Talking to teachers about your child’s needs: My Top Ten List by Kathryn Burke

Kathryn Burke

You are a parent. You are worried about your school aged child. Perhaps your child is struggling to succeed academically. Perhaps your child has exceptional learning or health needs which you believe are not being addressed properly at school. Maybe your child is now stating, with passion, that they hate school. Perhaps your son or daughter is now having trouble sleeping or has a “stomach ache” in the morning on school days. Previously sunny and pleasant, your child is now miserable. Perhaps your wonderful son or daughter is becoming aggressive or is totally retreating and withdrawing from social situations.

You hope what you are seeing will stop on its own. You give it a bit of time and when that predetermined deadline passes, you decide to wait a bit longer “just in case” things change. Finally, you come to the conclusion that it is time to act. You decide you must speak to your child’s teacher.

Parents worry about their children

The following is my top ten list for parents to consider in speaking to teachers about their child’s needs. This advice is offered with a caution. It represents my opinion from the trenches as a parent of two children with exceptional learning needs. My husband and I have personally experienced many of the emotions described in the first two paragraphs of this column. But my advice also draws from my experience as the recipient of complaints. At one point in my life, I managed several clinical areas of a large city hospital, including an Emergency Department. Of all the areas of a hospital, Emergency tends to generate the most complaints. Having been on the receiving end , I have some practical and personal opinions on effective ways to speak out.

Some parameters are also needed to position the advice that appear below. It does not pertain to situation where a parent has concerns that something might be potentially illegal. Nor does it pertain to concerns about the physicial safety and security of a child or lying or misrepresentations. Speaking up about these issues merits a different approach.

So, you have made the decision to meet with the teacher. What are some important things to remember and consider.

1. Many parents are apprehensive about speaking to a teacher about their child. If you are apprehensive and on edge, you are not alone; there are many other parents like you. Some parents harbor a fear that speaking to a teacher may backfire and make a bad situation worse. Normally the opposite is the case. Speaking up respectfully and in a solution oriented manner will make things better. 

2. Earlier is better. The natural inclination may be to wait. But, if there are concerns, opt for speaking to a teacher earlier than later. It will be better for all of you – your child, the teacher and your family. On a practical note, if the outcome of discussions are poor and you feel that you must take action, including switching classes or schools, it is better to do so as early in the school year as possible.

3. Teachers genuinely want to do a good job. Teachers go into teaching because they like children and genuinely want to do a good job. They do not wake up in the morning and decide that their central purpose in life is to go to work and make the lives of their charges miserable. It is vitally important to go into any discussion with a teacher with this in mind. Yes, there will be a very small percentage of teachers who are aberrant and twisted, but they are rare.

4. Teachers are people, just like you. When I look in the mirror I see an imperfect person. I have skills and strengths. I have some things which I do far better than others. My skills have developed over time. I do some things better now than I could before. I have good days and bad. Sometimes I take things personally. Other times things roll off my back. I have definite likes and dislikes. In other words, I am human, just like a teacher.

So often we have expectations of the people who work in education and health that is based on our concept of what we think “they should be.” It is reasonable to expect a specific standard of practice from a person who is lawfully able to work in a position – a minimum level of professional competency. But all professionals, whatever they may be doing, will have varying skill levels, strengths and weaknesses. They will also have aspirations, personalities, interests or indeed passions that affect the way they approach the job.

Before you speak to a teacher, pause for a moment and consider them first as a person and then as a professional. Are they a newly minted teacher? Do they know your child well? Are they comparing your child to their siblings? Are they pressured by a large class with several children with exceptional needs? Are they getting support? And so on.

A teacher may be trying very hard to do their best, but quite frankly, some teaching conditions are so abysmal that it is a wonder that teachers stay and teach. This does not suggest you should not advocate for your child. But, it is a plea to consider the context in which a teacher works.

5. Don’t go in angry or at least try not to go in angry. Most parents wait before they speak up. They wait for things to get spontaneously better. As a result, by the time they go into a meeting with a teacher to discuss concerns, they are often carrying around with them a whole lot of angst, anger, “should haves,” and other concerns.

The natural reaction of a parent is to protect. I know many parents who mirror a mother bear when they are concerned about their child. But there is a time and a place for that demeanor and it is likely not in a meeting with a teacher.

Anger, frustration, or worry can be dangerous because the natural “outlet” for these pent up emotions can be the teacher of your child. If you accept the premise that your child’s teacher really does want to do a good job, then going into a meeting angry and possibly explosive may result in irreparably damaging the relationship you have with a teacher. It may also result in the teacher becoming defensive and upset. Do your best to check your “fighting attitude” at the door and enter into any discussion with a teacher with the conscious view that you both want to do the right thing for your child.

