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Worst-Case Scenarios: Classroom Edition

Child with bullseye on chest

Shannon Greer

If class has been in session for a few days, put a watch on the comment and emphasize the positive. After school, ask, "What was the best thing about class today?" not "Did you like Ms. Gray more?" If the objections continue beyond Week 1, set up an appointment with the teacher to discuss your child's concerns, says Sara Leef, an elementary-school counselor in Brookline, Massachusetts. Yes, this can be a hard topic to broach with an educator because it feels so personal, but left unaddressed, "these feelings tend to grow into bigger issues, which can be harder to resolve down the line," Leef explains. Before you meet, casually prepare a couple of examples from your child that illustrate why he feels she is singling him out. And try to keep your cool as you enter the classroom, so you can focus on how you can work as a team. You might start the conversation by saying, "For some reason, my child feels you don't like him. I'm sure that by sitting down to talk right now, we can resolve this."

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You might be tempted to send your child off with a plain blue backpack (the sturdy one that you like, without a bunch of silly bells and whistles), but folks, your kid's not in preschool anymore. It's important to let elementary-schoolers pick out the gear on their class supply list -- even down to things like notebooks and pencils -- within reason. Why? "Kids at this age want to fit in; that's what makes them feel secure," says Barbara Micucci, an elementary-school counselor in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

If you did let your child pick out her backpack, and now she's unhappy with her choice, ask her to explain why. If she simply decided she wants a purple one instead of red, you may want to stand your ground, reiterating that she loves red and that's why she chose it. But if there's a larger issue that relates to school -- for instance, if the bag doesn't have a special pocket for her water bottle like everyone else's -- tell her you'll think about it. The whole thing may blow over after a few days, but if it continues to bother your kid, it's probably worth compromising.

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Yours reports that he's the "only one" who can't get through Green Eggs and Ham on his own. Really? "Even if just a few kids are reading independently, if they're your child's friends it can feel like everyone," notes first-grade teacher Heather Bailey, of St. Louis. It can be even harder if they're into chapter books, since kids see moving past easy readers as a major milestone. Still, Bailey assures, the typical first-grader won't be reading them until the end of the year.

Worried that your child isn't on track? E-mail his teacher. To help him feel good about his reading, praise even small gains and read to him. "Research shows that kids who are read to just 15 minutes a day become better readers than those who aren't," says Bailey. Finally, work reading lessons into everyday fun: You might play "I spy something starting with the letter F (or A or C)," while driving to karate class. Or ask the teacher what words your kid should be learning, then post them one or two at a time on index cards on your fridge. Explain that they're the secret code your kid has to crack before opening the fridge door for a snack.

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Respond with concern, but use neutral language, so it doesn't become an even bigger deal to your child, advises Christine Brennan, a kindergarten teacher in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Try, "Wow -- it sounds like you played on your own. What did you do?" Remember that in the early grades, leaving someone out is usually unintentional. The kids playing tag may not have noticed that your child wanted to join in, so practice having her say, "Hey, can I play with you?" It could also be that your child's friends use the scooters every day, but she prefers to jump rope -- and she wants someone to join her. In that case, mention that if she goes over to the jump-rope station on her own, she may meet kids who are also into the activity.

Still struggling? Ask your child's teacher to have the recess aides observe her on the playground, Leef advises. "They may say that your daughter seems frustrated, walking around with her arms crossed, making other kids hesitant to approach her." Then you can ask the aides to help your child find a group.

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Transitions, transitions! From the carpet to the desks, the desks to the line, the line to lunch, lunch to recess, recess to rest time. Preschool likely didn't place all of these demands on your child, and adjusting to a highly structured day can often cause behavior trouble to crop up, says Robin Davis, a kindergarten teacher in San Francisco. Why? Kids live in the moment; if your child is happily building a masterpiece out of blocks during free play, he simply may not want to stop to line up for library.

No matter what, if your kid is being called out for rule-breaking, including aggressive behavior like hitting or back-talking, and refusing to mind those in charge, make an appointment to meet with his teacher -- even after just one red flag. After all, you may have stuff going on at your end (like a new sibling's arrival or a recent job loss) that could help her better understand the behavior issue. Together, you can also look for patterns and come up with a discipline plan. If, for example, your child tends to struggle at the end of art time, ask the teacher if she could give your son an extra personal cue to help him. ("Owen, you have just a few minutes left before cleanup.") Also find out what transition cues the teacher uses in class. If she claps her hands and says, "One, two, three, eyes on me," do the same thing at home to make it more familiar to your child, says Micucci. Finally, ask the teacher if she'd be willing to contribute to a sticker chart that you keep in your kid's backpack, Micucci suggests. For each day he follows the rules at school, he gets a sticker. At home, he can earn another for following the rules. This shows that behaving well is equally important at home and at school.

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Bullying is one of moms' top back-to-school concerns, according to a recent Parents-Lands' End survey. But before you call the school and label another child a "bully," remember that it's like saying "bomb" in an airport. The word is taken seriously -- as it should be -- which is why you need to do your due diligence first. "We define bullying as repeated offenses committed by one child toward another, where there is an unequal balance of power and no reason for it," says Leef. Bullying is one child intimidating another, either physically, mentally, or both.

Keep in mind that if your kid has ongoing conflict with a classmate because they're both competitive in gym class or have headstrong personalities, it's not bullying. (You can help them get along by asking the school counselor to hold mediation sessions between them until the issue is resolved.) A good litmus test for identifying bullying: Ask your child if he feels okay talking to the classmate, says Leef. "If he says, 'Yes, I do,' it's not bullying. With bullying, there's a clear fear factor. He'd be worried about interacting with the bully."

In cases of bullying, a school administrator will likely decide how to discipline the aggressor -- and protect your child. To help keep your kid from becoming a bullying victim in the first place, empower him by teaching him assertive body language and words, says Micucci. Role-play, having him practice standing tall, crossing his arms and saying, "Stop. You're not allowed to do that," before going and finding a grown-up.

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"If a child has a stomachache, I ask her to use the bathroom; that often helps," says Jamie Nedwick, a first-grade teacher in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. If the nurse calls, make sure that's been done. No fever, vomiting, or diarrhea? Your kid may be allowed to return to class; if so, speak with her and say you'll take a look at her problem when you pick her up.

To tease out true illness, remind your kid that too sick for school is too sick to play with friends later on. If she doesn't perk up, you may want to take her home. Also check your child's emotions. "Kids who frequently visit the nurse's office with stomachaches and headaches tend to be nervous," says Leef. "Children are less likely to say 'I'm worried about math' than to go to the nurse with an upset stomach every day at math time." If you suspect anxiety, have a three-way talk with the teacher and nurse about how together you can ease the butterflies.

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Some kids, particularly introverted ones, may not be huge on reporting back, especially at the end of a long school day. Rest assured that just because your child isn't into talking doesn't mean he's unhappy. Hold the questions in the car ride home, and wait until after-dinner cuddle time to try to draw him out. Micucci suggests making your kid a contestant on his own show. Say "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being terrible and 10 being fabulous, how would you rate your day?" If your child picks 8, ask, "What made it an 8?'" You can also try doing a low-key activity, which may naturally get your kid talking. "When kids come to my office, we rarely just talk," Leef explains. "We draw or play Battleship. In ten minutes, a child will give me his life story."

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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