Parents and teachers should collaborate to help a child with a learning difficulty

Effective parent - teacher communication is key to helping children who struggle in school.

Padma Shastry

The teacher and parents are the adults that have the closest connection with children under their care. They have the greatest impact on the child’s life and education. A strong and cooperative relationship between parent and teacher would be ideal for a student to blossom.

However, when a student experiences difficulties in school, this relationship is tested. These difficulties might be academic, medical, social or behavioural in nature. It usually falls to the teacher to navigate the situation gingerly. One scenario might be that the teacher approaches a parent with the student’s issue, and the parent becomes defensive. Another might be that the parent gets aggressive or accusing, and the teacher becomes defensive. Neither of these is helpful in resolving the situation.

For parents, it is traumatic to hear that their child is falling short of their high standards. They need time to process this new information. So it is unrealistic for teachers to expect that parents will accept what’s being told with equanimity and help the teacher to deal with it.

The grieving process

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist who studied the grief process and defined the five stages of grief. When parents first learn of their child’s medical, academic, behavioural or other difficulty, they go through a process of grief. This is the grief resulting from the loss of their dream for an ideal life for their child. This can be deep and takes time to come to terms with. It cannot be rushed. Everyone needs their own time to process the negative information.

Here are the five stages of grief that Kubler-Ross described.

  1. Denial: The first instinct when we hear anything undesirable is to deny it. “There’s no problem. It’s not an issue.” Parents might disregard, minimize or try to find an alternate explanation for the problem when they are first told about it. A parent at my old school explained that his child was a ‘spirited’ child when told of his behaviour issues. A mother whose child was biting others, reasoned that it was the other children’s fault for provoking her child.
  2. Anger: As complaints from teachers continue to mount, denial changes to anger: “My child is not the problem. The teachers and school don’t know how to deal with my child.” This is something I have actually heard from parents. Anger may even be directed at god. To some extent, the fact that a problem exists is acknowledged at this stage. 
  3. Bargaining: This is capitulation. “If you keep my child in class/school, I will do whatever is necessary at home to make this work. I’ll arrange for tuitions, etc…” Bargaining with god is also seen, in the form of pilgrimages and promises. There is a greater degree of acceptance at this stage.
  4. : This is the stage that is hardest for parents as they finally admit that there is a problem. However, this is passive acceptance. “The sky has fallen on my head” or similar thoughts that make them feel helpless and powerless; the loss of their perfect dream for their child. They are unable to see the options available to make a different version of that dream happen. During this stage, they do not fully engage or participate in their child’s education.
  5. Acceptance: This is when parents finally accept that there is a problem, and actively participate with the teacher. They become the teacher’s ally in making the best choices for their child’s progress.

This process happens on a different timeline for every family. There is no set timetable for a parent to reach the stage of acceptance.

I had a student with Down’s- which is a congenital condition - in middle school. His mother resorted to litigation in order to keep her child in the mainstream school. He was clearly unable to cope with middle-school-level academics, yet his mother was adamant. She was still at Stage 2 of the grieving process, 13 years after being faced with her son’s condition.

Even within the same family, the husband and wife may deal with it differently. Just last week, I met a child whose father seemed curious about how to help his son, and talked to me on the phone and in person with a lot of questions about his son. He told me that his wife was still angry with her fate and wondered why God had done this to them. Clearly he was at the acceptance stage, while his wife was in the anger stage.

It is also possible that parents are not knowledgeable enough or feel helpless about how to help their child. They might try to disengage completely and hand over all control to teachers and doctors. I have had parents like this as well. When I asked one particular parent about her child’s homework routine, she replied I was supposed to teach her child, not the parents. She told me that’s why she sent her child to school! So no homework for him!

It is important for teachers to remember that they should not take parents’ comments or emotions personally. It is usually not directed at them; it is the parent’s way of going through the process. One parent brought her daughter back after an extended overseas family trip. The student had missed a significant amount of syllabus. When I told her that her daughter would have to do extra work to catch up in the next few weeks, she told me it was my responsibility and she couldn’t help with homework or afterschool study. She said it was my job!

Parents are highly emotionally tied to their children. Teachers, on the other hand, have the advantage of being able to be objective. They can view the situation purely from the viewpoint of facts. But parents do not have this mind set at the start of the process. It would behoove teachers to have patience while parents wend their way through their emotions.

I’ve had parents ask me why their child wasn’t reading like other kids, and when he would be able to read. It is very hard to explain to such parents that the same benchmarks cannot be applied to their child.

While waiting for parents to accept the situation feels like a kindness towards them, teachers get anxious about waiting to get help for the child. Precious time is lost in the process of acceptance, and teachers might want to push the issue. This has to be handled gently and with compassion towards the parents’ feelings. It is a perfectly valid point that the child has to be assessed and interventions started as early as possible in order to minimize worsening of the problem. However valid it may be though, teachers definitely cannot bypass the parents and their emotions along the way. It would not help the cause of the student if parents and teachers got into an antagonistic relationship.

Here are some tips for teachers to talk to parents:

  • Talk to parents in a quiet, private place.
  • Keep a pleasant welcoming demeanour.
  • Do not stop after explaining the problem. Have some solutions ready as well. Give them some resources, informational pamphlets, names of support personnel, and most importantly, a filled out referral form explaining the situation that parents can take to their resource person.
  • Do not introduce your emotions into the conversation. Be as objective as possible.
  • State the facts (behaviours, concerns, etc) in a neutral manner, without judgement.
  • Use specifics in the conversation, without editorializing or exaggerating. Say, “Student asks to go the bathroom three times every period.” instead of “His constant interruptions drive me crazy.”
  • Listen to the parents and if possible, try to implement some of their ideas in your classes.
  • Have an agenda for the meeting and take meeting notes. Identify action items that you and the parents plan to work on before your next meeting. Set a date for a follow-up meeting. (These kinds of problems rarely get resolved in one meeting; meeting notes are a way of maintaining continuity between all personnel who are involved with the student)
  • Keep talking to the parents gently even if they seem resistant. Do not give up.
  • Remember, parents have the best interests of their child at heart, and are the greatest influence on the child. They are your allies in the education of the child.

Padma Shastry is a Special Educator and currently the Director of Samam Vidya, Bangalore.

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