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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.

Let’s imagine that there’s a problem at school. You’ve been asked to come it to talk it over or you’ve called the teacher and asked her to let you come in. This is not your ordinary parent-teacher conference. There’s an issue to tackle and it makes you a bit nervous and upset.

Your child is counting on you to  use this conversation to its full advantage. Whatever the problem, whether it’s about his behavior, a classmate’s behavior, or his progress in reading or math, this meeting makes a real difference in how the rest of the school year goes for him. How should you handle this?

Here are some tips.

Get a babysitter. Unless your older child is included in the meeting or your infant is a newborn who can be counted on to sleep through the entire thing, leave your children at home. You want to give the conversation your full attention and not be distracted by your kids. In addition, your child who is the subject of this conference isn’t helped by hearing you and his teacher talk about him. You won’t feel free to say what’s on your mind if your child is listening in and neither will his teacher. Get a babysitter or trade kid-minding with another parent you know. Leave your children at home.

Arrive five minutes early. It’s a sign of courtesy and of your seriousness about this meeting to show up on time. Don’t let the teacher wonder if you’ve forgotten the meeting by being late. Don’t let yourself get upset before you even get in the door by having to hurry. Get there five minutes ahead so you have time to get to your child’s classroom and gather your thoughts.

Bring pencil and paper. You have questions you want to ask or points you want the teacher to address, so write these down ahead of time and bring your list along. That way you can’t forget what you want to say. Bringing a notebook shows the teacher you’re taking this seriously.  If you think you and the teacher might have a difference of opinion on the issue at hand, being ready to write down what is said shows the seriousness you feel.

Don’t argue. Your child’s teacher is giving you information. Listen and learn. It might be that what you learn most is how this teacher thinks and how he manages his students. This is important stuff. It might be that you’ll learn things about your child you didn’t know or a different angle on her behavior you’d never considered before. You can’t pick up information if you dominate the conversation, take up time telling the teacher how wrong he is, or act defensive.

Ask questions. The best questions are open-ended. Ask, “What have you found is the best way to handle Clara’s meltdowns?” instead of asking, “When Clara has a meltdown, do you punish her?” Questions that can be answered by a single word don’t give you much information. You want to get a good picture of what’s going on, and that means getting the teacher to talk enough to tell you.

Stay nice. Even if your child hates this teacher, even if everything you’ve heard about her is awful, even if you’ve argued with this teacher in the past, be sweet. Do not display unreasonable, demanding behavior that she can use as a reason to ignore your concerns. If you think you’re right, being calmly certain carries more weight than getting all worked up. Your pleasant behavior will give the teacher reason to be pleasant too. You want this conversation to go well.

Expect real information. It might be you find out that things are not so bad for your child as you’d feared and you have no real concerns after all. But don’t let the teacher paper over or minimize the problem that brought you to the school and don’t let her make vague, general statements about what she doesn’t like about your kid’s progress or actions. Be prepared to dig a little bit and insist – nicely – on specific instances of what she’s seeing or explanations of specific problems your child says she’s having at school. You don’t want to get home and think, “That was a waste of time! I didn’t get the answers I needed!” Now is the time to get answers. Ask for them.

Wrap up on time. When it’s time to go, say good-bye. Do not run over unless the teacher wishes it. If there is more to say, make another appointment. As you’re wrapping up, review your notes, saying out loud what you learned and what you’ll try to do at home to help your child. Say also what the teacher has agreed to do and tell when you and he will talk again, to see how things are going. Thank the teacher for his time and effort. Make eye contact. Leave on a happy note.

Any parent-teacher conference is an important event. It cements the relationship of the most important adults in a child’s life, his parents and his teacher. Managing a calm, reasonable conversation at a time when your child is in some sort of trouble is even more important.

You and the school are on the same side – you both want your child to do well. So make any conversation about your child a useful and positive experience. Good luck!


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.