How to Talk to Your Kid’s Teacher About Behavior Problems
Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor. I’m wondering if you have ever felt nauseous, or anxious, or worried throughout the day when your kids are at school, because you are worried that you are going to get a phone call from the school guidance counselor, from the principal, from the teacher. I wonder if you get a pit in your stomach when you are driving to pick them up at the end of the day because you are so concerned for who’s going to stop you and pull you to the side, and tell you all of the things that happened at school; that they had a difficult time with your child. I wonder if you are always hoping that the phone does not ring, always hoping that you don’t have to run into anyone at the school, because every time you have a conversation about your child and their behavior at school, it’s negative. And it leaves you feeling defeated and frustrated and hopeless.
If you are in that situation, so are many other parents that I work with. I hear those stories all the time. Parents say those things to me on a very frequent basis, and it’s gotten to a point where they don’t even want to have their child at the school because they feel that it’s such a negative interaction for the child in the school environment when things have gotten to that point. One of my roles as a play therapist and as a child therapist is that I often am asked to advocate on behalf of the child, on behalf of the family. The parents request that I liaison, to a degree, between the school, and the teachers, and the principal, and the child. So I’ve been through that journey and through a lot of trial and error, through a lot of ups and downs. And giving things a shot and seeing if it works, I have found what I believe to be a really helpful solution to helping your child succeed in the school environment and helping the staff at the school know how to best handle and effectively deal with struggles in behavior at school.
Because here’s the thing: If a child is struggling in school, if their behavior is out of control, if they are not performing academically, if they’re acting out behaviorally, if they are dysregulated emotionally, teachers and staff at the school are often frustrated by that. They want it to be fixed. They want it to change. They want it to improve. But the reality is, what’s often missed is that there’s a root cause to that type of issue at school. There’s a reason why the child isn’t doing their work. There’s a reason why the child is not following directions. There’s a reason why the child is fighting with their peers in the classroom. There’s always a root cause, but often the teachers and the staff miss it. They’re frustrated by the behavior, understandably, and they don’t understand. We have to figure out what’s driving that type of issue at school.
So through a lot of trial and error, through a lot of back and forth, I have navigated those waters, and I wanted to share a little bit of insight and thoughts with you. An interesting thing is that often historically, there’s been a perspective that it’s kind of the school against the family. In other words, the family does not agree that the child has problems and then the school says, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, there’s all kinds of problems,’ so it kind of becomes where the family is pitted against the school. Another option is that the teacher is somehow pitted against the parents. So parents say, ‘Well, we don’t have that problem.’ And the teacher says, ‘Well, I have that problem every day’ and it becomes a parent versus a teacher fight.
And what I have found and what I want to share with you today is you can become the advocate and create a partnership that really works. The goal is to create a partnership between you and the school so that the child can have the most effective set up to succeed in the school environment and in the home environment. So I wanted to give you some step by step thoughts, step by step tips on what you can do if you are struggling to handle the interactions with your child’s school, the teachers, the principals, the guidance counselors. If you are in that place where so many parents are, where every day is a battle at school, and everyday notes or sent home, every day there are frowny faces and red on the color charts, and you know they weren’t able to go to recess because of all these things that happened. I wanted to share some thoughts And some tips of what I found is very effective in dealing with those kinds of scenarios.
So, first and foremost, you want to make sure that there is not a contentious relationship. You want it to be a collaboration. And even when emotions are high, even when the teacher wants nothing more than to have a calm classroom, even when you want nothing more than to have a good report at the end of the day from the teacher, it has to be a collaboration. And that means working together. That means open dialogue. That means coming together as a partnership.
Step number two, you need to seek understanding, and that goes both ways. One of the things that I have found the most helpful when I speak with teachers and guidance counselors is to say, ‘Share with me what you’re seeing, share with me what the struggles are,’ and I just seek understanding. I want to know from their side what that looks like, because often the child’s behavior is very different between environments. So you may say, ‘Oh my gosh, no, they don’t act like that at home.’ But that’s not seeking understanding of what’s happening in the classroom. So sometimes it’s helpful to just let them share their side, their perspective, so that you have a better understanding and awareness of what that looks like.
Third, you always want to try to come at it from a seeking knowledge perspective. In other words, I want to talk to you so that I know. I want to understand. I want to have awareness, and I want you to tell me so that I have this knowledge. Even if it’s not your experience at home, even if it’s a very different description of behavior than what you’re used to. Perspective and knowledge is crucial for both sides. Often a teacher wants to know, ‘We just don’t have that problem at home and here’s how I handle a situation like that.’ If you’re able to share your knowledge of how you can bypass an outburst at home, the teacher would love that as well. So both ways seeking knowledge is really helpful.
