Care and Feeding

What’s the Best Way to Support My Child’s Teacher?

A teacher in front of her class.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

My twins are starting Kindergarten soon. As a parent new to “big kid school,” I am wondering: how do I forge good relationships with their elementary school teachers? What qualities, questions, practices do teachers appreciate from a parent? In other words, what do teachers want from a parent?

—(Parent) Teacher’s Pet

Dear Teacher’s Pet,

Here are three simple things to forge a positive partnership with teachers and help them feel supported:

1.  Offer words of thanks whenever possible. Teaching is a solitary business, so positive feedback from parents can mean the world to a teacher. Even better than offering a kind word, write something and send it to the principal and superintendent, too. Not only will this potentially benefit their career, but written words are permanent, meaning that your note can be saved and returned to when needed.

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2.  Assume positive intentions. If you question or disagree with a teacher’s decision or judgement, approach the teacher with the understanding that they almost always make decisions based upon what they believe is best for your child. Remarkably, your child’s teacher almost certainly loves your child, especially in elementary school where teachers spent all day long with your kid. You can disagree with a teacher’s decision, of course, but always approach the situation with patience, grace, and a willingness to listen.

3.  Ask the teacher how you can best support them. Sometimes a teacher is in desperate need of parent volunteers. Other times a teacher might need supplies that their administrators have unethically failed to provide. Maybe chaperones for upcoming field trips are hard to find. If it’s within your capacity, allow the teacher to suggest the best means of support. Every teacher is different, and as a result, their needs are also very different. Asking them what would best assist them can mean a lot.

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Of course, having your child to school on time, remaining alert to teacher communication, and ensuring that your child knows about how much you support the school, their teacher, and education in general can also go a long way to helping the school year run well.

Thank you for the question. Just asking it means a lot to teacher, too. We work hard each and every day and especially in today’s world often feel attacked and underappreciated for our efforts. Parents like yourself can really make a difference.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My 8-year-old son was diagnosed with ADHD and for the most part we are making a lot of progress with his schoolwork. We struggled with reading in second grade last year, but towards the end of the year, with a lot of help from a new teacher, he started to devour words and simple books. He now is eager to sound out words and read signs and pick out books at the library and bookstore to read. I am impressed with how far he has come. His end-of-the-year testing showed that he went from a kindergarten level to a late second grade level in his reading skills.

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Here is our trouble: His phonetic skills have advanced beyond the early readers, and I think that he is ready for some simple chapter books or even the Level 2 and 3 books. However, he becomes overwhelmed even looking at the pages of those books because of the amount of words on the pages. This is common for him. Part of his IEP at school is that he is not given worksheets with rows and rows of math problems or words to copy. His ADHD brain just immediately gets overwhelmed, and he shuts down. To date, we have just gone through the books slowly, but it is a struggle and he is resistant, shuts down, and reading time has become a fight again. So we are back to the more simple books.

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I have searched the internet for books for kids with ADHD that are more complex or advanced but that don’t have so many words on the page. We have tried large print chapter books, but they haven’t quite worked out. There are still a lot of words on the page and the books are still really thick. He has fallen in love with Henry Winkler’s Hank Zipzer’s series, but we only listen to those as an audiobook as the actual books are too long for him to read to himself or out loud to me. I’ve tried a couple of graphic novels (Dog Man) but he didn’t seem too into them. I’m not sure if there was too much going on in the pages for his brain.

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Are there any books out there written specifically with the ADHD brain in mind? Something that is more challenging than Level 1 books that won’t seem so overwhelming when he looks at the page? Or is there anything I can try to get him past feeling so anxious when he initially turns the page and sees so many words?

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—Our Struggle is Real

Dear Struggle,

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I suggest a multi-pronged approach here. First, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, talk to his teachers. In particular, the new teacher who helped him make these gains. She may have insight as to exactly which books are a good fit for him, based on his independent reading level and his specific strengths and weaknesses. She may also have suggestions for some accommodations that can help him tackle a seemingly full page (more on that in a moment). Two students can be reading on an end-of-second grade level and have wildly different profiles, and two readers with ADHD may have wildly different challenges in reading, so this teacher’s advice will be more pointed than mine.

