Dealing with problems at school

Problems emerge, particularly with children that diverge from the normal needs or behavior...

This article makes some suggestions for the time when a problem emerges at the school you have chosen, and you need to deal with it.

Teachers and principals are often on the other side of the same issue - they may appear to be the problem - but generally are simultaneously looking for a solution. How do you maximise the chances of cooperation while at the same time be an effective advocate for fair treatment for your child?

Interestingly the focus for this article is on the primary or elementary stage of education. This is probably due to an amalgam of factors. By secondary school, students are more inclined to sort out their own problems, or to keep them to themselves rather than have their parents step in. Certainly any resolution involves the child much more than when they are younger. Another key difference is the logistical change from dealing principally with one teacher in primary school to a large number of different subject teachers in high school. This may also provide a comforting averaging tendency - a high school student will often find at least some of his or her teachers/classes tolerable.

Dealing with problems at school is more likely to be effective when working cooperatively, where this can be achieved, than fighting alone against the school. Working cooperatively clearly involves:

  • treating the other participants with respect and courtesy, and expecting the same in return
  • giving them the benefit of the doubt and the presumption that they are professionals in their fields
  • recognising that they have to respond to the individual needs of a number of other students as well as your own
  • being organised, professional and keeping to the issue at hand without provocation
  • being relatively open, and responding as clearly as possible to invitations to express your concerns.

In the current fiscal climate it would also mean recognising that educational resources are constrained and that educators have been expected to pick up a range of social responsibilities in addition to teaching academic subjects. Some of these background problems are more for politicians' ears.

The following lists of suggestions includes a number made during a discussion on the Oz-Gifted mailing list. They are for your consideration. They include some suggestions made after experiences of schools not responding cooperatively to a gifted child's needs. It is a question of balance. You need to expect and promote cooperation with the school in resolving a problem, while protecting yourself and your child from those cases where cooperation proves not possible.

Arrange and prepare for a meeting

  1. In the first instance, arrange a meeting to talk with the teacher. Although in some circumstances you will need to talk to the Principal, it is generally appropriate to talk to the teacher first. Not only is this normal courtesy, but this is the person who will be most affecting your child's learning environment and consequently the person with whom you will need to work.
  2. Although casual moments with the teacher while dropping off and picking up your child may seem easily available, they are fraught with interruption and distraction. Use them only to arrange a quieter time where both you and the teacher can give the problem full attention after due preparation.
  3. Talk through the problem fully with your child, at whatever level they can accommodate. Get the facts in full and make your judgement on the facts with your knowledge of your child. It is possible the real problem may be hidden a little under the apparent one.
  4. Try to establish clearly what the problem is so that you can articulate it to the teacher and the school both before and during the meeting.
  5. Think about it from the teacher's viewpoint and anticipate his or her response. Find a friend and practice. Get them to pretend to be the teacher (or principal). Then swap roles. This is important too. You pretend to be the teacher and your friend pretends to be you. If necessary use two chairs. Be one identity in one chair and one in the other. Don't worry about thinking up all the counterarguments - people remain too unpredictable for this to work. The important part is to build up empathy for the teacher's position.
  6. Arrange to take your partner with you as support, as a second pair of eyes and ears, and to take notes. As well as filling in any awkward holes in the conversation, they will provide you with a sounding board after the meeting. If the problem is not being easily resolved by discussion, or if your partner is not available and you feel you need support, then choose some other clear-thinking person to accompany you as note-taker and objective observer. Many teachers may find it daunting if you bring another person unannounced, so mention this in advance and the reason for it - the teacher may also wish to have a colleague present.
  7. Establish clearly with yourself what you want, what you will settle for, and what is your bottom line. It is not wise to make rash threats at the meeting if you haven't thought out in advance what the realistic options are. What are your options if they don't reach your bottom line? Will you go to the Principal, or if necessary the District Superintendent? Is there another school? Is home schooling an option? Or will you go away accepting the situation - and hopefully not regretting what you have said?
  8. Update your file and portfolio on your child in readiness. You are, of course, keeping a file of notes of previous meetings, or assessments, of other professionals' comments etc. And a dated portfolio of his or her work and achievements in all their diversity. Apart from having it on hand just in case and projecting an organised image, this will also remind you of other times when things were working out - and give you a goal to aim for!