Fourth, it’s always about finding a solution. So working together to figure out what will work for your child in the school environment, and sometimes that takes a lot of brainstorming. It takes a lot of discussion, but that is what sets your child up for success. Because what we don’t want, and what the greatest danger, is when a child is having trouble at school, is when the classroom and the teacher and the staff start to view the child as the bad kid. I’m air quoting “bad kid,” and then the child starts to believe it, and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. In other words, when the label has been thrown out there. ‘Oh, that’s the kid that gets in trouble all the time. That’s the kid that’s bad. That’s the kid that’s always in the principal’s office.’ It’s really hard for the child not to assume that role. ‘Well, everyone thinks I’m bad, so I’m just gonna be bad.’ And it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. So the solution is sometimes let’s come together. Let’s figure this out. Maybe we can try this. Let’s give it a shot for a week, see what happens. Let’s see if we change this if that makes a difference. So a lot of open brainstorming will often lead to a solution.
Next, we never want the conversation, nor the solution, to be defeating or punitive. In other words, the solution should always be positively framed rather than negatively. So what that might look like is, “If you choose to complete all of your work for today, you choose to have an extra five minutes of recess. If you choose not to complete your work, you choose to have the normal amount of recess.” Notice that there is no punishment. There’s no discipline, there’s no consequence. He just gets, he or she, gets extra of something that is important to them if they follow the rules and are obedient to the normal routine of the day. So it should not be, “If you don’t stay on task, you lose recess” because that is punitive. That’s defeating. And what happens is that sets the child up for failure because if they lose recess at 10 a.m., they still have five more hours that they have to get through, and by that point there’s no reason to even try. They’ve already lost what mattered to them. So at that point, ‘I don’t need to follow any of the rules the rest of the day,’ because they’ve already gotten to a defeated place where they’ve been set up for failure. So it’s always positive, never punitive, always moving in the direction of making sure that it’s a success oriented approach.
And finally, it should always be understood from both sides that this is never a pit one against the other. So if the child has a difficult time at school, there should never be a dialogue at home that the teacher is so strict. The teacher is so outrageous, the teacher doesn’t know how to handle the classroom. Likewise, the teacher should never communicate in the school environment, ‘Well, he’s just never disciplined at home, or they’re just not handling this from a parenting side of it,’ because then the child is the ping pong ball that gets stuck in between the school and the home. And like I mentioned before, the parent versus the teacher, the school versus the family, it should never be a ‘we’re against each other’ approach. It should always be a ‘we’re coming together to find a solution’ approach.
So those were the step by steps. Before I unleash you to tackle this in your schools, I wanted to share a couple of mistakes and a couple of pitfalls that a lot of parents find themselves in in this scenario, because so many of our kids have either been kicked out of schools, they’ve been suspended from schools, they’ve been given referral after referral and they’re on the verge of getting expelled. So many of our kids that we work with at the center are in this situation. So we face this all the time. We come alongside parents and we help them navigate this school type of situation. And so these are the pitfalls and the obstacles that I see for a lot of parents in this scenario. It’s really easy to blame. It’s easy to blame lack of teacher training. It’s easy to blame they just don’t understand my child. It’s easy to blame ‘Well, they’re just not being accommodating.’ It’s easy to find fault and blame with someone else – that is never helpful. It always takes everybody to get along. When I was little – I don’t know if I’ve shared this with you before, but when I was little, when my brother and I would fight. He’s three years younger than me and we would get in an argument or we would both want the ball and neither one of us would give in and we’d go running to Mom or Dad. One of my mom’s consistent phrases that she said to me was “It takes two to fight and it takes two to get along.” And at the time, I remember thinking it was his fault. What do you mean, it takes two? I did nothing! And that was so frustrating to me when I was young. And as an adult now, I’m so much more aware of that. It takes two to get along just like it takes two to not get along. And so there should never be blame of ‘it’s this person’s fault.’ It’s going to take everybody coming together and collaboratively working to make this right and to fix this issue. So try, and I know it’s so hard as that’s human nature. We always want to find fault somewhere else. Try as much as possible to recognize and catch yourself if you’re passing blame, recognize that that’s only getting in the way and use some of these tips that I shared with you.
