The school-home connection is vital to a child's academic and social success. But while we hear a good deal about how to build a strong, trusting relationship with teachers, what about all the other professionals at school? Do you even know who they are — and what resources they can provide to you and your child?
Good middle schools offer a roster of pros — from guidance and drug-abuse counselors to psychologists and learning specialists — who can help with problems inside as well as outside of school, though some may only be part-time since they must serve several schools within one district. To get to know these professionals and mobilize the school’s resources on behalf of your child:
- Introduce yourself. At the beginning of the year, make a point of meeting your child's homeroom teacher or academic advisor. Ask if she prefers to be contacted via e-mail or phone. If so, what time is best?
- Follow the rules. Every school has its own hierarchy and procedures, so be sensitive to the chain of command. Contact your child's advisor first. She's there to handle day-to-day concerns such as scheduling, conflicts with teachers or other children, and ongoing learning issues.
- Make it short and sweet. When you are specific and ask for guidance — calmly and respectfully — you invite openness instead of hostility. You might say, "Jason's been having trouble with reading comprehension. Can we speak on the phone for a few minutes, at your convenience, about what to do? Perhaps you can suggest things we can work on at home, or introduce us to the reading specialist."
- Make regular appearances. School officials are more likely to pay attention to your concerns — and your child — if they know you're the kind of parent who is involved in her child's education.
- Be upfront with your child. A middle schooler, already anxious about having you too involved in school, may feel betrayed if a friend tells him she saw your mother talking to the principal when he had no clue about the meeting. You can say to your child, "I'm noticing that you're having trouble with algebra. We could work on it together, but I bet it would be more helpful to consult someone at school. They really know the inside scoop. I'd rather just be your mom."
- Speak to other parents. By all means network with other parents, be they classroom volunteers or fellow PTA members. Hearing that other children are having the same problems, or how someone in the past resolved a similar issue, can put your child's dilemma into perspective and spark ideas of what to do next.
- Guidance counselors may be social workers, psychologists, or simply experienced teachers who have moved out of the classroom to focus on coordinating school-wide personal, social, and academic programs. Ideally, they have been certified or licensed with training in school counseling. They can give you information about curricula, discuss which teachers and teaching style are best for your child, or direct you to outside specialists. Toward the end of middle school, they can suggest appropriate high school courses as well devise college or career plans. If your child is having peer problems or if there is a divorce, death, or serious illness in the family, the guidance counselor can be the sounding board your child needs (or direct you to someone else who can be).
- Learning specialists (sometimes called resource-room teachers) usually have advanced degrees and certifications. They may assess students, meet with kids to provide one-on-one remedial instruction, or work with classroom teachers to provide group support (either in the classroom or with a small number of students in the resource room). Reading specialists (or reading coaches) may also team-teach or provide mini-lessons for the whole class to boost research and library skills, paragraph development, and so on.
- Speech and language pathologists work with children who trip over words or have trouble paying attention because faulty wiring in their brains prevents them from taking in, processing, or speaking the words or sounds they hear. These specialists work with kids individually or in small groups to develop social skills and enhance conversation, phonetic awareness, and vocabulary.
- Occupational therapists help kids who need to improve fine-motor skills, such as handwriting or using the computer.