The Smart Way to Talk to Teachers

Is your child struggling academically? Do you just want to assess their standing and check-in? Talking to your child's teacher isn't just beneficial; it's essential.

teacher talking to students
Photo: Getty

If you're a parent, you probably want what is best for your child: physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. You also want them to succeed—in school and life. But in order to help them achieve academic success, you can (and should) be in touch with their teacher. Your child spends more time in school, after all, then anywhere else. (Well, anywhere aside from home.) And while you may not know what to say to your child's teacher, keeping the line of communication open is key. You should talk to your child's teacher whether there are problems or not.

Here's the best ways to address your child's teacher.

General Tips for Talking to Your Child's Teacher

Make an Appointment

While it may seem easier to approach your child's teacher at drop-off, pick-up, or in the school yard, you can and should make time to speak with them. Scheduling an appointment gives you both time to compose your thoughts.

Organize Your Thoughts

Before you head into any parent-teacher meeting—be it in-person, on the phone, or over Zoom or Skype—you should organize your thoughts. Is your child struggling academically? Is bullying a problem? Make note of what you want to discuss and bring it up. You should jot down a few pointed questions, too. These will help steer the conversation and help you both problem-solve and/or arrive at a solution.

Communicate Effectively

Once you've scheduled an appointment and organized your thoughts, you'll need to convey them: clearly, concisely, and effectively. Talk to your child's teacher about any concerns you may have. Give examples, when possible, and listen. The key to effective communication is for it to go/be two-way.

Discuss Next Steps and/or Find a Solution

If a problem was identified during your meeting, you'll want to work with your child (and child's teacher) toward a solution. Actionable plans and practical outcomes are best. What does this mean? Well, it means that if your child is struggling in math you shouldn't expect their grade to jump from a D to a B overnight; however, you may want to set small, tangible goals for them to meet.

Ways to Address Specific Problems With Your Child's Teacher

Is your child struggling socially, emotionally, or academically? Below your will find the best ways to approach some of the most common school-related problems.

Schoolwork Struggles

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 they're 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 they've missed learning something the previous year—they were out sick when the teacher introduced subtraction—and they've 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: Are they having trouble in every subject or just one? Did they score poorly on a couple of tests or many? Are they not doing the work, or are they frustrated and unable to 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 them how you can help, and brainstorm solutions with the teacher, too. They may be able to recommend flash cards or work sheets your child can do at home, or maybe they can fit in extra-help sessions with them during lunch or free classroom time. You should check over their homework to discuss mistakes with too and work closely with the teacher to make sure they're 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 that they don't have a learning disability.

Misbehaving

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

The right response: Find out what your child is doing: Are they 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 they're disruptive at the same time every day, which can help you identify the trigger. For example, if your child misbehaves just before gym class, they could be scared kids will make fun of them because they're bad at sports. It's also possible your child isn't getting enough attention from the teacher or the other students. Being loud is their way of grabbing the spotlight. Or you may have a high-energy kid, one who can't control themselves during circle time or other quiet moments.

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 they gave you a time-out before gym again. Would it help if you and I practiced jumping rope together?" Reassure your child that everyone thinks they're bad at some things, and talk up their best skills.

If your child is just peppy, ask the teacher whether there are ways they could release some energy before quiet times. Maybe they could erase the board or do some other activity before they have to settle down. To handle an attention seeker, remind them that the best way to get noticed is to follow the rules and do well on their 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 they 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 they're still acting up, see your pediatrician. "If your child's teachers have said every year that they're disruptive in class and now they're more restless than ever, they should be tested for ADHD," says Dr. Reiff.

Overwhelmed

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? Are they complaining of stomachaches and asking to go to the nurse? "If your child has started biting their nails, it may just be a bad habit. But if they always liked school and now you learn that they're 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 they're intimidated by a particular teacher.

Creating a plan: Be empathetic. Say something like "I bet it's scary when the music teacher asks you to sing a line in front of the class" and then ask how you can make them feel more comfortable. You can also practice mindfulness with them and taking deep breaths.

If your child is afraid of a bully, first reassure them that the teasing isn't their fault. "Tell him that bullying is never okay, and by talking to you and the teacher about the bullying, they're 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 and/or consider contacting a mental health professional.

Bullying

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 child to hit another and now they feel bad about it? Or have they been repeatedly taunting another classmate by calling them names or hurting them physically?

Creating a plan: If it was one incident and your child feels bad about it, talk about what caused them to behave so badly and then have them 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 them 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.

Updated by
Kimberly Zapata
Kimberly Zapata

Kimberly Zapata is the associate editor for Parents. Her parenting, health, and wellness work has been published on numerous websites, including Health, Healthline, Parade, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Oprah, The Mighty, Mic, and Vice. She is also the founder and creator of Greater Than: Illness, an organization dedicated to empowering teens and young adults struggling with mental illness. And when she is not writing—or working—she is caring for her two children, aged 8 and 3.

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