My suspicion is that many parent-teacher meetings that get derailed and “go south” do so because a parent is perceived by a teacher to be aggressive and confrontational. When you are concerned about your child, it is pretty normal to have strong emotions. But, your effectiveness as an advocate will be severely compromised if you allow emotions like anger to overwhelm your interactions. If you cannot have a meeting without getting your anger or other strong emotions in check, consider having your child’s other parent take the meeting with the teacher. Possibly enlist the support of a friend to go with you to the meeting and provide you with agreed upon feeback when you are letting your emotions run away with you. And most certainly, if you have acted in an inappropriate manner with a teacher, it is important to apologize.

6. Attempt to build a partnership with your child’s teacher. Seek to enlist, not alienate. This action alone could merit a full column…perhaps a book. But, in brief, try to work with rather than against your child’s teacher. This means going into a parent teacher meeting in a respectful manner. Respect and honour your own views, conclusions and knowledge. But respect the teacher’s as well. You both have valid points coming from different perspectives.

It helps to begin a discussion by affirming that you are confident that your child’s teacher is trying very hard to meet the needs of your child and his or her classmates. Explain, in as factual a manner as possible, your concerns. Focus on the behavior, situation or incident. Ask the teacher for their opinion.  If there are positive things happening, say so. This feedback will be appreciated and will serve to build a relationship with a teacher as a partner.

Be solution focused. Ask the teacher for suggestions. It may be that a teacher’s solutions are more extensive than any you may suggest. Pose your ideas about what you think the teacher should do as a question, for example, “Is it feasible for you to do this?” If they say no, ask if they can help you understand why this is not possible. Ask if the teacher has alternatives. Do your best to be solution focused to address the needs of your child. Keep your eye on the prize…it is a successful outcome for your child.

7. Be reasonable in your expectations. There are two sides to this issue. It is expecting too little or too much.

Some people find it difficult or “inappropriate” to ask a teacher or the school system for accommodations or supports for their child. These parents may feel like they are being unreasonable or are imposing. But, the role of a public education system is education. There are no caveats that say, “We will only educate ‘normal’ children (whatever that might be), those that have NO exceptional learning needs.” In fact, most jurisdictions have clearly defined standards that have the power of law which outline the obligations of a school district in meeting the exceptional learning needs of students.

The opposite side of the coin is to have unrealistic expectations of a teacher and the system. The role of the school is not to be a babysitter, marriage counselor, doctor, physical therapist or welfare provider. A range of issues may affect the educational outcome of learners. But the school system may not be in the best position to provide the full range of services.

Do your best to be reasonable in your expectations of the school system. If your child needs other supports that are best obtained outside school, seek them out. But it would be wise to keep your child’s teacher in the loop about what you are doing. 

8. Don’t ever bad mouth the teacher at home. This is an adult to adult situation. You may have genuine concerns, but do not make disparaging comments about a teacher in front of your child. Certainly ask your child about their feelings. Ask them to describe what is happening at school. But, do not bad mouth the teacher in front of your child. It does not model good behavior, and can make a difficult situation worse – particularly if your child repeats those labels to their teacher.

9. Tend to details. Put it on the record. Set a date for follow-up.  Dates come and go. So do good intentions. I strongly recommend that a parent who has asked to meet with a teacher about the needs of their child write an email or letter to the teacher to confirm the agreed upon actions and dates for any follow-up. But even here, approach is important. The follow-up letter/email should be presented in a way that does not look like a parent is preparing to launch a law suit. Present the letter/email as your effort to record your understanding of the outcome of the meeting and any agreed upon follow-up action. Invite the teacher to provide input and suggest changes if their understanding is different from yours.

Ideally, set a date for a follow-up meeting at your meeting

If at all possible, set a time for a follow-up meeting with a teacher before you leave. If the teacher says let’s meet again in a month, pull out your calendar and ask to set that meeting up at that time. Hold up your end of the bargain as well. If you agree to certain actions, make sure you meet those obligations. If you cannot meet your obligations, advise your child’s teacher.

10. Say thanks. We seem to forget to do this sometimes, but it is very important to remember to express your thanks…say thank you to the teacher for meeting with you, for listening to your concerns, and indeed for follow-up to meet the needs of your child. If your child’s teacher puts out a special effort, a card saying thanks is also an important action. It is also modeling good behavior to your child.

Kathryn Burke, BA (Hon), MA is the founder of LDExperience. Follow Kathryn on Facebook and Twitter.

© Kathryn Burke and LDExperience. If citing this article, please do so as follows: Kathryn Burke, “Talking to teachers about your child’s needs: My Top Ten List”, December 9, 2010.