Parents.com's ‘Ask Your Mom’ advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., weighs in on what to do and who to talk to in order to get to the bottom of the situation.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
February 18, 2020
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Illustration by Yeji Kim

Dear Lie Detector,

I remember the days of meticulously detailed notes from daycare about every diaper changed and ounce of milk drank. Even if I couldn't be with my babies, I knew what their day was like, to the hour. That's why the transition to elementary school was such a shock—I knew nothing about what transpired within those walls for seven hours, except for what my less-than-reliable kindergartener told me.

This fading away—or abrupt erasure—of micromanaging our child's school day is developmentally good for everyone ... until there's a problem. In the case of the teacher allegedly blaming your child without cause, that wish to micromanage likely comes raging back.

Let's all admit that when our child tells us they are being treated unfairly, we want to protect them (unless of course, they are lodging their complaint against us). It's a completely natural parent response to believe our child and kick into full-on protection mode. But for the sake of everyone involved—our child, the teacher, us parents—it's better to think through strategies to make sure we protect our child rather than become part of the problem.

Get Context

Your child may be completely honest, but it doesn't mean they are conveying the whole story. The first step is to gather as much context as possible, questioning your child about "what was happening before the teacher said that," and "did the teacher talk to any other kids?" It's important to ask questions that get them thinking about all the parts of their story, not just the part when they feel wrongly blamed.

Next, you will want to hear the teacher's version before passing full judgment. Frame the inquiry in as non-accusatory a way as possible: "Hey—I wanted to check in on how everything is going in class ... are you having any concerns about my daughter?" Then move on to specifics: "She's feeling like she's getting in trouble for things she's not doing and I'm curious what you've been having to deal with in class."

Think About the Teacher

Whenever I volunteer in my kids' classroom parties, I leave thinking: "Teachers are saints. I could never do that." Just like us parents, though, teachers are human, no matter how called they are to the mission of educating little minds, and very busy. They may have an especially challenging class composition this year that puts them on edge more or a personal problem that is draining their usual level of patience.

It's possible that the teacher is wrongly blaming your child, but because of factors that have nothing to do with your child. It is important to note that plenty of research shows unconscious bias at work in classrooms. This includes boys receiving harsher discipline than girls, and students of color being perceived in more negative ways, and treated accordingly. Although this dynamic is so much larger than your child, if it is directly affecting them, you have an opportunity to shine a light on this bias for there to be even a chance at change.

Most teachers I know would want to realize that a student is feeling targeted in this way. This helps them pay more attention to the moments when their impulse is to point the finger at your child, and then stop themselves from doing it.

When to Escalate

If your initial investigation uncovers more concerns, including the possible role of bias, you will need to take action. From a social-emotional perspective, one of the most important goals of school–especially in those earlier years—is instilling a love of learning and going to school. A negative experience with a teacher could derail this mission.

If you indeed discover that your child's teacher is unfairly singling them out, and the teacher is not receptive to your communication (usually evident by no change in the child's report of what is happening at school), you need to involve the next person up the chain. Start with an email to the teacher and the principal, requesting a meeting to address your concerns. In-person meetings usually accomplish more than what can be misinterpreted and misunderstood via email. Also, we all tend to behave better when we know our boss is watching.

Of course, this solution relies on a reasonable principal. In the very unfortunate situation of the teacher and administrators not being responsive, you can decide what to do based on how serious it is. If you have multiple concerns about the fit of this school with your child, it's fair to consider changing schools. If this is one tough year, it's worth working with your child on how to manage not getting along with their teacher in a way that's an excellent life lesson, and part of building resilience.

The Bottom Line

One of our many parenting hats is being our child's advocate. We know our children are always watching and learning how we solve life's problems, we just need to remember this when we decide exactly how to take action. You can express to your child that you believe what she is telling you and you are taking steps to address it, but steer clear of sharing any negative thoughts for the teacher with your child. Your child needs to sit in this teacher's classroom and learn every day; high emotions will likely worsen the original problem. Keeping an open mind equips us to be the best advocate possible for our children.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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