Our children spend a gazillion hours of their lives in school, so chances are good that you and your child will have to speak with a teacher about a problem at some point. But teachers, you may have noticed, are time-strapped, under-resourced and incredibly busy meeting the needs of all their learners. Given this, you may be wondering both how you can best talk to a teacher, and how you can help your child become her own advocate?
I’ve worked in education in some form or another for twenty years now and want to share what I’ve learned about the best ways you can improve parent teacher child communication.
Reach Out Sooner Rather Later to Your Child’s Teacher
If the very first time a teacher hears from you is with a problem or a concern, you may find it takes longer to resolve matters. This isn’t because teachers are unsympathetic or lazy, it’s because it can take time to understand a situation and communicate clearly. But if you connect with your child’s teacher earlier in the year, you’ve taken care of the preliminaries.
Showing up early in-person makes it even easier for your teachers to connect with and respond to you throughout the year. This means showing up at the Back to School picnic or Open House, it means volunteering to help out for the class field trip or project, it means sending a thank you email when your kiddo has a great day at school. Time spent building a positive relationship with your child’s teachers will not just help you better communicate if there’s a problem, it will help you understand the classroom context.
Help Your Child Become a Self-Advocate
My eldest daughter both loves school and is on the older side of her grade, so I was not surprised in her first semester of first grade when she complained she was bored in math. Her teacher had a wide range of students: some were at different developmental levels, some were just beginning to demonstrate different learning disabilities, some were still learning English, etc. It’s impossible for a teacher to be all things to all students.
I could have asked to meet with the teacher, sent an email demanding she challenge my child more, or looked for another school entirely. My kiddo was lucky enough to be born into a family with privileges like this. Instead, I asked my daughter what she wanted- it’s her education, after all.
She really just wanted more interesting math problems. So we talked about what she might do herself to help make that happen, largely by taking the lead in a conversation with her teacher. That night all I did was send an email to her teacher letting her know that Nell wanted to talk to her about math.
The next day, Nell and her teacher talked about math and her teacher agreed that the math problems were too easy. Her easier than pie solution was to make all of Nell’s addition and subtraction problems double digits. Nell was still working on the same concept as her peers, she was just able to go a little deeper into the task. Nell was much more engaged throughout the year, not just because her teacher continued to make simple modifications but because she’d learned how to self-advocate by sharing her learning needs with her teacher and been listened to. Child teacher communication is important to foster.
Amplify Your Child’s Voice as Much as Possible
Not every situation is solved so easily. When my other daughter began to show signs of having a learning disability, I took a much more active role in advocating for her. I had to push for testing and ask a lot of questions about appropriate accommodations for her. She will continue to need more support academically than her sister and more involvement from me throughout her academic career.
That said, I try awfully hard to wait to add my voice to the mix. This year, her teacher has students journaling in class, and while I 100% know she would be writing more if she had access to technology during this time instead of painstakingly/painfully writing by hand in a notebook, Libby is not complaining. She wants to be like her classmates and she is engaged by writing now versus experiencing the anxiety she did last year. This means I am biting my tongue and cheering this victory on instead of sending page long, research-cited, emails that have the potential to aggravate a situation that actually seems to be serving my child.
This also means that when Nell’s school selected a book I thought was not appropriate for her age level, I kept my opinion to myself. Well… truthfully, I discussed it with friends and other teachers I know and with Nell directly. I may also have asked a small question about the book at Open House…. Parenting’s a work in progress, right? But because Nell was not troubled by the book and did not want me to discuss it with her school, I managed to keep my concerns to a low level. I (mostly) discussed these issues with Nell herself and left it to her to address it with her teacher if she chose to.
Remember, Teachers are Genuinely on the Side of Your Child
When things go wrong in a classroom, and they inevitably will, it can feel like the school just doesn’t care. When I start to feel this way, I try to remember my child isn’t the only student in the classroom and that there are a lot of demands on schools beyond academics today. This is when going on the class field trips or volunteering in the room really make a difference. I have seen the real affection teachers have for my children in person along with the pressures the school district places on them and it makes me think every year we don’t pay teachers enough!
If you think your child’s teacher isn’t strong though, it’s hard to have a lot of sympathy for them. I won’t dispute that the teaching profession, just like every other profession, has a few bad apples (pardon the pun) who shouldn’t be in the classroom. The vast majority of the time though, teachers honestly have your child’s best interest at heart. Their training and experience may lead them to think that what your child’s needs are different than what you may think. This can be hard to work through with them. If you can presume their goodwill in every encounter, you may find that parent child teacher communication goes more easily.
It’s important to remember too that your child, with their developing brain, is not always a reliable reporter of classroom events. A teacher friend of mine used to tell parents,
If you only believe half of what you hear happens in class, I will believe half of what they say happens at home.
This isn’t to say your child isn’t telling you the truth about what’s happening in school, it’s just important to put everything they say in the context of their social, emotional, and academic development.
Teachers are human and do make mistakes. But improving parent teacher child communication is a surefire strategy to make sure the school year goes as smoothly and positively as possible.
As a parent, I try my best to see my children’s teachers as professionals with the expertise I don’t have, as my children as the best people to improve their own education experience, and myself as the number one fan of both.