We're on the Same Team! Bridging the Communication Gap Between Parents and Teachers

02/08/2017 11:06 am ET Updated Feb 13, 2017
Merete L. Kropp

A mom tells her story:

“It was a day just like any other. I walked into my child’s preschool classroom to help him hang his jacket and snack box on the hook in his cubby. As I leaned in to kiss him goodbye, the classroom teacher approached.

“Good morning, Tommy! How are you today? Go ahead and wash your hands and choose an activity, ‘K?” Then, turning to me, “Could I talk to you for a few minutes in the hallway?”

In a quiet alcove just outside the classroom, the teacher began. “We have a few concerns about Tommy’s language processing skills and we’d like to recommend some further testing.”

My heart dropped. I can’t say I was too surprised. I saw the other kids in the class and mentally compared them to my son. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared me for the rush of emotions I felt as the teacher began to verbalize her concerns about my son’s development.

I could barely hear her words with the sound of rushing water, machines, bells and whistles whirring around in my brain. This couldn’t be happening! What had I done wrong? I must be a bad mom! I hadn’t provided enough stimulation and structure for him! I was inconsistent and lazy! I didn’t make sure he knew all his numbers and letters and words. I should have… Why didn’t I….?

I somehow managed to nod and stammer a quick reply before rushing out to my car, promising to give her suggestion some thought. I sensed that she had wanted more from me, some kind of acknowledgement or permission to move ahead on testing, but I wasn’t prepared to offer that level of commitment to that yet. I simply needed to collect my thoughts and pour all my energy into holding back my tears in front of her.”

The teacher’s perspective:

“I’ve had Tommy in class for over three months now, and I am growing increasingly concerned that he is not understanding the words we say to him and he’s showing more signs of frustration that he is unable to make himself understood to both his teachers and his classmates. I’m not sure how to help him, but if he could have some evaluations done, we might be able to gain some clarity on what his needs really are and get him the help and support that he needs.

I need his mom’s permission to have testing done, so I thought I’d quickly check in with her this morning to have her give her consent. For some reason she seemed really upset with me when I talked to her. I don’t know what I said that set her off, but she completely blew off my offer and refused to cooperate. She asked for another meeting, but I’m not sure I have anything more I can tell her before we have him tested.”

Preschool and Developmental Delays

Preschool is the setting where many children experience consistent daily interactions with adults outside their immediate family for the first time. Preschool teachers are trained professionals who have studied child development and have many years of experience working with children at the preschool stage of development.

Preschool teachers are often able to identify learning styles and behaviors that fall outside the range they expect to see for children of a particular age and stage of development. However, although preschool teachers have excellent skills when it comes to interacting with small children, they may not display the same level of skill when interacting with parents.

Unfortunately, as both a teacher and a parent, I have observed many parent-teacher interactions regarding children’s development turn adversarial and unproductive time after time, even when both parties have positive intentions.

Much of the tension experienced by parents and teachers can be traced back to common misconceptions from both sides when discussing the need for further evaluation of a child’s developmental trajectory and learning style.

Common assumptions parents might have when a teacher suggests further testing:

There is something wrong with my child.

I am a bad parent/there is something wrong with my parenting.

The teachers want to assign a diagnosis to my child in order to label him.

All my hopes and dreams for my child are melting away.

My child’s life and future will forever be negatively affected by a diagnosis.

My child will be stigmatized and bullied.

Common assumptions teachers have when interacting with children whose development shows signs of delay:

If we can identify the issues this child is having, we will be more likely to help this child reach his potential.

When we can pinpoint a child’s strengths and weaknesses we can set specific manageable goals for him.

A diagnosis can help us determine how to help this child better.

When a child has a diagnosis, additional help in the form of specialized teachers, aides and other scaffolding is more readily available.

Every child can learn and develop when appropriate scaffolding is in place and specific, manageable learning goals are set.

What can parents do to bridge this communication gap and build common understanding?

1. Take a deep breath and relax.

2. Give yourself to time to think and process before (over)reacting.

3. Remind yourself that this is not an indictment of your parenting nor is it a personal or parenting failure.

4. Deliberately choose the lens through which you will view this:

Is this a process that will lead to a label or box for your child?

OR

Will this be an opportunity to identify supports and scaffolds for your child to be successful in school?

5. Consider teachers (and school staff) to be on the same team as you – not adversaries.

6. Set up an informational meeting with the teacher to ask your questions and seek clarity on the situation before a formal evaluation process begins. Ask to speak individually with the school counselor or psychologist if you have further questions.

7. Ask the teachers to give concrete examples of behaviors and issues they have observed in the classroom.

8. Follow up with questions about what strategies have already been tried in the classroom setting to address the issues they see.

9. Ask about strategies and recommendations of things that you can do at home that will support what they are already doing at school

10. Seek help. If you feel overwhelmed and confused, it might be a good idea to find an objective listening ear and a person who can be a comfort and assistance as well as a sounding board to you as you go through the process. Choose a trusted friend who has older children, or a teacher who has experience with children. This person will be most objective if they do not have a personal, emotional attachment to your child.

An earlier version of this article was posted on the author’s blog on Nurturance.

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