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Be the Teacher's Pet: Working with Your Child's Teacher

Teachers expect that you'll have tons of questions about the year ahead, but try not to turn your first meeting into an interrogation. "You don't want to overwhelm the teacher right from the start or go in with a preconceived idea of what your child should accomplish," says Erika V. Shearin Karres, EdD, author of A+ Teachers: How to Empower Your Child's Teacher, and Your Child, to Excellence.

Instead, ask just a few questions that show you're a team player. Keep the first meeting upbeat -- you might start off with a compliment, such as, "I really love the way you decorated the classroom." Then, ask questions that focus on collaboration: "How can I help you in the classroom? Can I contribute any supplies you might need?"

Try to stay positive for the first few weeks and save judgments or critiques for later. After all, the teacher needs time to get to know your kid and identify her behavioral quirks and learning style, and that will take some trial and error.

If your child has any fears or problems -- maybe he's terrified of loud noises or still hasn't gotten the hang of using the bathroom by himself -- give his teacher a heads-up during your first meeting. That way, she'll be able to deal with any dramas quickly and your child won't feel embarrassed or disrupt the class.

You should also let the teacher know if there are any changes going on at home that might affect your kid's behavior in class, such as a family illness or a divorce. "Mention any serious issue that might disrupt his routine," says Joyce L. Epstein, PhD, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. Parent-teacher talks should always be private, but remind her that the info is confidential if you feel uncomfortable.

You can't expect your child to follow classroom rules if you're always challenging them. "Constantly grilling the teacher with questions like, 'Why are you making the kids learn this?' or 'Why is this a rule?' is a bad idea," says Dr. Karres. If the teacher feels like you're undermining her authority, she may not be too psyched to involve you in the classroom or to ask for your feedback.

If you and the teacher do clash on an issue, don't complain about it in front of your child -- she needs to have a positive relationship with her teacher. And give the teacher the benefit of the doubt if your kid says something like, "Mrs. Smith is mean." There are lots of reasons why a child will say this -- she misses you, she's having trouble making friends, or she wanted to run around the classroom but Mrs. Smith made her sit down. If she whines, say, "It's Mrs. Smith's job to make sure everyone follows the rules, and that means she has to be strict sometimes." Check in with your child in a week to see whether she still feels the same way; if it does seem like there's a real problem, schedule a meeting with your child's teacher.

And keep in mind that your kid's school success isn't determined just by her teacher -- at home, you need to reinforce the skills and manners that she's learning in school. "If parents follow through, kids get the chance to practice things like cleaning up and following directions," says Carol Bress, a kindergarten teacher in Yardley, Pennsylvania.

If it seems like your child is struggling at school, schedule a conference. "Don't wait until a problem reaches crisis level before you bring it up," says Dr. Epstein. Teachers are more than happy to talk to you, especially if you check any anger or frustration at the door. Start with a neutral, blame-free question: "I really want my child to enjoy school, but he isn't as happy as I'd like him to be. What do you suggest we do?"

If the teacher comes to you with a problem, don't get defensive. "Remember that the teacher is trying to look out for your kid," says Bress. "Listen to her side of the story and keep an open mind." To get a better perspective on the issue, try volunteering in your child's classroom. Even if you have only 15 or 30 minutes to stop by, you may learn more about the situation.

Also, you shouldn't expect the teacher to correct every single weakness, at least not right away. "Some parents only focus on one problem, so they don't see the learning process in the big picture," says Kimberly Oliver Burnim, a kindergarten teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Sometimes teachers need to focus on certain goals and save others for later." For example, if the class is learning to write capital letters, the teacher may ignore spelling mistakes during the lesson so the kids don't get overwhelmed.

My husband has a more flexible schedule than I do, so I often send him to school when the teacher needs help. Since there are usually more mothers in the classroom, the teacher and the kids think it's a special treat to have a dad be their helper for the day. -- Susan B.; Canton, Massachusetts

Go to summer orientation! Not only did it help my kids feel comfortable on the first day, it also gave me the chance to form a relationship with the teacher outside of class. -- Annie L.; Allendale, New Jersey

Whenever my kids get really excited about something they did at school, I make a point to thank their teachers. They like the feedback, and a little praise goes a long way. -- Karla D.; Monroe, North Carolina

Find special ways to pitch in. For instance, I'm not great at cooking for a bake sale, but I do know music. I made a CD for the school's haunted-house party, and the teacher loved it. -- Candice M.; Oakland, New Jersey

Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Parents magazine.