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Conversation, Not Confrontation: One Mom's Advice on Parent-Teacher Talks

A mother candidly explains how she learned to build a constructive (not combative) bond with her child's teacher.

By Mary Beth Castell, M.A.

There's a lot at stake when you and the teacher get together to talk about your child's learning problems. When communication breaks down, it's often your child's learning that suffers most. On the other hand, clear, respectful parent-teacher communication can make a school year better than you'd ever hoped.

Mary Beth Castell knows this better than most people because she's been on both sides of the conversation. A former elementary school teacher, she is also the parent of an 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who has severe dyslexia. Although she had taught for six years, Mary Beth says she'd never heard the term "dyslexia" until her daughter was evaluated. These days, her advocacy efforts extend beyond her own family; she's talked with hundreds of families through her work at The Learning Brook, a nonprofit resource center she founded for parents of kids with learning problems.

Jennifer began to struggle with reading more than five years ago, but Mary Beth says that only in the past two or three years has she finally mastered the self-awareness and skills needed to build a good working relationship with her daughter's teachers. We spoke with Mary Beth recently about parent-teacher communication, and the strategies she recommends to support the learning needs of a child who's struggling with school work.

Q: What are your recommendations for a parent whose child is having problems with school work, but who may not yet be identified as having a learning disability? How can the parent work with the teacher to figure out what's going on?

A: First of all, follow your "gut." If you have a feeling something's not right with your child, that means something's not right. I think there is this unwritten rule that you can't go in and express what you see to a teacher because you're not a teacher. But that's silly. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone, so give yourself credit. Go to the teacher and say, "This is what I've noticed." You don't have to say what the behavior means, because you may not know what it means. Observe your child and tell the teacher specifically what you see: "He moves his mouth a lot when he reads," or "He skips words when he reads." The more specific you are, the better.

Then, ask the teacher, what do you think? A good teacher is going to think about it. You might not get an answer right away. The teacher might say, "Gosh, I'm not sure." Teachers rarely say, "I don't know." Many teachers are even told not to say they don't know because it opens them up to legal liabilities. If they don't know, a good teacher will offer to find out for you.

Q: Teachers - and parents - are busy people. What's a good way to keep the communication going once you've made that first contact?

A: When you have your first discussion with the teacher, whether it's a phone call or face-to-face, you want to document it in writing. It's easiest if you just keep a running log or journal. It doesn't have to be formal or fancy, but you need to note: What it is that you and the teacher are each going to do, and when? The sooner you figure out what the problem is, the better off your child is going to be. So, after your first contact, ask, "Could we get together again in a week or two weeks?" Also, ask the teacher if she has any ideas of someone in the district who could be helpful; or just ask who she plans to consult with, and when that consultation will happen.

If your child had a physical ailment, you'd be making phone calls to figure out what it was and deal with it. The same process is appropriate with a learning problem. You need to take care of your child's needs. But the approach doesn't have to be negative or confrontational. It's just being assertive, pointing out what you would like, and when you would like it, to keep things moving along.

Comments from readers

"'Although she had taught for six years, Mary Beth says she'd never heard the term 'dyslexia' until her daughter was evaluated.' Are you crazy? How could this woman have taught anywhere for so long and never have even heard the word? Either she's so out of touch that this article has no relevance or she's lying. Either way, her perspective has very little value for the day to day educator. "
"My child's grade 1 teacher wants to have meetings about my child while she is there. The teacher says things like 'Sarah does not know how to count to 30'. After these meetings, Sarah is in tears for days at home. Do I have the right to refuse meeting with the teacher while my child is there? Should I talk to the principal about this teacher. What are my rights, and has this teacher crossed them? This teacher has also said that if I spend more time with my child, she would not have a problem with her speech."