Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York.
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut.
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas.
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina.
This is a general question: I always hear the phrase advocate for your child. Can you tell me more about this? From a teacher perspective, what are the most effective ways for parents to do this? How should parents toe the line between being pushy and “advocating”? Thanks.
—Hate Being Pushy, but Love My Kid
Dear Love My Kid,
What a good question. I find your signoff so poignant. I know that when I’m especially immersed in the demands of life and work, it can be easy to let my perspective drift from the fact that nearly all the interactions I have with parents—even, yes, the almightily annoying and pushy ones—are driven by the blunt, unquenchable force of parental love. In writing for this column, I’ve reflected more than ever on parent-teacher relationships and wondered how to ease the tension that sometimes feels inherent to them. Your signoff reminds me that I need to stay mindful of the disparity between our levels of investment: I’m talking about my student, but you’re talking about your child. The emotional stakes are, by nature, much higher for you, and that’s a scary, vulnerable position. So first of all, I think we teachers could be more sympathetic to the anxiety that is probably underlying the parent interactions that come off as overbearing.
But yes, there is a distinction between advocating appropriately and being That Parent. I’ll give you an example that, in my opinion, exemplifies all the hallmarks of pushy, misplaced intervention. Most high schools offer some sort of honor society that recognizes high-achieving students. These organizations, by design, are selective, with eligibility criteria and an admission system that factors in teachers’ perspectives on students’ character. Every year, prospective students are accepted or declined, and every year, like clockwork, the calls come from parents of students who were not admitted, requesting that the selection panel reconsider their decision. This advocacy tends to have the desired effect; in my experience, the student in question is very likely to be rereviewed and admitted if a parent intervenes, especially if that parent has been especially assertive and persistent. But is this the right moment for intervention? I don’t think so. Here’s what marks this as textbook “pushy parent” behavior:
• It lacks perspective. Honor societies can certainly be robust organizations that offer meaningful opportunities and enriching activities, and they’re a nice feather in the cap of students who are chosen. But consider the big picture. Kids who aren’t admitted to their school’s honor-society chapter are going to be absolutely fine in the long run. Similarly, kids who aren’t elected to the student council, or don’t make the basketball team, or earn a low grade on a single minor assignment, are going to be absolutely fine. Parents whom I consider “demanding” typically imbue these relatively low-stakes situations with an urgency that is out of proportion to—or totally unwarranted by—the facts.
• It might lack self-awareness. In lobbying for their children this way, parents can potentially also shield their children from the natural outcomes of their behavior and choices—which is not, in my opinion, a good thing. Rather than assuming that the decision is invalid and attempting to change it, could it benefit your kid just as much if you support them in reflecting honestly and learning to grow from tough feedback? Failure and rejection certainly don’t feel good, but they offer necessary learning experiences. I think it’s misguided when parents default to challenging any disappointing outcome.
• It’s a poor use of social capital. If your child is eligible to be considered for admission to an honor society, she is already excelling in school. If you feel confident and comfortable in pushing back against the honor society’s decision not to admit your child, then school is likely a place that already feels accommodating and accessible to you, where you have little to lose. The scales are already heavily tipped in your favor due to those factors alone. I have trouble being sympathetic when families who already benefit from many advantages both in and outside of the school environment work so vigilantly to secure even more. I understand the inclination to provide as much as you can for your child, but I don’t believe this degree of individualism is the purpose of public education. I wish parents would allocate some of that time and energy toward rallying for causes that would benefit all kids, like funding or improved programming or technology access, rather than eking out further opportunities to secure their kid’s position in the 99th percentile.
Mostly, I think it comes down to being realistic about what you want for your child at school versus what your child truly needs and rightfully deserves. There’s nothing wrong with advocating for both wants and needs in your kid’s educational career, but recognizing the distinction and engaging accordingly goes a really long way; go all in on genuine needs, but be judicious about the wants.
As for the most effective ways to advocate if you have a concern or idea that feels worth pressing, it’s always a good idea to start with the staff member most relevant and directly involved with the issue you’d like to discuss. Terms of your child’s IEP not being met? Go to the special education teacher of record. Worried about a culture of bullying on the school buses? I’d probably reach out to either the guidance counselor or the principal. Elementary homework load feeling excessive and burdensome? Talk to the classroom teacher. If it’s logistically possible, for a potentially sticky conversation, I would aim for an in-person meeting or a phone call, since email tone can be tough for everyone. I do think it helps to give a little heads-up message about what you’d like to discuss—we’re human, after all, and a totally mysterious and surprising meeting request does make most people feel a little wary or guarded—but unless it’s a very simple request, I wouldn’t try to hash much out that way. In terms of what to bring to the conversation, I tend to think less is more: a clear message, prioritized asks, and to-the-point rationale.
I’ve seen parents approach with folders brimming: research studies, news reports, pages of written requests with lengthy justifications. In doing so, the conversation starts feeling like a battle of knowledge and expertise, when it ideally should be a collaborative discussion. If you have a positive and productive interaction: great! If not, document it, decide whether you’d rather drop the concern or escalate it, and make your plan B.
I hope that helps! In your case, I’m willing to bet you’ll be fine—the parents who are typically the pushiest also tend to be, uh, the least concerned about whether they’re overstepping.
My fourth-grader has to have all of his tests, and most of his quizzes, signed by a parent. From my childhood I remember having to get tests signed if I had a bad grade, but the sheer volume of things needing signatures from me seems enormous. Am I just forgetting that my parents also signed tests with good grades? Or have teachers increased the number of items that require a parent signature? Is there evidence that it’s helpful to engage with the parents like this (or that we are losing our minds as a result)?
