Updated: Mar 11, 2020
I hear stories every day about how teachers and schools are, or are not, meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Mostly, these are stories about how children are not being supported enough or how a favorite teacher has left the school because they didn’t feel supported. This is often due to funding. Not having enough money to support all the necessary programs and positions is a reality for all public schools.
However, it’s not just a funding issue. I also hear from parents who feel left in the dark about what’s going on in their child’s classroom or they feel their child is being misunderstood. So, while funding helps, success is built on relationships, and relationships are free.
In my conversations with parents, once we weed through the feelings about concerns teachers have shared, the remaining factor is often trust. Does the parent trust the teacher? Without trust, simple every-day interactions can go one way or another. If you don’t hear from a teacher you trust, you think, “No news is good news! She will let me know if there is a concern.” In other words, you trust her judgement. If you don’t hear from a teacher you don’t trust, you think, “I’m frustrated he is not communicating with me! How do I know what my kid is learning?” If you are in this latter group, I am frustrated for you.
I am frustrated because from where I am sitting, I hear such vastly different stories. Why is every parent’s experience so different? How can we harness the good of what is working and share it with everyone?
This post is my tiny effort to do so. I’ll share my thoughts on the trusting parent-teacher relationship I have with my son’s elementary school, which has led to a partnership beyond what I could have imagined. I have also consulted several public educators whom I trust and have watched initiate, develop, and nurture relationships with parents. Perhaps something here can help you foster a partnership with your child’s teacher or speak to you as an educator about building stronger connections with parents.
My Perspective as a Parent
I have never been a teacher. I do not know what it feels like to make connections with 20-30 children at a time, plan a lesson that is only appropriate for a few and must be differentiated for others, and meet the expectations of the principal, the school district, and the IEP all at the same time. It is the hardest and most important job out there because it is the foundation for the future of our communities.
Yet, I have worked in public schools as a school psychologist and I have been in countless classrooms observing students and their interactions with their teachers. Call me your “fly on the wall.” Yet, once I had my own children, I was no longer the fly on the wall in their classrooms. I had to learn how to build relationships from the outside in.
One of my first interactions with my son’s preschool teachers was when they shared their concerns about him. At this moment, a parent’s reaction goes one of two ways: If you trust this teacher, you believe her and you work together figuring out how to best support your child. However, if you don’t trust this teacher, you question her, rationalize why she might be wrong, and your child doesn’t get support (at least not as fast as he would in the first scenario).
Now, many years later, I believe my partnership with my son’s elementary school has been a key factor in his success. I want parents and teachers to know that this trusting relationship is possible. Here’s how it happened for us.
In order for parents to trust teachers and school staff, we must first know them, just like any other relationship in our lives. If your only interaction with teachers is when something is wrong, this will not build a trusting partnership.
So, how can you show up? You could give your time, money, or donated supplies, but show that you are in support of the job teachers are doing for all students. I am of the mindset that for every parent who volunteers, there are five or so more parents who cannot volunteer due to working multiple jobs or having young children at home. So be present, not only for your child, but for those children as well. Be a classroom helper, be a field trip chaperone, and join the PTA. Some of my strongest relationships with teachers and administrators were built through interactions I’ve had during PTA meetings and events.
When you present yourself as helpful and collaborative in one school setting, teachers understand that you will likely be helpful and collaborative in your child’s IEP meeting too. They will be appreciative of your time and they will trust you. You will also see them in action with your child and this will build your trust in them as well.
Communicate (with boundaries!)
Don’t let the only time for communication with teachers be in the carpool line. No one can build a trusting relationship there. Establish the best way for teachers to contact you and ask for teachers’ preferences for being contacted. Try not to communicate when you are anxious or angry. Use the tried and true method of “write it, but don’t send it.” Sleep on it and have your partner or a friend look it over. If you wouldn’t say it to a co-worker, don’t say it to a teacher. It’s a collaborative partnership and the project is your child. So, don’t let your emotions hijack the project.
“When a parent comes across as accusatory when you express a concern or share data, it makes me more hesitant to reach out.” – Special Education Teacher
I know you might want to go into meetings with "guns blazing.” But, have you ever wanted to collaborate with someone who is angry with you? If teachers are walking on egg shells around a parent due to previous interactions, they may not share as much information with you as you would get through a trusting relationship. When teachers can predict that you’ll be collaborative, they will look forward to sharing information with you, which will equate to solving problems faster and more effectively for your child.
