As a child and family counselor, I have met with parents and teachers in nearly every school in Whatcom County. Not long ago, I was at an elementary school for a midday meeting, which was unusual because most of these meetings happen either before or after school. I saw a group of first-graders following their teacher as she walked backward down the hall on their way to their classroom. I could see how hard it was for many of them to stay in line and walk slowly.
"Use your inside voices," the teacher reminded them. They were all so squirmy and giggly, like 27 puppies learning this nearly impossible new skill. I remember thinking how exciting school can be when you are young.
But school is also hard work; children sometimes struggle academically or find it hard to fit in. Some parents have never seen the side of school I saw that day, a school alive with children. They walk through empty halls to an after-school meeting to hear more bad news: their child is in trouble - again.
At the meeting, there might be seven school personnel sitting around a big table: the teacher, the principal, the special ed teacher, the in-class aide, the occupational therapist, the speech therapist and the school psychologist. It can be intimidating and it can bring back memories to parents of their own school struggles. When the meeting is done, most parents will not remember all the positive things said about their kid. Instead they will remember the negatives - why their son or daughter has become a "problem child." It's hard not to be discouraged. Academic or behavioral problems can set off a cascade of failure after failure. Parents can become frustrated and resentful. They might begin to disengage from school. Twenty-two percent of students in Whatcom County give up and fail to graduate from high school.
My message to parents: Don't give up on your kid and don't give up on school. You can be an effective advocate for your child. Here are three ideas on how to cope.
To prepare for a school meeting, write down any important questions you want addressed. Bring a notebook, plus copies of reports and evaluations. You can also write a "Focus of Concern" letter asking the school to begin an evaluation process that may qualify your child for extra help. It is OK to ask for help. Nationally, less than half the children with learning disabilities actually receive extra services of any kind.
There are several parent and student right's handbooks available online to help you prepare. (See the resource list below for information about parental and student rights, including a sample letter requesting an evaluation.)
It's important to understand why a student is struggling, because the explanation drives the intervention. But if the parent and school do not agree on the explanation, it can be a source of friction. That often happens because teachers and parents think about learning and classrooms from different perspectives.
I encourage parents to read Ross Greene's "Lost at School." Greene makes two important assertions: First, that all kids are perfectly motivated to succeed and second, that kids do well if they can.
Instead of judgmental words like "manipulative," "oppositional" or "unmotivated," Greene puts the focus on "lagging skills," such as "difficulty making transitions," "poor sense of time" and "difficulty with interpreting social cues." If parents and teachers can develop a shared language, without making excuses and laying blame, they can focus on what needs to be done.
Love your school
Catholic Community Services provides therapists to counsel kids at more than 10 schools throughout Whatcom County. We are not school counselors; we are school-based family therapists. Sessions happen during the school day and we invite every parent to be part of every session if they can.
It is a different experience for a parent who previously had only been summoned to school to hear the latest bad news. After their counseling session, parents can walk their child back to class. They can walk the hallways, to find where their child's classroom is and pass by the cafeteria and the gym. It helps them develop a real relationship with the school, with the building itself and everyone who works there. And this can be an important part of creating a better bond between home and school.
At Catholic Community Services, our goal is that when a family is done with counseling, parents will be more satisfied with how their child is doing and more deeply connected with the school.
Every parent should get a chance to see a line of squirmy first-graders walking down the hall, to see their child, doing his or her best. And when they do, I hope they smile.
Sterling Chick is clinical supervisor at Catholic Community Services in Bellingham, providing mental health services to children and families throughout Whatcom County.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
--"Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them," By Ross W. Green, Scribner.
--Know Your Rights: A Guide for Public School Students in Washington, aclu-wa.org/docs/know-your-rights-guide-public-school-students-washington.
--IEP Team Meetings: A Guide to Participation for Parents, Keith Hyatt, Western Washington University, nasponline.org/families/iep.pdf.
--Teamchild.org Education Advocacy Manual (This has a sample letter on how to ask for an evaluation), teamchild.org/index.php/education/manual.