happening at home.  Here are some tips to try:

  1. Make it a habit to pick up books and toys at least before bedtime every day. Together. This isn’t a task for the grownup but something for the children to do, though we know they’ll need your help. Start each day with a clean playroom, instead of with the mess from the day before.
  2.  Keep children’s rooms on the spare side, instead of letting them fill up with boxes and bins and shelves full of stuff. Less might mean more when it comes to attention and good behavior. This doesn’t mean you should throw the excess out but that it should be stored away. Rotate toys, instead of having them all available all the time.
  3. Keep clothes drawers lean too. What’s in a child’s dresser and closet should be what actually fits him now, not what he’s going to grow into and what he’s already grown out of.
  4. Pay attention to media clutter too. If the television is always running in the background, if there’s the “zap-ping-pow” of video games going off all the time, or music is blaring distractingly, tone things down. Teach your media-lovers how to use the volume switch and where the headphones are kept… and even how to turn the sound off altogether.

If sometimes things at home are so distracting and crazy you “can’t hear yourself think,” imagine what it’s like for your children, who have trouble enough thinking even on a calm day.  Control the clutter and your kids may find it easier to control themselves.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.