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How to Talk to Your Child's Teacher

parent teacher conference

Parents want their kids to thrive in school, and research shows strong links between parental involvement in a child's education and academic success. Therefore, it makes sense to partner with your child's teachers to ensure a positive school experience.

The days where teachers were viewed as authority figures whose opinions went unchallenged are long gone. However, the shift toward more educated and empowered parents has come at a price: a sometimes-adversarial parent/teacher relationship. Sam Horn, creativity consultant and author of "Tongue Fu!® At School," offers some concrete tips to open the communication channels.

"Teachers tell me they used to be treated with respect and parents treated them as the experts," says Horn. If teachers pointed out a child's misbehavior, parents were grateful, she says. "Now, they defend their child, make excuses, and the teachers feel like they're not being treated as if they have the child's best interests at heart."

"Often, when parents talk with teachers, it is perceived as adversarial, that the teacher is doing wrong," says Horn. She says the best way to smooth the rough edges of this key relationship in a family's life is to choose words carefully.

Kelly Darby, a third grade teacher in Arlington Heights, Illinois, agrees. The most common misstep parents make is coming in on the defensive and being argumentative, she says. "If they work with the teacher and form a team, creating a home-school connection, the lines of communication will always be open and you'll always be working for the same purpose."

What about parents who start off on the wrong foot with their child's teacher? Darby suggests parents stop by, call, or e-mail the teacher. Parents can start off by "letting the teacher know that they appreciate all that they are trying to do for their child, restating any concerns or questions they may have," she says. Darby suggests parents "tell the teacher that they want to work together to make this a successful year for their child."

Horn offers an additional suggestion for parents who are shy or intimidated by speaking with teachers: practice. "You wouldn't expect a child to show up for a soccer game or spelling bee without practicing," she says. "Role play as the teacher and the parent, and as any athlete and actor knows, the more you rehearse, the better you perform."

To get an idea of how to turn these potential academic adversaries into allies, here are some tips derived from Sam Horn's book, "Tongue Fu® at School!"

Accuse vs. Ask
Phrases like "you need to" or "you have to" come across as accusations, says Horn. Rephrasing to "how can we?" or "could you please?" gets parents and teachers working toward the same goal: academic success for your child.

Disagree vs. Discuss
This is where you switch from "but" to "and," says Horn. "If we use the word 'but,' we will come across as disagreeing," she says. So "I know you have 30 students, but my child needs more attention" becomes "I know you have 30 students, and how can we arrange things so my child can get the help she needs?"

Punisher vs. Partner
"You should have told me my child was failing" becomes "what do you suggest we do to stay in touch so we can both monitor my child's progress?" "By making the very subtle and yet significant change from 'you' to 'we,' you're on the same side," says Horn. Careful word choice often adds the perfect spoonful of sugar to help parent-teacher conferences and everyday conversations go down seamlessly. "Give the teacher the benefit of the doubt," she urges.

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