What Parents Want Teachers to Know
By Jennifer Bertram
Last month, a local educator wrote a Star Tribune op-ed reflecting on more than three decades of teaching with some criticism for parents as we head back to school. The further I read, the more it became clear that the fundamental message built into his take is that parents make a teacher’s job more difficult. There was a clear disconnect in understanding between a parent’s right to advocate for the needs of their children and a lack of willingness by some teachers (and I’ll add staff and administrators) to listen, understand, and respond with care.
Let’s consider the three items this educator wants parents to know as their children return to school mid-pandemic: your teacher does not hate your child, sometimes your child lies, and don’t be a bully.
What parents think teachers think
By and large, parents do not reach out to a teacher with feedback because they think that the teacher “hates” their children. More likely, parents reach out to teachers because the teacher does not recognize a child’s abilities, disabilities, communication style, or they need more information. Often, in our family’s case, a teacher misinterprets a behavior as deviant rather than a symptom of their disability.
Is the classroom overstimulating for the child— too loud, too bright, chairs too hard, too many visuals on the walls? Not enough time to move around? Why not allow a fidget or comfort item to help a child ease anxiety or improve focus? Is the child struggling to complete their work because they don’t understand it and are too afraid to ask? How is the teacher working to ensure that they are approachable, allow for mistakes, and find ways to teach material that helps all children in the classroom understand it?
To take it a step further, beyond children with disabilities, families often have challenges that teachers aren’t aware of—a child’s father just lost his job, grandmother just had surgery, or there isn’t enough to eat at home. What is often labeled a behavior problem is really a response to a traumatic event or circumstance. It is essential that parents and teachers work together to identify the root cause of an issue and provide support rather than punishment. By doing so, they’ll develop a more effective relationship with that child and find that both behavior and performance improve.
What is the truth of the matter?
The fact that children lie could very well be true. But why do they feel a need to lie to their teacher or parent about what is happening at school? If children don’t feel comfortable telling the truth, the shame they’re feeling isn’t fully their responsibility. It’s the responsibility of the adults in the child’s life to communicate effectively to understand what the child needs and work together—parent and teacher, possibly along with a school social worker, special education teacher, or others who provide specialized health or mental health services to determine how to provide that child with the support and tools necessary to counteract challenges they are facing. In other words, lying is most likely a symptom of a larger problem, not a cause for pitting parents against teachers in a he-said-she-said debate.
Bullying or Advocating?
Honestly?! From my perspective as a parent of two children whose disabilities were diagnosed relatively late, due to teachers and school administrators refusing to hear my requests, understand my child’s needs, or complete comprehensive assessments that would verify disabilities I had already identified. My requests for accommodations and services have repeatedly been denied, necessitating a change in school district; elevating issues to the principal, school district; and even, at times, the Minnesota Department of Education—because my children were experiencing extreme stress at school due to the lack of acknowledgment or accommodation of their disabilities. Am I a bully? No. I am committed to advocating for my children’s legal rights for accommodations in their education as outlined by the law. And it should not be this hard.
What parents of children who have disabilities want teachers to know
Let’s shift this conversation to what parents of children who have disabilities need teachers and other school officials to know.
1. Children will not always tell you what they need, but they will often show you.
If you see behavior issues, incomplete assignments, even frequent absences, those are signs that a child may be experiencing stress, whether it be in the classroom or at home, or both. It is important to work together with the child, parents, and others to identify and support any child’s health, mental health, or sensory needs to help address the issue and improve behavior.
2. Parents are stressed.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in general, parents who have children with disabilities have significantly more responsibility for ensuring their child’s education, health, and mental health needs are being supported. Asking parents to attend meetings during the workday to provide information, review IEPs, discuss challenges, identify solutions, and update the team throughout the school year are just one more responsibility for that parent on top of the many other weekly, monthly, and annual appointments with specialists that they must attend. Can a discussion occur virtually? Can the team come up with a plan and ask the parent to review it and provide feedback via email? How can we maximize effective communication while being respectful of parents’ time and understanding of their responsibilities?
3. Reasonable accommodations should be provided to support students’ needs while at school.
It’s not a matter of a teacher’s opinion on whether that child needs them, especially when they’re written into the child’s IEP or 504 plan. Children’s needs may not be visible, they may not fully express them verbally, and they may not even act up in class to cause a disruption. But when parents say their child is stressed or anxious, please listen. A child’s stress at school translates into even greater stress at home, and sometimes the opposite is true as well. Do your best to be responsive and supportive of the child’s needs.
4. Partnering with parents and outside-of-school service providers can help,
including therapists, occupational therapists, pediatricians, and others. Partnerships can help educators gain insights that help them connect with children in their classrooms and improve their academic performance.
Taking a proactive, responsive approach to learning about a child’s needs and how to support those needs is a step in the right direction toward understanding that when parents reach out to teachers, their aim is to help their children succeed. It’s not about the teachers. It’s about the needs of the child. Let’s remember that.
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