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Handling Sticky School Situations

Classroom of kids

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On the playground or at the pediatrician's office, you'll often hear parents comparing notes: "Is your daughter being overloaded with homework the way mine is?" or "Did your son tell you that the new kindergarten teacher yells a lot?" When you have a problem with your child's teacher or school, it's hard to know how involved to become -- and how to respond most effectively. Since you won't find this kind of guidance in school handouts, Child went to the experts.

Q: The school principal has a policy against parents' requesting specific teachers, but I know some parents have done it in the past. How can I make a request that the school will actually honor?

A: The key to getting what you want? Cite sound educational reasons for your preference. "Don't come in with hearsay about a teacher because often that hearsay is wrong," says Paul Young, Ph.D., a school principal for 15 years and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, VA. "Instead, tell the principal what your child needs, whether it's a teacher who emphasizes language arts or one who has a traditional, structured approach." Ideally, it's best to do this in the spring, before class assignments have been made. If you don't get your first choice? Give the teacher a chance, says Dr. Young. "Sometimes the teacher the parent wants is the popular, grandmotherly one, but she may not necessarily be the one who is best for your child."

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Q: My daughter's teacher is wonderful, but I'm troubled by some of the handouts she uses. Few women are depicted, and when they are, they're either mommies, nurses, or just beautiful creatures. The men are shown as firefighters, police officers, and other professionals. Is there a way for me to complain without offending her?

First, don't assume the teacher chose the handouts, says Bob Chase, author of The New Public School Parent and former president of the Washington, DC-based National Education Association (NEA): "Sometimes handouts come from books that were approved by the school board or are part of a curriculum prescribed by the district." If that's the case, then raise the matter with the principal, though Chase recommends asking the teacher to join you.

At the same time, keep things in perspective, advises Elaine McEwan, an Oro Valley, AZ-based educational consultant and author of The Parents' Guide to Solving School Problems: "The materials kids bring home are only a small percentage of what a teacher actually uses in a classroom." Make your point, McEwan says, but do it gently. ("I know this isn't a huge deal, but it's something I've noticed.") If she's a good teacher, it's unlikely that these handouts are representative of her class materials. But if you find out that the handouts do reflect a bias and that none of the books she assigns have female protagonists, talk to the teacher about your concerns -- without accusing her. ("I know this doesn't reflect your feelings, but there seems to be a lack of gender equity in the class materials.") Usually, when gender inequity arises in a classroom, it's not because of a conscious bias, Chase says. "The teacher often isn't even aware of it. So if a parent points it out in a caring, nonconfrontational way and wants to help, most teachers welcome and respect the comments."

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Q: My son is afraid of his kindergarten teacher. What can I do?

A: We all hope our kindergartner will have a warm, nurturing teacher, but as McEwan points out, "Some people, including elementary school teachers, have a gruff demeanor." Sometimes a child feels scared of a teacher because the teacher is cold, but often it's just because the teacher is strict. In either case, that doesn't mean your child won't learn and thrive with this teacher. McEwan recalls that, when she was a principal, a few parents complained about a first-grade teacher, saying their kids felt the teacher disliked them. "I spoke to the teacher, and she was genuinely shocked," McEwan says. "She just happened to have a gravelly voice and rarely smiled, but, boy, did children learn in her classroom."

So reassure your son that his teacher likes him, and tell the teacher about his fears. Most likely, she'll try harder to bond with him. But if she doesn't and your son starts complaining of stomach pains or declares he never wants to go to school again, then meet with the principal. "Parents have to protect their kids, sometimes even from teachers, and if he is truly miserable, that might mean asking the principal to transfer him," says McEwan.

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Q: My daughter's preschool frequently organizes school events in the middle of the day. I'm a working dad who really wants to participate. Is there anything I can do?

