Building Your Child's Education Team

If your child has a learning or mental health issue that affects her ability to thrive in school, it's crucial to work closely with teachers and other professionals. Experts from the Child Mind Institute offer useful advice.

All children need their parents and teachers to work together as allies -- and that teamwork is even more important for children who are struggling in school. They may also need other specialists on their team to help promote their academic and social achievement and help them reach their full potential.

As you assess whether your child is doing as well as she could be, your communication with her classroom teacher is key. Here are some tips to build strong relationships with teachers, and determine what support your child needs to thrive.

Check In With Teachers Early and Often

Whether your child is a quick study or is struggling in school, building that team to support him starts with forming an effective partnership with his teacher.

When your child starts each school year, your first goal should be to make sure you understand his new teacher's expectations, including the demands of the academic curriculum and grade-appropriate behaviors. Remember that when your child enters a new classroom, he won't just be tackling new math skills, he'll be experiencing a new style of learning and building new relationships.

When you talk to the new teacher, make sure to give her the information she needs to put your child's behavior into an effective context. Does your son need extra time, or a periodic break to do his best work? Does he need to sit near the front of the class to be able to focus? Is he such a perfectionist that he rubs a hole in the paper correcting his own work? Teachers want to know these things -- preferably before class begins.

For parents of children who have struggled in the past, starting with a blank slate is an attractive idea, but it rarely works out, says Susan Schwartz, director of the Child Mind Institute's Learning and Diagnostics Center. Keeping a teacher in the dark about an issue you already know about only leads to surprises and frustration for the teacher (and for your child). Schwartz also notes that even if you don't talk to the teacher about your child, there is always the possibility that another teacher or parent will -- and the information that is shared may be inaccurate or outdated or biased. It's better to tell the teacher everything that you want her to know.

Similarly, you want to let the teacher know that you'd like her to share anything specific she notices about what helps your child learn effectively, or anything that tends to get in his way.

If you have any specific questions, don't be afraid to ask the teacher. For example, how much involvement should parents typically have in a child's homework? Different teachers have different opinions, and you'll be glad you asked.

Finally, ask if there are ways the teacher wants you to be more involved -- or if there are ways you should be stepping back.

More Ways to Help Your Child's Education

Make the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences

About 12 weeks into the year, schools begin scheduling conferences and sending home progress reports. By now you should understand the teacher's academic and developmental expectations for your child, so the parent-teacher conference should be an opportunity to discuss how your child is meeting those expectations.

These conferences are important, so you should spend some time preparing. Decide what information you want to share and what questions you want to ask ahead of time. Schwartz recommends talking to your child before you go to the conference, because his perspective can help frame the meeting. Ask: What do you like best about school? What is easy for you to do? What is hard for you to do? Try to include your child in the conference by asking if he has any questions for the teacher.

The parent-teacher conference is primarily an opportunity to work collaboratively, to put your heads together. Does the teacher have any advice for you? Do you have any advice for her? If you have anything important to say, lead with that. You don't want to run out of time.

Get Extra Help for Your Child

If you believe your child needs more help than he is getting, make an appointment to share your concerns with his teacher and other school personnel. Teachers can be helpful but so can counselors, school psychologists, the principal, a favorite coach -- anyone who knows your child and has his best interests at heart.

If you think that your child may need special services or accommodations, a professional evaluation may be in order. Local public school districts are legally required to provide a basic evaluation, even if your child is attending a private or parochial school. A typical evaluation package measures intellectual, academic, and emotional functioning, takes a history of the child and his family, and includes a classroom evaluation. Often schools will also perform other specific evaluations if they are indicated; for example, to see whether a child needs speech and language help, occupational therapy, or assistive technology.

School evaluations can be very effective, and in some situations are all that is required to get the ball rolling. But if you aren't satisfied with the results of your school evaluation, or if you want your child evaluated for something not covered by the school's standard assessment, you should seek a private evaluation with a specialist.

Matthew Cruger, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute's Learning and Diagnostics Center, advises telling the school if you plan to have an outside evaluation, and sharing the results with team there. "They might not be able to do everything the specialist recommends, but they generally want to have that information," Dr. Cruger says. "I think a lot of resistance from schools comes from not necessarily knowing why something has been suggested."

Keeping everyone on the same page about a student's strengths and weaknesses will make it easier to agree on how to help him. It also lays the foundation for a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

As with any relationship, be prepared to compromise. Although school districts are motivated to help kids with learning needs, they often have limited resources.

Schools will provide what they (and the law) consider sufficient, but not necessarily the ideal support. This means that parents, school representatives, and other specialists need to work together to come up with the best possible education plan for a child. Dr. Cruger says, "As a psychologist, I think about what are the fewest intrusive interventions that could lead to the maximum gain for a child."

In Dr. Kruger's experience, the best plans are the ones that benefit from everyone's participation -- the entire education team, including the child -- because when everyone is committed and working towards success, suddenly it becomes a lot more attainable.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.

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