By Lisa Woodward
Parent-teacher conferences are coming up soon. Even though the month of October is filled with holidays, and the kids have only been in school for several short weeks, the teachers are ready to talk to you about your children.
And parent-teacher conferences can be a lovely experience at Jewish day schools. Elaborate spreads of snacks, beautiful classwork hung on the walls, friendly faces — nothing but the best, right?
Right, if your child is doing well, but not so lovely if the teacher starts with the obligatory positive comments (she’s so sweet, or he tries so hard), and then moves on to tell you things about your child that you really don’t want to hear.
For example, that your child gets frustrated, loses focus or is easily distracted. What if your child has an undiagnosed learning difference? What if he has frequent meltdowns when he is frustrated? What if she loses focus easily?
As my former principal tells every teacher, there should be no surprises at parent-teacher conferences. You should have been contacted by your child’s teacher when any problem first arose. Of course, this doesn’t take away the sting or the feeling in your gut when you walk into the classroom for those conferences.
If your 8-year-old son, Benny, tore up his math homework paper last night, threw it in the trash and ran up the stairs to his bedroom, you are worried. If he yelled at you and screamed that he hates everybody, and that school is “stupid,” you are more worried. If he slammed his door and refused to eat dinner, and he has these meltdowns often, you are even more tense as you enter the conference.
If your daughter, Sarah, dreads the nightly 20 minutes of reading, and cries bitterly when you tell her that she has to read with you, you hope that she’s just “tired.” When she tells you that the book that the teacher sent home is too “easy and babyish,” and that she wants to read the book that her best friend is reading, you relent. But when you see her eyes watering and her voice quivering, you know that she’s seeing the letters and words “jumping around on the page,” and she’s struggling to read them.
Maybe you already know or suspect that your child has a learning difference or an issue with attention or executive functioning, or that she may have a form of autism, but you don’t want to discuss it with the teacher. During parent-teacher conferences, there are parents walking in and out of classrooms throughout the school, and so many appear to be smiling, making play dates and party plans for their kids, and travel plans with other families. No one approaches you, and you feel like you have a sign on your forehead that says, “My kid is not as good as yours.” Maybe your dreams for your child’s future are diminishing as each day goes by.
However, the good news is that you are understanding that your child may have some challenges at school, and the teacher probably understands this as well.
And the teachers are there to help, to offer suggestions, to point you in the right direction. Your child may need support in order to create an educational “level playing field” so that you can rediscover those hopes and dreams and your child can rediscover his or her self-confidence.
The following tips will get you started on this path.
Speak openly and honestly with your child’s teacher. The teacher spends up to eight hours per day interacting with your child. She knows your child. She will talk about challenges and strengths. Hear her when she says that your son is demonstrating difficulties with math facts that other second graders breeze through. Hear her when she tells you that your little guy doesn’t seem to focus or to process when presented with sounds and letters. Tell her about what happens at home — about frustrations, meltdowns and other behaviors.
Make sure that you’ve done your parent homework. Ask about how the teacher teaches reading or math. Ask about how the teacher deals with unacceptable behavior. Ask about positive reinforcement. Ask about learning styles, and how she differentiates instruction for the unique needs of each child.
Take notes. If both parents can’t attend, make sure you have all of the information to discuss later.
Contact the school’s learning coordinator or school psychologist to set up a meeting with all relevant teachers and administrators. Ask about learning plans and goals, and about all of the support options available at the school (small group support, one-on-one support, referrals for outside support, etc.).
Know that you are all on the same team — your child’s team. And understand that the earlier that you begin any support or intervention, the better it will be for your child.
The parent-teacher conference can be the best forum to begin discussing a plan for your child, a plan that will result in a successful year for your child. And what can be better than that?
Lisa Woodward is the educational director of OROT, the special needs initiative in Philadelphia Jewish day schools.