A: These days, with so many working parents wanting to be active in their kids' schools, you're most likely far from alone. Ginsberg suggests raising the issue at a parent meeting or organizing a group to meet with the school director. "If you complain by yourself, the school may not pay much attention," she says. "But it's tough to ignore seven parents who go in together and say, "It's hard for us to attend at 1 p.m. Could we have some events in the morning or evening?"

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Q: My 7-year-old son has been getting elaborate, time-consuming homework assignments that are impossible for him to do on his own. What should I do?

A: Before you assume your son's load is too heavy, make sure he's doing homework in a quiet spot, without a TV blaring, and that he doesn't leave homework for the very last minute, says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia and a leading authority on homework. Also, expect to be involved. "Parents should never do their children's homework, but they should always be there to help their kids seek the answers to the problems," says Janine Bempechat, author of Getting Our Kids Back on Track: Educating Children for the Future. Your support will also show your son that you think school is important, she adds.

If your child is still struggling, ask other parents if their kids are having problems. If others are, you should join together to meet with the teacher and principal. School districts set their own policies but tend to be responsive to parents. You might want to point out that a common formula is to give 10 minutes of homework a night for a first-grader, adding 10 minutes for each grade level.

If you find that your son is the only one having trouble, talk with his teacher about how to help him. Perhaps she could have him do just 10 of the 20 homework problems, for instance. But recognize that in the long run, he'll be better off if he learns how to handle his assignments: Most experts believe homework in the early years helps kids develop skills they'll need to excel later.

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Q: Last year, my 7-year-old loved school. This year, she says it's boring. Her teacher says she's doing fine. How should I respond?

A: When young children say they're bored, parents need to play detective, peppering their kids with questions to draw them out. What happened today that made her bored? What exactly didn't she like about school yesterday? "Bored is one of those catch-all complaints that children use," says the NEA's Bob Chase. "It can mean a child feels under-challenged, or it can mean she's in over her head. It also can mean she has a bad rapport with the teacher or isn't getting along with a friend." Parents always need to take their children's complaints seriously, but sometimes that means reading between the lines. "It's like when you ask your child what she did at school that day and she says, "Nothing," McEwan says. "Nothing doesn't really mean nothing." So ask her lots of questions, and listen carefully to her answers. Once you figure out what's really bothering your child, you'll be able to brainstorm with her teacher about how to handle it.

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Q: My kindergartner seems to be doing a lot of work from workbooks. I'm concerned that the teacher's approach is uncreative and unstimulating. What should I do?

A: Workbooks are not necessarily signs of an uncreative approach, Bempechat says: "They can give kids a chance to practice what they're learning." Visit the class one day to observe the other materials and lesson plans the teacher uses, she suggests. Then, if you still think the workbooks are just busywork, let the teacher know you feel that your child isn't being challenged enough. She probably won't change her teaching style, but perhaps she can recommend extra enrichment materials.

The truth is that not all of your child's teachers will be dynamic and inspiring. As parents, we have to help our kids learn to deal with that. After all, Bempechat notes, "in life, we're all faced with difficult people. Learning how to cope with them -- and how to get the most from the experience -- is an important life skill."

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Q: My son's preschool teacher wants him to be evaluated for behavioral issues because he talks a lot and can't sit still for circle time. I think he's a normal, active 4-year-old. Should I let him be evaluated anyway?

A: Educators tend to agree that many preschoolers are too young to be evaluated for attention deficit disorders. "Most kids that age need to be peeled off the ceiling," says Bempechat. And if you let the school evaluate your son, the evaluation becomes part of his school record, which could trigger a series of actions by the elementary school that could permanently label him.

Instead, watch how your son behaves on the playground and in other group settings. Is he more disruptive than other kids, or is his teacher just less tolerant of boisterous boys? If you suspect the former, you can have your son evaluated privately and keep the results confidential, or you can hold him back a year, giving him time to mature. But if your gut tells you he's perfectly normal, listen to that, says McEwan. "Parents need to give themselves credit for having common sense and knowing their kids."

Originally published in the September 2002 issue of Child magazine.

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