At the meeting

  1. There are some basic negotiating lessons that are important here. One is to start off with positive statements about the teacher and what they have done, if you can. Get the other party to say or think "Yes" to something you say, even if it is only about the weather.
  2. Another is that the person who speaks first in the sense of "putting their argument" often loses. It is better to clearly present the problem, and wait with a positive expectation and demeanour, even if at first there is a negative response. Rather than jump in, either defensively or aggressively, answer only the questions that the other person asks and wait expectantly for their solution. Most people really do not like to say "no" outright and will often talk themselves into agreeing if you give them enough time and space. Obviously there may be good arguments to support your case but rational arguments do not often win people over, especially if they are defensive.
  3. If it does come to rational arguments, it is still good to be second and to demonstrate that you are seriously listening to them. Let them put their point across and listen carefully. Then say "Are you telling me...?" or "Do I understand that...?". Apart from the real possibility that you will learn something useful, once a person feels understood he or she is more likely to listen. When it gets to your turn to elaborate ensure they are actively listening by saying something like: "I need to know that you have understood my concerns. Can you tell me what you think I am concerned about most". Then keep up the clarification. This is called reflective listening.
  4. If you have managed to achieve active listening, and it would seem appropriate, offer the teacher some reading on the matter if you have it available. If it is short and readable, say so - teachers are as busy as, or more so than, the rest of us.
  5. Anger is powerful and dangerous. Try to control your emotions. Use it only if other approaches are getting nowhere. It may break through blockages, but it may lose goodwill and cooperation and create new barriers.
  6. Have everything on hand you think may be relevant to the issues you are discussing (including your files and your child's portfolio), but keep it in your bag till you need it. Sometimes having a lot of material in front of you can be distracting, even to yourself.
  7. Don't be afraid to say that a suggestion sounds like a good idea but that you would like a day to think about it. When you get home you may be able see pitfalls when you are more relaxed and less nervous or angry. In this case, write back something like: 
    "The suggestion is a good idea because.... but I can see the following problems... - how can these be addressed?"
  8. Always finish one meeting with an arrangement for another - "Can we meet again in … weeks to see how this is going? Let's set a date now." This puts the resolution of the issue on a professional footing, and gives a deadline for review - something that busy professionals seem to need.

After the meeting…

  1. If the school does not give you something in writing you should write a confirmation letter (and keep a copy) such as:
    "Thank you for taking the time to meet with …. and me on …. I appreciated the opportunity to discuss the problem of … and the effort and ideas you suggested. As I understand we have agreed as follows: 

    1. As of … xxx will have...
    2. xxx will ...
    3. I will ... 
    4. We will meet again on …. to review …" 

  2. Consider the points the teacher made at the meeting, discuss these with the friend who accompanied you, and see if you think they had merit. If you have reasons or evidence to think they do not have merit, write to that effect, noting the useful points the teacher made, the fact that you have considered them, and that you think they are not justified for the following reasons… Offer to discuss these points further. Keep a copy of this letter.
  3. If after the discussion you feel that the problem has not been acknowledged, or that no agreement was reached on how to respond to the problem, then write and ask the teacher what he or she suggests as the way to resolve it. Suggest in the letter that, if he or she has no better alternative, you would like to discuss it with the Principal (and, if appropriate, the school counsellor). Keep a copy of this letter.
  4. Sit down and have a drink. Then play something silly and fun with your child. Give each of you a break, and remind yourself of how resilient children are.

The above is the lightly revised second part of an article by David Farmer published in the February 1999 issue of Gifted. It can be freely copied for non-commercial purposes provided its integrity is preserved and its web-address, and its author, and its publication in Gifted are appropriately attributed. The first part of the article on Choosing a School is also available online.This article benefited from many ideas raised in discussion on the Oz-Gifted lists, particularly on the aspects of dealing with schools when a problem has emerged.