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Second is to continue with audiobooks. A lot of us have this bias that reading audiobooks isn’t “really” reading, but at his age, it is still beneficial. As a general rule, in elementary school, any exposure to text in any form (listening, reading, whatever) is a plus. Decoding skills and stamina are skills his teachers can build with him during the school day, but love of reading is more ephemeral. If you can maintain his interest in books, that’s a huge boon! For bonus skill-building, you can always borrow the book in physical form as well and have him “read along” with the audiobook. That, too, can help ease his anxiousness looking at the full page. After all, he will see that he can follow along and understand text with this many words (maybe even decode at the same speed as the audio book) without the pressure to do so. It may build his confidence a little so that when he approaches a fuller text on his own, he feels like he can tackle it.

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Lastly there are accommodations you can try! (His teacher, who knows his needs better than I, can give you more targeted suggestions.) My first instinct is a guided reading strip. They’re marketed for learners with dyslexia but they can help anyone who has a hard time tracking where they are on a page. For a reader with ADHD, it may ease his stress because it draws his attention away from the whole page (which looks overwhelming) and to a specific line of text (which is more manageable). Something like this can limit the amount of text he sees the same way you limit the rows of math problems. These can be used either when he is reading aloud or following along with an audio book to help maintain his focus.

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Above all else, though, I would recommend not stressing him too much. Let him choose books that interest him and find a way to support him reading them, using whatever format makes the most sense. Reading should be a source of joy, and it’s your job to help him find and hold on to that joy, rather than stress about whether he’s reading the “right” level books.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

Is there anything parents can or should do to help kids be ready for kindergarten, emotionally or mentally? (We already have a pretty solid bedtime routine.) Our twins are starting at a Spanish language immersion, and I know it’s a huge transition. I want them to love school!

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—Nerd Mama

Hey There NM,

I think it’s awesome you’re trying to start your kiddos off on the best foot possible for kindergarten! There are lots of things you can do to prepare them for what will indeed be a huge transition. First, I’d sit down with them and ask them what they think school will be like and ask if they have any questions or worries. Maybe they’re worried about having to sit down and work for long periods of time, or perhaps they’re nervous about making new friends. Getting an understanding of what’s on their mind as they prepare to enter kindergarten will help you keep an eye out for potential challenges.

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Next, I’d check in on their knowledge of numbers and letters in both Spanish and English if possible. Depending on if they’ve had a year or two of preschool this may be less relevant. However, if they are starting from scratch practicing counting from 1-20 and knowing their alphabet and letter sounds will likely place them a little ahead of their classmates and make their first few weeks a bit less challenging. Since they’ll be attending an immersion program, practicing in both languages, and comparing the different names and sounds of the numbers and letters, would also be helpful.

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You could also reach out to their teacher or school to get an idea of what their daily schedule will be like. Knowing when their lunch and potential nap times at school would allow you to align those times at home. This will help prepare their bodies for the more stringent schedule and prevent them from being hungry in class which could negatively impact their focus and behavior.

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Lastly, take the same approach to playtime as you’ve done with bedtime. Having dedicated decompression and free play time immediately after school will allow your children to unwind as they adjust to their new schedule and learning environment. I’d also use this as an opportunity to check in with them daily about how school is going and learn about what they’re learning, who they’re meeting, and how the experience is going overall.

—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

My husband and I both have to be at work very early. This school year our son could go to public kindergarten, but they start late. What do you think about a kindergartener who needs to be in before care for nearly two hours before school starts. We don’t have any family available that early who can help, and there’s not another family my son could spend mornings with. I’m feeling like that’s our only option. What are your thoughts?

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—Early Bird, Tired Bird

Dear EBTB,

I think a lot of it depends on the type and level of care that your son will be receiving. If the facility is well run and provides your son with excellent care, then it can work quite well. I have always believed that children benefit enormously from the addition of outstanding adults in their lives, so view this is an opportunity to add to the team of grown-ups who your son can love and depend upon.

My own children have enjoyed the company of childcare workers who come into our home before and after school while my wife and I are teaching. These people have become in many ways a part of our family, and our children have benefited from their support, wisdom, and friendship.

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Of course, this will make the day quite long for your son, especially in the beginning of the year when he’s transitioning to a more formal school setting, but before-school childcare workers ideally understand this reality and will afford your son a level of engagement and activity appropriate for his day ahead.

Be sure to ask these kinds of questions when choosing your childcare arrangement. Be picky. Ask for references. Leave no stone unturned. As long as your son’s prospective childcare workers understand how to meet the needs of your son, I think he can benefit greatly from the opportunity.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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