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The Smart Way to Talk to Teachers

Teacher at Desk

Lincoln Barbour

When your child's teacher calls you, chances are she's worried about your child's behavior or schoolwork, so it's tempting to panic, get defensive, or fly off the handle before you've even heard everything she has to say. How can you stay calm? The key is to ask the right questions so you and the teacher can create a plan to help your child. We asked teachers for the four most common reasons they call parents and the best way to handle each situation.

The teacher says: "Your child is having trouble with his schoolwork."

School struggles can be a symptom of a wide variety of issues. "Your child could be distracted by a family problem, or maybe he's just not getting enough sleep and can't pay attention," says Marian C. Fish, PhD, professor in the school-psychology program at Queens College, in Flushing, New York. "Or he missed learning something the previous year -- he was out sick when the teacher introduced subtraction -- and he's never gotten the hang of it."

The right response: Ask the teacher for specifics so you can judge what kind of help your child needs: Is he having trouble in every subject or just one? Did he score poorly on a couple of tests or many? Is he not doing the work, or is he frustrated and can't handle it?

Creating a plan: Always get your child's take on the problem. Say, "Your teacher is concerned that you're having a hard time with subtraction. What do you think?" Ask him how you can help, and brainstorm solutions with the teacher too. She may be able to recommend flash cards or work sheets your child can do at home, or maybe she can fit in extra-help sessions with him during lunch or free classroom time. You should check over his homework to discuss mistakes with him and work closely with the teacher to make sure he's improving.

Following up: Meet with the teacher for a progress report after your child has gotten a few weeks of extra help. If there's been little or no improvement, consider getting extra tutoring or consulting with a counselor or the school's psychologist to make sure he doesn't have a learning disability.

The teacher says: "Your child is acting out in class."

The right response: Find out what she's doing: Is she interrupting? Running around? Making noises? Young kids can't always articulate their feelings, so bad behavior can be a sign that your child is anxious. Ask the teacher whether she's disruptive at the same time every day, which can help you identify the trigger. For example, if your child misbehaves just before gym class, she could be scared kids will make fun of her because she's bad at sports. Another possibility: Maybe she thinks she isn't getting enough attention from the teacher or the other students, and being loud is her way of grabbing the spotlight. Or you may have a high-energy kid -- she can't control herself during circle time or other quiet moments yet.

One worry to cross off the list: ADHD, even though it's tempting to panic and jump to that conclusion. "If your child hasn't had behavior issues in the past, chances are that ADHD isn't the problem," says Michael Reiff, MD, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.

Creating a plan: If you suspect performance anxiety is the culprit, say, "Your teacher mentioned that she gave you a time-out before gym again. Would it help if you and I practiced jumping rope together?" Reassure her that everyone thinks they're bad at some things, and talk up her best skills.

If your child is just naturally a little too peppy, ask the teacher whether there are ways she could release some energy before quiet times. Maybe she could erase the board or do some other activity before she has to settle down. To handle an attention seeker, remind her that the best way to get noticed is to follow the rules and do well on her work. (You might also ask the teacher for a list of class rules so you can go over them with your child.) Suggest other ways she can get attention, like doing something nice for a classmate.

Following up: Meet with the teacher to make sure your child has settled down; if she's still acting up, see your pediatrician. "If her teachers have said every year that she's disruptive in class and now she's more restless than ever, she should be tested for ADHD," says Dr. Reiff.

The teacher says: "Your child seems anxious and stressed."

The right response: Make sure you understand the teacher's definition of anxiety. Ask about the symptoms: Is your child crying at certain times of the day? Does he complain of stomachaches and ask to go to the nurse frequently? "If your child has started biting his nails, it may just be a bad habit. But if he always liked school and now you learn that he's crying in class every afternoon, there may be a bigger problem," says Dr. Reiff. Perhaps your child is being bullied by another child at recess or he's intimidated by a particular teacher.

Creating a plan: Be empathetic -- "I bet it's scary when the music teacher asks you to sing a line in front of the class" -- then ask how you can make him feel more comfortable. Offer solutions if he's at a loss: Sing songs with him at home or have him practice taking deep breaths.

If he's afraid of a bully, first reassure him that the teasing isn't his fault and you want him to feel safe. "Tell him that bullying is never okay, and by talking to you and the teacher about the bullying, he's helping to solve the problem," says Dr. Fish. This encourages him to open up so you can get more details: Was the kid threatening him physically? Calling him names? The teacher and the administration should step in (most schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying); they often recommend getting the other child's parents involved.

Following up: Keep in touch with the teacher and the school to make sure your child is more at ease. If he still seems worried, ask the teacher what else you can do to help.

The teacher says: "Your child is bullying another kid."

The right response: Find out how severe the harassment is. Did it happen once -- maybe a classmate pressured your daughter to hit another child and now she feels bad about doing it? Or has she been repeatedly taunting another classmate by calling her names or hurting her physically?

Creating a plan: If it was one incident and your child feels bad about it, talk about what caused her to behave so badly and have her apologize to the other child. If a friend told her to do it, discuss the dangers of peer pressure. "Role-playing is helpful here because kids think it's fun," says Dr. Fish. "Let your child say, 'I dare you to hit that girl on the head.' Then you can model a good response, such as 'I don't like getting hit, and I don't hit other people. It's not funny.' Then switch roles and have her give a response."

However, if the bullying has been part of a pattern of aggressive behavior, speak to the school psychologist or an outside counselor to see what's triggering it.

Following up: Check in regularly with the teacher. If your child's still struggling, continue counseling or ask whether the school offers services that help kids improve their social skills.

It's never easy to receive bad news about your child. We asked teachers how they wish parents would handle this delicate situation.

  • Do make time to talk. If the teacher calls you when you can't give her your full attention, ask whether you can call back at a more convenient time.
  • Do take notes. "It will be easier to remember the teacher's suggestions if you write them down," says Valorene Young, a first-grade teacher at the Ashley Elementary School, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
  • Don't interrupt. "Teachers think long and hard before they make a phone call, and they want to express their concerns completely," says Pauline Wahl, a teacher in Minot, North Dakota.
  • Do share your ideas. "No one knows your child as well as you do, so if you have strategies that the teacher can use to help your child, she wants to hear them," says Beth Irving, a reading teacher at Woodside Elementary School, in Peekskill, New York.
  • Don't look for a quick fix. Take time to digest what the teacher has said and talk it over with your family. "Set up a time when you and your husband can meet with the teacher, or at least follow up with notes, e-mails, or phone calls to ask how everything is going," says Young.
  • Don't get defensive. The conversation should focus on helping your child, not on blaming anyone. The teacher needs your support to resolve the issue.