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

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By Mary Beth Castell, M.A.

Q: Dealing with a child's learning problems can be very emotional for a parent. How can a parent acknowledge those feelings, without having them "take over" the home-school communication?

A: Strong emotions come with the identification of the learning difficulty. Your mind is going every which way, trying to learn all the new terms and information. And the clock seems to stand still because you're thinking, "Oh, my gosh, my child needs help. She's going to fail if she doesn't get help. She's going to be labeled!" So there's this real sense of urgency, and I think the urgency puts parents in panic mode: "I've got to save my child!" From my own experience I've learned that you can go into this negative cycle where one concern feeds another, feeds another; and you want it all taken care of right away.

If you can back off and figure out, "Just what am I really asking for? What specifically do I want?" Your child doesn't need everything; she probably only really needs a couple of key things. For example, "I think what would help my child right now is extra time for assignments," or whatever the need might be. This approach reduces the stress; it can help get rid of all the tensions that have built up between you and the school. It's so easy when you're panicked to allow the problem to snowball into something much worse than it is.

Q: So, if you feel that you've already started out on the wrong foot with a teacher, for whatever reason, what do you recommend for repairing the relationship?

A: I think the best advice is to start communicating honestly with the teacher. If you suddenly realize that for the last four months everything anyone did for your child was wrong, you need to step back and say, maybe I've been the one with the issues. You may want to say to the teacher: "I feel like we got off to a bad start, and that I've made things worse. I want you to know that I still want some changes for my daughter, but I realize I've kind of lost sight of the long-term process here."

I know that, when I was teaching, I got defensive with parents who acted the way I acted toward my child's teacher at one time. I forgot that the teacher had 25 report cards to complete; and I forgot to give her credit for all the things she did do. I was so focused on problems, I also forgot to tell the teacher about my daughter's strengths, and that I believed those strengths would help her succeed.

We sometimes let communication become simply exchanges of negativity. In my case, the communication with Jennifer's teacher got lost in a few months of negative exchanges because neither one of us was listening to the other. There were apologies, but that was a year that never really got better, and that's a shame.

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."