School Strategies: Working With Your Child's Teachers

"My daughter's teacher asked me to look over her homework on a nightly basis. Apparently, she's been handing in sloppy work that sometimes isn't complete. But now all we do is fight over the homework. It's just not working, and I don't know what to do!"

"My son's teacher told me he's been playing rough on the playground. She asked me to speak to him, but I'm not sure what good that's going to do."

When teachers ask parents to get involved in the issues that come up for kids in school, it often creates more problems than it solves. Children can become resentful and more rebellious than before. Parents become angry and frustrated when their well-intentioned efforts fail to work. The parent-child relationship begins to deteriorate. Even worse, the child's behavior at school or the quality of their homework fails to change for the better. The reason that things often get worse instead of better is that when the teacher has a problem with a child the solution for solving that problem is best left in the hands of it's "owner" - the teacher.

In a sense, however, teachers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's not that they don't know how to handle these issues themselves, it's that they often feel disempowered to do so. Consider the following scenario, told to me by a teacher in a local elementary school. A group of five children were acting up during lunchtime. Though they'd been told to stay in their seats several times, they blatantly disregarded instructions, running around and knocking into chairs, tables and other children. At one point they even knocked a child's lunch tray out of his hands. Finally, the lunchroom monitor told them they had to either sit down or stay inside during recess. All five of them ended up having to stay inside. The next morning, four out of the five parents of the children involved called the school office irate that their children had been kept inside on a nice day. They screamed at the principal and the teacher and demanded an apology on the part of the lunchroom monitor. No wonder teachers are reluctant to handle misbehavior, and even sloppy homework! Giving the problem back to the parent must often feel like their only recourse. As a parent who wants to maintain a good relationship with your child, however, there are ways to leave the solution to the problem where it belongs -- in the hands of the teacher:

* Listen to the problem. When your child's teacher approaches you with a concern about your child's homework or behavior listen without interrupting. Many parents feel a sense of panic and anger towards their child in that moment. Rather than jump to conclusions, listening and asking for more information when you don't understand will help you get an idea of the big picture.

* Delay your response. Remember that you don't have to respond right away. When the teacher finishes talking to you, and perhaps even asks you to get involved by checking homework or speaking to your child about inappropriate behavior, you can always say "I'm so glad you spoke to me about this. It's given me a lot to think about. Let me contemplate how to handle it and maybe we can speak again tomorrow." Above all, do not promise to talk to your child about it, or to take care of the problem - this only further disempowers the teacher.

* Develop a strategy. When you get home, do NOT address your child about the issue. Instead, think about what the teacher might do to solve the problem herself. Ask yourself what kinds of consequences you would use to encourage your child to do things differently? For example, if your child is handing in sloppy homework, an appropriate consequence that the teacher could use would be to request that the homework be re-done before the child can go outside to play. (Or re-done at home that night in addition to the other homework she has to do.)

* Make an appointment with the teacher. Once you've developed a strategy to handle the problem, the next step is to communicate that strategy to the teacher. Asking for an appointment is often better than trying to catch her before or after school when she's busy.

* Empower the teacher. Tell the teacher that you've been thinking about what she said, and that you want to provide the kind of support she needs in handling this and other, similar, situations. Let her know that at home you believe in consequences when a child isn't living up to her responsibilities and that you would fully endorse that approach here. Reassure her that you will support her if she wants to hold your child in during recess to re-do or complete a homework assignment. Suggest that she speak to your child ahead of time (with or without you present) to let your child know what the consequence of sloppy or missing homework will be.

When you empower your child's teacher to handle the problems that belong to her, you free yourself to be your child's advocate. That doesn't mean that you advocate sloppy homework or misbehavior. It does mean, however, that you can empathize and support your child in taking responsibility for his behavior. For example, the mother whose child was playing rough encouraged her child's teacher to keep him in during recess each time he behaved that way. When her child complained to her about it, she was sympathetic and agreed that it must be hard. She also asked if he could think of a solution. He responded by saying that he didn't really understand what "rough" play meant and how it was different from the way the other kids played. Mom suggested he ask the teacher to be specific, which he did. The teacher explained that she was concerned when he grabbed children by their clothes when they were playing tag or chase. Once it was clear exactly what behavior needed to be stopped, the boy committed to changing. Had Mom punished her son instead of empowering the teacher and sympathizing with her child, however, it's unlikely that the problem would have been clarified and solved so quickly.