As teachers, there are times when we must have difficult conversations with our students’ parents. There are two types of conversations that I believe to be the hardest. The first has to do with issues stemming from a student’s behavior within the school environment. The other conversation is the direct result of a concern for lack of academic progress a student is making. Each of these conversations can lead to even more difficult conversations.
Most schools offer parent-teacher conferences. However, the time given for said conferences isn’t always enough to discuss major concerns a teacher or a parent might have. At our school we have a Student Success Team (SST), for which I am the coordinator. The team is composed of the school principal, the teacher, the parents of the student, and myself. We also invite other staff members who might work directly with the student, such as our reading specialist, RSP teacher, or the English Language Development instructor. Together as a team we develop a plan of action to help the student be successful at school. Although most of our team meetings focus on academic progress, we do offer support for our teachers who have disruptive students. Often students’ class disruptions are a result of academic issues. It is often easier for a student to focus on being disruptive rather than doing assignments.
Although I have held the position of SST coordinator for almost ten years now, the conversations never get easier. No matter how many times I have had to have these meetings, telling a parent that their child’s behavior is less than desirable or that their child isn’t making the expected academic progress isn’t easy. No parent wants to hear that their child is disrupting the learning process for the other students, nor do they want to hear that their child isn’t making academic gains.
To begin our SST process, the teacher submits a referral for a meeting. Parents are notified and invited to attend. The teacher is asked to make personal contact with the parents before the meeting to further explain the nature of the meeting and encourage parents to come with questions and concerns. The key to having a successful meeting is getting the parents to attend and getting them to feel comfortable and supported. We never want a parent to feel as if we were attacking them. We need to show them that we truly care about their child and are genuinely concerned.
Our meeting starts with introductions followed by a statement of the general purpose for our gathering. We like to start off in a positive manner and focus on the students’ strengths. The strengths don’t necessarily have to be those of an academic nature. Often students have other talents such as an artistic ability, or perhaps they enjoy building with LEGO bricks, or playing a particular sport. It is important at this point in our meeting to show that we truly recognize the student’s individuality and particular interests.
Our next step is discussing the reason we have all been brought together. At this point, usually the teacher speaks first, voicing his or her greatest concerns. We ask the teacher to bring samples of the student’s work and any current data. Then our specialist(s), if present, report observations they have from working with the child. Sometimes parents will add their list of concerns as well. Most often the concern relates to reading. Frequently, the student is far below grade level, often lacking phonemic awareness, recognizing very few sight words, and showing an extremely low reading fluency score. The data presented at our meeting helps to express our concerns.
Although most of our meetings center on academic concerns, we occasionally meet in regards to students whose behavior is not only disruptive to their classmates, but a cause of their inability to make academic progress. Often parents will ask us if their child has ADD or ADHD. While, as teachers, we are not qualified to make such a diagnosis, we can suggest that they speak to their family doctor about their concerns. We inform them of the process in making that determination and what our role as a school is in the process. We also offer support for the families, such as referrals for parenting classes and counseling. There are often underlying reasons for a student’s misbehavior. Sometimes a student uses disruption as a strategy of avoiding difficult classwork. The more difficult school becomes, the more disruptive the child might be. It is a never-ending spiral.
Our meeting continues with information gathering. This can be as simple as learning that the child is supposed to wear glasses or has a history of ear infections that affects their hearing. If parents feel that they are in a safe, supportive environment, they will often share critical details with us. They might talk about their family history of learning disabilities, home issues such as homelessness, or in some cases, drug and alcohol use during their pregnancy. This part of our meeting can be crucial in forming our next steps to helping the student be successful. This is why it is imperative to make the parents feel comfortable and to stress that we are not there to judge; the purpose of our meeting is to help their child have a successful school experience.
After looking at what modifications have already been put in place, such as modified class work and homework, extra teacher support, peer tutoring, and access to other school-wide interventions, our next step is to look at what services the student has not yet received and what referrals, if any, should be made. Often it will be up to the parent to help with interventions at home such as spending extra time using flash cards or reading with their child. Other times parents might be given the responsibility of discussing concerns about ADD or ADHD with their family doctor or making an appointment with an optometrist. We then make a plan to re-meet once the new interventions have been in place for a set amount of time.
We also like the teacher to leave the meeting with some tools to take back to the classroom that can be implemented immediately. Although the book we use was designed to be a pre-referral handbook, it offers intervention strategies that can be easily implemented by the teacher for many common learning and behavior problems.
Meeting with the parents, and working together as a team, can be very productive. We learn a lot of valuable information that can often give us better insight into the child. Having this knowledge can then help us to serve and meet this child’s very specific needs.