Some parents are triggered by interactions with teachers because they are reminded about negative experiences from their own schooling. As parents, we must remember: This is my child’s path. What does my child need? They need for me to be open and available to communicate with their teacher. They also need us to advocate for them if something isn’t in their best interest. One day soon they will advocate for themselves and we are their role model. They are watching how we interact with others, and how we build relationships matters. If working collaboratively with teachers is difficult for you due to your own past experiences, seek support for yourself so that you can show up for your child.
“Parents are parenting to the extent they know how to. When everyone knows more, we all do better and are more effective. Parents, keep sending your child to school on time and support academic and behavior growth. Let's grow as a community to be more effective.” – Special Education Teacher
The More Information the Better
This is a big one. In my work with children with disabilities, parents are scared that their child will be wrongly labeled or judged based on a previous evaluation report or the opinion of a previous teacher. In my experience, more information is best and without it, teachers may not understand your child as well as they could. Read more here about why a diagnosis is (and isn't) so important.
“It truly takes a team and when parents and teachers are on the same page and work together, that creates much more success! I would say it is helpful when parents share information in the beginning of the year about their child. Parents know their kids best and when I can come in with some awareness around what the student likes, what his/her strengths are, and what some of the challenges are, it can help me get off to a good start.” – Special Education Teacher
“I believe parents first trust us by sending their students to us, believing that we will do all we can to help students grow throughout the year. It is always helpful for parents to share information that they feel might impact their child while learning in school. That ranges from expecting a new baby, a relative moving in, a change in job, change in family dynamics, inconsistent bed time routines etc.” – Assistant Principal
So, start off the school year with an email to all teachers about getting to know your child. You are the expert! Tell them what works, what doesn’t work, what to look for, and position yourself as a supportive and available partner in this journey.
Why It’s All About the Administration
At the end of the day, in my opinion, the cornerstone of a trusting relationship with your child’s school team is the principal and assistant principal. The principal does the hiring, sets the climate of the school, and is a role model for teachers. Like any job, when staff feels supported, they want to give their best. Schools earn reputations for having great teachers and for being a great place to work, just like any other company.
“I work really hard to establish trusting relationships. In my role, those relationships only get stronger from year to year. I think the parent-teacher trust is more difficult to build because of the yearly changes…some turnover is good and I wish that was reflected. We always encourage our staff to pursue positions that speak to them or will help them continue to grow. I wish the public knew why people left because that also speaks to the opportunities we provide for our staff.” – Assistant Principal
When teachers work in an environment where they are encouraged to grow and trust each other, collaboration is fostered not only with other teachers, but with parents and students.
What If Trust is Broken?
So, what if you don’t trust a teacher? First, ask yourself why not? Have you had a negative interaction? Are they not a good fit for your child? Once you have had enough interactions to be sure whether or not you trust a teacher’s skills and judgement, what if you don’t?
Most concerns can be solved by holding a teacher conference. However, if you are not feeling heard, it’s time to talk to school administration. Perhaps the teacher needs support from the principal to explain why the school can’t provide what you are asking for, perhaps the teacher needs more training, or maybe there is a pattern in the classroom you think the principal should know about.
In this moment, it is vital that you have gotten involved at school so that you feel comfortable talking to administration. So many parents I work with say, “I don’t want to go over the teacher’s head” or “I’m scared to talk to the principal.” In my experience, principals want to know when teachers are struggling just like we want to know when our children are struggling. If you have a concern about a teacher, it’s the principal who knows all that might be at play in the situation, even if they can’t tell you every detail. Be a collaborative partner who is open to hearing and giving feedback so that problems can be solved and progress can be made.
Like any collaborative relationship, there will be problems to solve and, at times, there will be conflict. We can weather the conflict and build a path to success if the foundation is built on a trusting partnership. You've got this!
**All content provided is protected under applicable copyright, patent, trademark, and other proprietary rights. All content is provided for informational and education purposes only. No content is intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological diagnosis, advice or treatment. Information provided does not create an agreement for service between Dr. Emily W. King and the recipient. Consult your physician regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to you or your child's symptoms or medical condition. Children or adults who show signs of dangerous behavior toward themselves and/or others, should be placed immediately under the care of a qualified professional.**