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Engaging with Teachers, the School, Other Parents and the Educational Process

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Once children are enrolled in a school, it is important that parents do what they can to form a close working relationship with the teachers, administrators and other staff associated with that school and generally to become involved in their children's school life as much as possible. Parents should pay attention to school communications, attend parent-teacher conferences, and generally keep lines of communication open with their children's teachers through phone calls and emails as is appropriate. They should volunteer to help out at school functions as time permits, for instance, helping to chaperon a classroom party or field trip. Getting involved in the school's parent-teacher association or other extracurricular activities is another option; these activities will give parents further opportunity to learn more about their children's developmental needs and about useful community resources. Volunteering allows caregivers to make friendships and connections with other caregivers. A communicative, trusting community of parents is a vital resource for helping everyone's children succeed and stay healthy and safe. Attending as many school plays, musicals, recitals, and family days as possible is also important.

back to schoolIn all, parental investment in the school's functioning serves multiple important purposes. It helps motivate children by showing them that teachers and parents are working together to help them succeed; it connects parents with other parents, providing important social support and networking opportunities, and it sets up professional relationships between parents and school staff that can be called upon should it become evident later on that children are experiencing problems that require a coordinated response from the school to be adequately addressed.

Parents should make sure to read school newsletters and other informational packets sent home or put onto the school website. School newsletters and communications are designed to help caregivers stay informed about what is happening in the school and what children are learning. Such information can be used as a springboard for family discussions about children's accomplishments and difficulties.

Parents should always take care to review report cards, tests, and other evaluation results reflecting their children's performance. Being extremely strict or critical is not the point of such review. Rather, paying attention to this material helps parents to know whether or not their children are struggling or doing well, and provides them an opportunity to take corrective action should any be needed (such as hiring a tutor, or similar academic support). Parents should appropriately praise and express pride in their children's accomplishments (e.g., good grades and positive teacher comments). In addition to offering praise for performance, it is also vital to offer children praise for sincere effort (as sincere effort can serve as a solid foundation for future performance improvement). Any improvements in grades should be praised as an instance of a movement in a desirable direction, even if children's grades themselves are still lower than desirable.

Parents should discuss areas of academic weakness with their children so as to make clear to children that they are aware of the problem, hope for improvement and are willing to help children problem solve and work on improving these areas. Children may struggle with a variety of academic skills, not limited to coursework topics themselves, for instance, particular academic subjects like math, but also difficulties taking tests in general, and disruptive behavior in the classroom. All of these aspects of performance are important to consider as they all have bearing on children's ability to learn and succeed.

Rather than scolding children for weak performance, parents should encourage children to share the reasons they believe are causing them to perform poorly (if they have any theories). Together, parents and children can problem-solve about whether children's areas of academic weakness are due to a lack of interest, effort or motivation on the part of the children or to some deeper legitimate problem that needs to be addressed such as a learning disorder, or a badly designed or poorly-fitted method of instruction. In this manner, children may be supported so that they will do better in the future, and, as well, children will gain concrete experience in problem solving, an important coping skill that will serve them throughout life.

It is natural and inevitable that some parents will feel disappointment if/when their children do not perform as well as they had hoped. While this feeling is perfectly okay to acknowledge and observe during moments of private reflection, it is not useful for parents to communicate these feelings to children. Children who pick up on such emotion may take to heart the message that they are performing badly because they are defective. Instead, parents should carefully monitor their feelings and statements to make sure that they're not being too critical and blaming or too perfectionist in their expectations. A positive caring and concerned attitude will best provide children with the combination of emotional support and failure experience they require to recognize that the situation is serious but also addressable, and that they need to work harder and smarter rather than panic.