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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Parents and Teachers: The Possibility of a Dream Team

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Ineffective communication between parents and teachers can be a major obstacle when trying to solve problems with students, but fortunately it can be improved. Let's first examine the two major causes of communication dysfunction.

Problem 1: Judgment

Teachers judge the parents of their students all the time. They judge them based on students' language, hygiene, dress and social skills. Parents judge teachers, too, based on comments from their children. "What did you learn in school today?" is usually followed by, "Nothing." Sometimes children accuse teachers of being unfair, picking on them, being prejudiced or a myriad of other questionable treatments.

So parents and teachers judge each other constantly, and the sources of their judgments are kids, often with a vested interest. Good kids want their parents and teachers to like each other. Troubled students want the opposite. Many children can, in their eyes, benefit from animosity between parents and teachers; and they play one against the other. This is a dysfunctional form of communication.

Problem 2: "Dumping"

The second problem is called "dumping." When ineffective, frustrated or angry teachers call parents about their child, they tend to "dump" the problem in the parents' lap. They tell what offense the child committed, and state that the parent must do something about it. This is no more effective than a parent calling a teacher about a problem at home and asking the teacher to fix it. Parents dumping on teachers is also common. They claim the teacher is responsible for a child's bad grades, bad behavior or bad attitude. They demand that the teacher must change. Parent dumping is growing, reaching dangerously high levels with less respect and belief in the professionalism of the teacher. When parents and teachers blame each other and make unreasonable demands, the one who suffers the most is the child. Blame creates no winners and lots of losers.

A Shared Goal

Parents and teachers have the same goal, and therein lies the remedy for these problems. Both want the best for the student. Removing the child from parent/teacher communication process can alleviate much of the communication dysfunction. I don't mean that children should be left out totally. There is certainly an important place for the child to be part of the process. But there is also a place for teachers and parents to build a relationship of their own. Both need to talk directly to each other.

How Teachers Can Help: The Three-Call Method

As early in the year as possible, teachers need to call as many parents on the phone as possible, hopefully all of them if their load is small enough. The purpose of the call is to welcome the parent into the learning community and to establish a positive communication line.

Here's an example of the type of call I suggest. "Hello, Mr. Curwin. I'm David's teacher. I just want you to know how happy I am to have David in my classroom this year, and to let you know that if any problems should occur, I'd be happy to talk with you so we can work together to make things better." The second call is to tell the parent something good the child has done. Stay away from superficials like dress and focus on behavior, improvement and quality of work. Only after these calls have been made should the teacher call about a problem; not before. In this way, parents and teachers have already established a trusting, workable relationship that significantly diminishes blaming.

How Parents Can Help: Communicate Proactively

Parents, too, can help communication. They can inform teachers of things happening at home that might affect student behavior; a pending divorce, serious illness, birth of a new baby, a change or addition of a medication, or a parent on an extended trip abroad are all examples of things that can help teachers. Children who strongly object to going to school, hate a certain subject, are being bullied or have too much homework are other helpful things to discuss with teachers.

Become a Team

Finally, stop dumping and blaming on both sides. These tactics help no one, make the other party defensive and prevents finding possible solutions. Say things like, "Since we both care so much about David, let's work together to find a way to improve things." Become a team, not adversaries. Share your perceptions honestly. Tell the other what works at home or in class and what doesn't. Work out a plan of action to try, and be flexible enough to change it if it doesn't help. Deflect accusations by not taking them personally. It's better to say, "I understand why you might feel that way, but what we really need to do is find some solutions that we both can agree to. I'd like to hear your ideas," than to say, "That's not true, and your son is not being truthful. I've never done that."

Setting up effective communication and forming a team are very powerful tools in helping children be successful in school. Children spend most of their time at home and in school. When teachers and parents are allies and teammates, their combined influence on children is very powerful indeed.

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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