By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
You know your own child best, and school staff knows students as a whole the best. Together, you can make a great team. But sometimes we forget this and may perceive that parents and school personnel are on opposite teams, not both there working together in the best interest of the children.
You understand your daughter’s history, her quirks, strengths and weaknesses, and what she responds to best. The staff at your school, having worked with hundreds of children, know what’s typical for students that age. They have seen children and families go through a variety of life events and learning challenges, they have run across many cognitive and emotional styles, and they have learned ways to deal with these issues.
The most productive relationships occur when teachers respect and listen to the parent’s unique knowledge of and concern about their child, and parents in turn respect and listen to the wide experience base of their teachers. As an example from my own life, when my daughter was in kindergarten her father and I separated, and although I was a psychologist working with children and families, I asked for advice from her teacher. (The truth is, we are often so close to our own situation that it is good to get outside input.) She provided useful guidance based on seeing many families going through divorce, and gave extra TLC to my daughter in the next months. An example of this was creating a feelings journal with her at school. In another case, a teacher let me know that my daughter seemed to have trouble distinguishing certain alphabet sounds, which led us to check her hearing.
The foundation for a productive home-school relationship is respectful communication, going in both directions. Don’t wait until something is a crisis, but be proactive. Are you adopting a second child? Does your child’s dad have cancer? Was the doctor concerned about your son’s hearing at the last check-up? Has your child been reluctant to do written homework? Share anything that might impact your child’s mood, behavior, and learning with the school. Not only will this allow the teachers to be aware and more supportive of your children should they need it, but also will allow them to alert you if there are behaviors or changes that you may need to address at home.
And of course, in these communications, remember that the teacher is a busy professional. Don’t approach them when other children and parents are milling around to talk about something important; your concerns deserve to be shared when there is time and privacy for them, via email, a phone call, or a meeting.
Lead with what is going well for your child at school, what you are doing at home to try to address whatever the concern is, and then ask for the teacher’s (or other staff member’s) input on further ideas of what you and the school could do.
Use “we” language (e.g. “I wonder how we can problem-solve around this.”) This type of approach signals that you’re coming from a collaborative perspective in which you realize that both home and school have an impact. By asking for advice or ideas, rather than immediately suggesting or insisting that the school do X or Y, you are respecting the staff’s professional expertise. With a foundation of a good relationship, any future requests or criticisms on your part will be more likely to have a productive outcome. Finally, if the staff member you’re trying to communicate with is not responsive after several tries, don’t give up; bring the matter up with the principal or whoever is their immediate supervisor. Your voice counts, as does your child.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist.
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