By Suzanne Bouffard , Richard Weissbourd
Your child comes home from school in tears because she sits alone at lunch, and you don’t know who to talk to about the problem. You tell the teacher your child’s been harassed or bullied, but you feel like they don’t take enough — or any — action to stop it. Your child tells you another kid’s being picked on and you want to help, but you’re not sure how.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
Parents often feel like they have no say in what goes on within the walls of their children’s schools. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can be a powerful force for change; in fact, you should be — especially when it comes to ensuring that your child and other students feel safe, supported, and respected.
One way to start is by asking the principal or other school leaders specific questions about how the school handles issues like social and emotional learning, making sure students treat each other with respect, and bullying, harassment, or exclusion. By asking specific questions, you’ll show administrators that you’re serious, and you’ll help them focus on the issues, even — or especially — if they don’t have answers right away. Just remember, principals and teachers are typically trying hard and pressed for time, so it’s important to think about how to engage them on these topics respectfully.
When you have concerns about safety and well-being, you might first think to ask questions specific to your own child, like what the school is doing to discipline the student who’s harassing your child. But physical and emotional safety are school-wide issues. The way your child’s treated is part of a whole set of relationships and interactions at that school; in the education realm, this is often called school climate. For all students to be safe and treated respectfully by their peers and teachers every day, school leaders have to commit to making the school climate positive, supportive, and caring. For this reason, it’s often best to raise these questions at the beginning of the year. Even though everyone’s busy, it helps put school climate issues on the table before problems arise.
When you ask clear, concrete questions, you state your expectations for the school. It’s a signal to the school that you hold them accountable: that they need to recognize the issues and address them, including making any necessary changes. Being proactive about creating a better school climate also sends powerful messages to your child. It shows that you care about how she feels at school, and that you’re taking action to make school a better, more supportive place. It also shows her that when she has a problem, she can take action to change it — and it models for your child that it’s important to care about everyone in the school community, not just themself.
First, talk to the principal, because that’s who is ultimately responsible for what happens at school. But it can also be helpful to talk to whoever’s in charge of school climate or discipline, which might be the assistant principal. An exception to this rule is, if your child is being bullied, it’s a good idea to start with the adult who’s closest to the situation. For example, if your child is being bullied in class, start with the teacher. Some schools also have guidelines detailing how to report bullying — and to whom. You can check the school handbook to find out who’s responsible for what. But when in doubt, start with the principal.
If, after several attempts, the principal doesn’t respond to your request for a meeting, try the assistant principal, a teacher, or another staff member. If these attempts are also unsuccessful, enlist the school’s parent group for support. And if that doesn’t help, you can always contact the school district office — but keep in mind that it’s generally best to exhaust all school-level options first.
Even if the principal is quite responsive, you may want the proverbial village’s support. Although your voice is powerful on its own, it’s even more powerful when accompanied by other parents’ voices. Encourage a few other parents to approach the principal with you. Or, you might consider asking the school’s parent group (PTA, PTO, or other parent group) to pose the questions you want addressed.
No matter who asks, it’s crucial to show you’re serious while remaining polite and calm. Make sure you communicate that your goal is to work together to improve the school. Pointing fingers rarely achieves this goal; being firm but respectful often does. To that end, plan out when and how often you’ll meet with the principal. Also, try to accommodate the principal’s busy schedule so you’ll get the follow up you need without being written off as — gasp — overly demanding, unreasonable, or a helicopter parent.
As a parent and a member of your school’s community, you have a right to real answers to your questions. If the principal doesn’t have answers right away, ask why and schedule a time to meet again after she’s had time to reflect.
If the answers you get are unsatisfying, let the principal know you’re unhappy, why, and what changes you’d like to see. For example, if the principal says there’s no one monitoring hallways and other common spaces, point out that this is a hot spot for bullying, which can leave students feeling unsafe. Work together to figure out which adults could reasonably take on this role. Or if your child’s school doesn’t have a program to teach kindness and other social and emotional skills, tell the principal that this is important to you and ask if someone on staff can do some research to find a program that might work. (Find programs that research has shown to be effective here.)
Even with the best intentions, everyone gets busy; at the end of these conversations, it’s a good idea to schedule follow-up time so you have a set appointment to discuss what progress the school is making.
Other parents have a right to answers, too. Don’t assume someone’s silence equals apathy — chances are that if you’re concerned about a safety issue at school, other parents are, too. Look for ways to share what you learn with other parents: you might discuss it with class parents, post it via a parent email list, or share it with the school’s parent group. You can tell your neighbors and friends about it and encourage them to spread the word. News travels quickly. If you feel the school is taking positive steps, you can also share that information with your children so they know the principal cares about making sure kids feel happy and safe.
Our team at the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education created a list of questions to ask your principal. Here are four important questions to get the conversation started:
Once you’ve started the conversation, you may need to dig further. Check out our full list of questions for elementary schools and for middle and high schools. With more information and communication, you can work with your child’s school to ensure that all children feel safe, supported, and respected.
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