Parent-Teacher Cooperation

Talking With Your Child’s Teacher

Tips for communicating with your child’s school.

View of parent and teacher meeting about school accommodations for ADHD children
View of parent and teacher meeting about school accommodations for ADHD children

Admit it: when you were a kid, being sent to the principal’s office was one of your biggest fears. For some parents of children with ADHD, it still is one of our biggest fears.

Having to talk to teachers (or counselors, principal, or disciplinary officers, etc.) is part of having a child with ADHD. Often, these conversations can become angry discussions about what is best for the child and whose responsibility it is to meet those needs. Teachers may not realize the full impact of the child’s ADHD. Parents are sometimes reluctant to push their children. The parent who has watched their child struggle may think that the teacher’s expectations are unrealistic; the teacher sees a bright, if somewhat unmotivated, kid and may think that the parent’s expectations are too low.

Unfortunately, Goldilocks isn’t around to tell us which perspective is “just right.” (Besides, Goldilocks has some behavioral issues of her own, with habits like trespassing, destruction of personal property, stealing food and sleeping in strange beds. This is clearly not an example we wish our children to follow.) As with most truth, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Gaining Some Perspective

Educational Consultant Ann Welch offers some perspective on getting perspective. “If you are a parent, close your eyes and think of your child on his or her worst day. Now, imagine dealing with 25 other children at the same time. This is the life of the teacher.” Parents may feel inclined to send sympathy cards to the school after completing such an exercise. Teachers, too, need to be more empathetic. “If you are a teacher,” says Welch, “close your eyes and imagine a child you teach on his or her worst day. Now, imagine taking that child home with you every day. This is the life of the parent.”

Most adults attended school at one time or another, which means that most parents are former students who have their own perspective about what should happen in a classroom. But this is a student perspective, and unless you’re a parent who happens to currently be enrolled in high school, it is from the viewpoint of someone who attended school many years ago. The teacher standing in front of the classroom today may have a vastly different perspective about learning and classroom expectations.

Likewise, the teacher has probably read about ADHD or studied it somewhere. But, unless they are an adult with their own ADHD issues, they haven’t lived with it. Their “theoretical model” probably isn’t complete.

Communicating Across the Desk

Be positive.
Welch recommends starting the conversation with something positive, even if it means “reframing” something that is a real problem. “If a teacher resists making accommodations,” she says, “I praise his high standards and say how glad I am that he expects the student with ADHD to reach them, too.” Starting with a compliment does not fix the problem, but it may make it easier to talk about how problems might be solved.

Mary Fowler, a teacher and author of Maybe You Know My Son, also stresses the importance of being positive and remaining in control of your emotions. “If you come into a meeting bubbling over with anger, it hurts your credibility,” says Fowler. “The teacher is more likely at that point to view the problem as something coming from home rather than the classroom.”

Ask questions.
Asking questions shows that you are trying to understand the other person’s perspective. It also helps to focus the discussion towards real solutions. Be specific: “Does Matthew seem to behave worse in the mornings or in the afternoons?” “What does Lisa do when you ask her a question in class?”

Use reflective listening.
Show the teacher that you are capable of listening even if your child isn’t. This may be hard if you have ADHD, but it can be done by doing something as simple as repeating part of what the other person said in your response:

Teacher: Johnny picked up the class snake and tried to tie it in a knot today. It was quite upsetting to the other students.

Parent: I know it’s frustrating when Johnny is unintentionally rough with the class pet. We’ve talked with him about being gentle with our cat at home.”

This shows that you are listening, establishes a rapport with the teacher, and tells her know that you have noticed these same behaviors. You will be more successful with this person if you can establish some common ground.

Stay on topic.
This is not the time to launch into a full history of your family or a scientific explanation of ADHD. Talk about your child, the specific problems that your child is having, and how these problems might be addressed.

Work towards a solution.
Most problems have more than one solution. Often, the final solution will require several strategies. Offer suggestions that have worked in the past or that you think may be helpful now. Listen to suggestions offered by the teacher. Try to find some way to fix the problem that everyone can live with.

Most teachers want do a good job. But, sometimes parents and teachers reach an impasse. Often when this happens, it’s because the teacher doesn’t understand ADHD. You can try to educate this person, but that may just cause more frustration. You may want to seek out help from the school administration or guidance staff. Apply the same approach to these meetings as you would with the teacher conference by being positive, using reflective listening, and working together towards a solution.

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