So here we are, back at school, with excitement and dread all mixed together. As parents, we begin the year (not unlike the children) hoping for a teacher who’s a “match” for our child and will create the setting for healthy growth and learning. We daven for our child to be successful, to keep up with the work, and to feel socially and academically adept. And, as always, we think about the optimum ways to help this happen: How can we become a true partner in our child’s education? What happens if we have concerns? Is it best to keep quiet and hope things work out by themselves? Or is it better to be proactive? Is there a “best way” to advocate for our children?
While we know that each situation is different and requires its own approach, there are some general advocacy how-tos that can result in a positive outcome. Taking some time to think carefully about this challenge can spell the difference between success and failure, between helping our child and actually causing harm.
Believe or not, successfully advocating for our children begins on the first day of school or at orientation, whichever comes first. That’s because we never want to approach a teacher or administrator in a vacuum: We start by establishing a solid, cooperative relationship with the teacher and the school. You want the teacher to see that you have a positive attitude towards him or her and that you are confident that this will be a great school year. As the weeks go on, be sure to share specific aspects of the class that you appreciate. We so often take things for granted when they’re going well, thinking that’s the way it should be, instead of expressing our gratitude for the work that goes into teaching a class of different personalities and learning styles. Whenever possible, volunteer for school or class activities, or find other ways to show your interest in the class and your readiness to support the teacher’s goals. Show respect for the teacher, including asking for advice and input.
Beyond these general measures, the question is, what do you do if an issue arises that requires advocating for your child? There are some basic dos and don’t’s that can help you improve the situation and avoid making things worse.
* * *
DO request a time for a meeting; DON’T try the hit-and-run method of blurting a problem at dismissal.
Sometimes all you need is a short meeting between you and the teacher; at other times you may want a full meeting that includes all school staff who interact with your child, as well as a professional or two, such as the child’s pediatrician or specialist. Sometimes a child’s work seems to indicate a lack of motivation or even laziness. This is especially common with learning disabilities and other “invisible” issues that make it hard to understand why a bright child is doing substandard work. In such situations, bringing a professional to the meeting adds a layer of verisimilitude to your concerns and ideas. It also means that your concerns are heard as real issues rather than as criticism.
Bringing your child’s pediatrician or counselor to such a meeting offers further advantages. Sitting alone – or even with a spouse – facing four-to-six school personnel can feel very intimidating. Your thoughts and reports can come across as more emotional than factual. The professional who accompanies you can advocate for your child in ways that you may not be able to. In addition, that trained individual can process what is being said more objectively and, chances are, respond more accurately than you can. The professional you bring can also point out any flaws in the solutions presented by the school team or, in many cases, highlight the pluses of those solutions and add to them. In the event the pediatrician or counselor/therapist can’t be there in person, it’s possible to arrange his or her presence on the phone and that can work, as well.
While having a friend accompany you to a meeting with all involved school personnel will give you a certain comfort level, my recommendation is to resist that temptation. The friend, no matter how wonderful, does not bring another level of expertise, and his or her presence can communicate that you simply don’t have the confidence to handle such a meeting. It’s important to show that, even though you recognize and appreciate the expertise of all the people at the table, you also realize that as the parent, there are things you may see and understand that others don’t.
DO always be positive. Assume the teacher wants to help and has your child’s best interest at heart. DON’T blame or attack the teacher or the school.
Too often, a parent’s negative approach results in defensiveness or counter-blame. The child is the loser. In a recent incident, a parent kept blaming the school and the classroom teacher for not doing enough. In addition to creating a lot of negative energy, this behavior led to the teacher and principal giving a negative report about the student to the person in charge of a wonderful summer job opportunity.
DO give the teacher an opportunity to present his or her view, even if this means venting a bit about your child. DON’T jump to conclusions that somehow the concerns you have must indicate incompetence or lack of caring on the teacher’s part.
So, if you know for example, that your “tzadik” has failed to turn in the last eight homework assignments, approach the situation as something you want to work on together with the teacher, even if you have some questions about the size and nature of the assignments.
DO let the teacher know what works for your child. For some children, for example, fear of messing up is greater than fear of punishment. This might mean that your child would rather get in trouble for not handing in assignments than risk handing in an assignment that has too many mistakes.
DON’T go behind the teacher’s back and set up a meeting with the principal without the teacher knowing.
DO define the purpose of a meeting. You definitely want to clear the air and state the problem. More than that, however, you want to leave with a plan that includes a method for assessing the success of that plan and for keeping all parties responsible for their parts of the solution. This might include establishing a method for checking in regularly, one that is not onerous to either the teacher or the parent.
DO consider sharing a diagnosis. One parent told me that a teacher who was convinced her son was unwilling to work at anything did a complete about-face when she showed the teacher the neuropsychologist’s report. In fact, the teacher apologized and developed an entirely new approach to this student. Parents, teacher, and student became a team, forging a path for academic success and growth in self-esteem.
DON’T speak negatively about your child, even when sharing information. Your acceptance of your child’s challenges and your commitment to working with these will communicate a strong message to both your child and the teacher.
* * *
Dr. Ned Hallowell is an expert on attention deficit disorder and writes extensively about parent-teacher interactions. His advice? ”Don’t demand support – inspire it!” By staying positive, keeping the focus on the issue at hand rather than the personalities, remaining respectful of everyone involved – including both limudei kodesh and limudei chol teachers – marshaling facts as opposed to opinions and accusations, you can become an effective advocate for your child and a genuine partner in that child’s success. May Hashem grant all parents, teachers, and students a year of growth, joy in learning, and genuine accomplishment in life skills and academics!