—Signing ALL the Tests
If you’re going to have papers signed, your child’s teacher is doing it the right way. If only bad grades needed to be signed, it would send your child a message that teachers and parents only pay attention to bad grades, and that excellent grades are irrelevant.
I’m sure your child’s teacher has the best of intentions. The teacher is ensuring that you remain informed about your child’s performance, and a certain level of home-school connection is very beneficial to your child. Plenty of parents very much want and even demand this level of awareness. I’ve dealt with parents who would be upset if they didn’t know about a failing score on a single spelling test.
That said, I agree with you. I think there is a lot to be said about allowing kids to manage their school life without the constant interference of parents. I think that school should be the place where your child becomes independent and learns to solve problems without the umbrella of parental guidance. A bad grade allows children to learn for themselves how to double down on the next task, ask the teacher if they can make up a test, or do some extra credit to improve the grade.
I’m not suggesting that parents remain wholly uninformed about their children’s progress at school, nor that teachers keep parents in the dark, but a balance is needed. Signing every single test, in my mind, is not balance.
My first-grade daughter is a sloth on weekday mornings. To get to school on time, we need to be in the car by 7:30 a.m. She usually wakes up between 6:15 and 6:30, so she has plenty of time to get ready. But somehow, she pushes us to race around at the last minute every day, even when we’ve all been ready to leave for 10 minutes.
It seems like she knows the power she wields by dragging her feet, “forgetting” a book in her room when the rest of us are in the car, or refusing multiple requests to brush her hair or put on her shoes. I don’t know what to do, especially when my husband is away, and I’m responsible for the entire morning routine. Threatening future loss of privileges doesn’t work. And I can’t send her immediately to her room because it would make my son late. What can we do to motivate her to pick up the pace?
Dear Sloth Mom,
As a teacher, I love written instructions. One strategy many parents find successful is a morning checklist. Print one from Pinterest and hang it in her bedroom or at the breakfast table. (If she’s not yet a strong reader, there are checklists with pictures.) You may need to spend the first week teaching her how to use it, so introduce it on the weekend and do a practice run. During the first week, do as much as you can the night before: Prepare lunches, lay out clothes, and pack the backpack. Over time, slowly release responsibility to her. How much time this takes will depend on your daughter. Choose wisely—you don’t want to set her up for failure by making the list too long or jumping in too quickly. Certainly, some first-graders can get themselves up and going with no help whatsoever. But others can’t, so be patient as you reflect on how independent she is.
A side note: Some of these charts also mention a reward at the end of the week for successfully completing the checklist. Rewarding good behavior is controversial. Reflect on whether you think a reward would indeed motivate her and whether rewards jibe with your parenting philosophy. You do you.
In addition to written instructions, I also love to read books about parenting. My personal favorite is How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk. The chapter on engaging cooperation has helpful tips for maintaining your patience and communicating effectively, even in the morning. And if my checklist idea bombs, read the chapter on family problem-solving.
You say she is aware of her power to slow the family down. Is it possible she’s dragging her feet to get your attention? For kids, negative attention is better than no attention. I am not suggesting that you’re ignoring her, but I have two kids of my own and know how hectic mornings can be. Maybe she needs a little time with you so she can start her day right?
My kids’ (private) school recently adopted detention for middle and high school students. Previously, students received “community duty” for minor issues. The new policy requires them to sit in a classroom at lunch and write a reflection on the broken rule—being out of uniform, for example. If a kid receives three detentions, they have to serve an in-school suspension. The policy was announced without a chance for community input, and our children report that certain faculty and staff members are very near gleeful about the policy and have been threatening students with detention for pretty much anything even slightly off the mark.
The way I understood current thinking on school discipline was that detention was a relic of a more punitive age and not terribly effective. I’m curious if I’m totally off the mark and detention is still in vogue or effective, or if this is as it appears—a fairly backward, one-size-fits-all way of dealing with a variety of discipline issues.
You’re right. Detention is a fairly backward, one-size-fits-all way of dealing with a variety of discipline issues. More progressive methods include guided reflection, restorative justice, and the “community duty” option you mentioned in your letter. I’ve found that, in most cases, a quick, sympathetic conversation with a student is more effective than sending her to the principal’s office.
The truth, however, is this: Because detention is a blunt instrument, it’s simple and, most importantly, cheap—at least in the short term. In education, as in many fields, long-term costs and benefits get short shrift. Rather than investing in lasting solutions, schools and school districts will often kick the can down the road until discipline issues are no longer under their purview.
So, what can you do? Start by inquiring with the school administration about why it made this change. Express your concerns about the new approach. Share data that shows that other methods seem to work better. And if administrators are open to it, ask how you could support the implementation of a different type of discipline.
If your school is open to changing this newly implemented policy, two things would need to happen. First, teachers would need to be trained on this new discipline policy. Teacher trainings tend to be long and expensive. Second, the perspective of the principals, the teachers, and the students must shift. Hopefully, the former will lead to the latter, but not necessarily. The administrators would need to create a space for this new approach to flourish, and that’s hard. Some (many?) teachers will resist, not because they believe that detention is the best method but because they’re tired. They’re overworked and underpaid. And sometimes they’re cynical. Often they’re asked to implement initiatives only to see them yanked within two calendar years when some lobbyist has persuaded a politician to sink a fortune into a new one. It’s impossible for new initiatives to succeed unless there’s buy-in from teachers. Students are usually more open to changes, especially when it means no more in-school suspension, but they would still need to be a part of the conversation.
Because your kid is in a private school, my guess is changing school policy would be much easier than in a regular public school district but that it would likely still take a lot of work. Are you willing to go to bat for it? Are you willing to attend those school-board meetings and PTA meetings, and broach the subject even when it’s uncomfortable? Change is possible, and it’ll be worth it. How badly do you want it?
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