Second pitfall is making excuses for the child’s behavior. My husband’s family is a whole family of full of teachers for many generations. And one of their greatest frustrations is when they allege that parents just make excuses for what goes on in the classroom instead of saying ‘that’s definitely something that needs to be worked on.’ You know, let’s figure that out. And we don’t want to be in that role where we’re just excusing away behavior because perspective is reality. And so if the teacher feels, and their perspective is, that whatever that behavior is is disruptive, even if it’s not disruptive at home, it still is disruptive to the teacher in the classroom environment. So it’s easy to make excuses and say, “Well, that’s not really a big deal. That’s just something that, you know, he does.” It’s helpful to recognize that excuse making is also a hindrance.
And finally, avoidance. Often, parents will say, ‘I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t respond to the teachers emails. I don’t acknowledge the papers that get sent home. I don’t I don’t answer the phone when when they call.’ And there’s an avoidance of dealing with the situation. Again, it only gets in the way. So know that you are part of the solution. As soon as you decide that you are going to be the catalyst for change. That’s where we fall as parents all the time. We recognize there’s an issue that needs to be addressed, and we are the person that decides to create change in the home. Kids don’t change. They’re just kids. So that’s our role as a parent to say ‘I’m going to be the person that takes the first step to make this better, to fix this for my family.’
So be encouraged. The first thing that you should do if this is you, if you are saying “Oh my gosh, everything you’ve said this video or this podcast is exactly where I am. We’ve been through this again and again, with no solution in sight, no end in sight, and I’m just completely frustrated and overwhelmed.” The first step is schedule a meeting with whoever needs to be there. If it’s just the teacher, that’ll work. If it’s the teacher and the guidance counselor, if the principal needs to be involved, if the staff need to be there, whoever is a part of your childs life. Whoever is part of the school environment that your child is in, involve them in that process. Schedule the meeting, that’s the very first thing that you should do.
And know that you need to be honest. Know that you need to be transparent. One thing I found is that when teachers and staff at the school just hear the words, ‘we know that it’s an issue and we’re working on it,’ that gives everybody hope. The most frustrating place is when you feel that nothing’s going to change and there’s no hope in the scenario. If you just say to a teacher, “I realize this is an issue, and we’re gonna work on it and figure it out.” That gives everybody in the scenario hope that things can get better. So be transparent. Be honest, be open and admit that you need to work together. That’s the big piece: everybody needs to come together. It takes a village to raise a child, right? So when there’s a struggle at school, everybody involved is a piece of the solution.
And this is something that I’ve always remembered, something that’s always in the back of my mind. Kids are with their teacher, most often, more than their with their family on a school day. As far as hours in the day go. So we are parents. We are the people that are responsible for their, you know, their food and their shelter and everything that they need. But teachers and people at school are so influential and instrumental in our child’s life and in their well being, and in their emotional and mental and psychological success. So it makes sense that we have to partner with them, come alongside them. They are a huge piece of our children’s lives, and sometimes that gets lost. We feel like we’re the parent and we’re in charge, but my son is with his teacher seven hours a day. So that’s a really long time to be with somebody if you’re not all collaboratively on the same page and you’re not all working towards the same goal.
So if this is something that has just started this year, maybe 2020 has been the year that all of a sudden all kinds of stuff came out in the school environment, and you’re just completely caught off guard. Or maybe every year since your child started school, there have been issues with their behavior or their academic performance or their ability to focus and stay on task and complete their work. Maybe you’re new to this. Maybe this is a long standing issue. Either way, you can change the circumstances. You can be the voice that says, ‘We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to tackle this and make this better’ and your child will benefit from that decision.
So parents and teachers, you’re all in the same boat. You all just want your child to be well adjusted and happy, whether that’s in the classroom, in the home environment, on the baseball team, in the swimming pool, wherever your child is and wherever they spend time. We all want them to be regulated and happy and thriving, and so everybody is working toward those goals. So it’s a matter of coming together and deciding to do it as a team rather than trying to do it independently. And kids are always better when parents and teachers work together. So I hope that encourages you. I hope that if you are struggling with your child’s behavior at school, that you can take some of these tips. You can schedule that meeting, and you can work toward the healing and the change that can come.
Please, however you’re seeing or hearing this podcast, video, blog – Whatever method you used to find this information, please ask questions. Leave comments. Share your stories. I would love to hear what happens after you tackle some of these issues in the school system. Don’t forget, if you have not already, download my podcast. Make sure that you subscribe to my newsletter on thekidcounselor.com so that you’re always aware of everything that I’m putting out for you.
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If you have kids that are struggling in school, know that there is hope. Know that you can get through it and know that with a few things in a meeting, things can be totally different for your kids at school and at home. Thanks so much for being a part of The Kid Counselor family and the Play Therapy Parenting family. I will talk to you again soon. Bye.