HOPE Mentoring offers support for children at school
By Katie Wetherbee
A summons to the principal’s office does not usually evoke positive feelings. Emotions such as dread and fear may fill the hearts of guilty, snowball-throwing grade schoolers. For parents, an invitation to the principal’s office also elicits those emotions, but the anxiety is usually related to their child’s performance in school. In schools today, improved diagnostic tools and intense training provide heightened awareness of many issues that affect learning. As a result, teachers, counselors and administrators are better able to ascertain what support children may need in the classroom.
Nevertheless, the process of making educational decisions can be arduous and extremely emotional for parents. “I just had to sit there and stare at my notebook,” laments one mother of her experience. “I felt like it was an ambush of people poking and prodding at my kid.” Fortunately, situations like these can be avoided altogether with some careful planning and proactive communication.
Get the lay of the land
Prior to the meeting, parents should ask specifically what issues will be covered. School staff can easily provide an outline of concerns so that parents may be fully prepared to discuss the issues in an informed way. In addition, parents should know who will be involved in the meeting. Many times, conference tables quickly fill with experts and specialists with whom the parents are unfamiliar. It can be very helpful to know ahead of time who will be participating. Parents can also prepare mentally by writing down questions and concerns prior to the meeting so they will remember all of the topics they would like to address.
Do your homework
Once parents are aware of the purpose of the meeting, they should gather relevant information that will help the school team. For example, medical history, developmental information, work samples and documentation from previous school placements can all be important in determining the best way to help a child. Parents should also know that schools should not and cannot make medical treatment recommendations. Rachel Jones, principal of Gurney Elementary in South Russell, said, “I know parents have heard horror stories about schools telling parents to pursue medication. When we meet to talk about a child’s behavior, sometimes parents will immediately say, ‘I’m not putting my child on medication.’ The school really just wants to look at patterns of behavior and how to support the child.”
In addition to gathering information, parents should come to the meeting prepared to discuss solutions. When a child is struggling in school, both parents and schools sometimes focus only on the problems, which can be frustrating for all involved. One mother of a middle school student reflects, “The thing I remember being so frustrating with all of those initial ‘emergency’ meetings was that (the school) was so focused on talking about all of my child’s problems with very little emphasis on possible solutions. Once the meetings became more action-oriented, with the focus on interventions, the meetings became more positive and productive.”
Include the Most Valuable Player
Whenever possible, include children in the intervention process. Doing this helps all members of the team focus on the child’s strengths, as well as the needs. For some students, attending all or part of a conference is appropriate. Students can help the team understand, perhaps better than anyone, what they feel is most helpful and most difficult about school. Another way for students to participate is through writing. One mother asked her daughter to write a letter to the school team. After sharing this letter during the meeting, the tenor of the meeting changed because the school was able to perceive the child differently. With electronics readily available, students can get creative with their contribution to the meeting. A five-minute power-point presentation or a tape-recorded message can be effective ways for students to express themselves. A teacher who recognized the value of student participation had each child create a three-minute videotaped speech that was shown to the school team and parents. This resulted in a more relaxed, child-focused meeting. If parents choose to include their child in a meeting, they should limit the “presentation time;” a shorter time period is more manageable for a student and also helps the school staff stay on schedule.
Take 5…or as long as you need
Schools, with good reason, are run on a schedule. Parents attending their first conference might be concerned that they need to make decisions and plans “before the bell rings.” However, these meetings are really the beginning of a process which can take time. Parents are encouraged to listen carefully to any proposed plans and interventions and take time to think through the implications for their child. It is well within a parent’s right to say, “I’ll have to think about this,” before agreeing to any plan at all. It is important, though, that parents make decisions within a reasonable amount of time. This allows the school to proceed with supporting the child. It also shows the school that the parents are active, responsive partners in the process.
Get on the same side of the table
As intimidating and overwhelming as these meetings can be, parents should realize that schools truly want to help their child. Joan Redmond, principal of Timmons Elementary in Bainbridge said, “Just as parents are emotionally invested in their child, the teachers are invested, too. It is easier, sometimes, for a teacher to ignore a problem than to bring it to a team meeting,” she said, “So it helps a great deal when the parents bring an open attitude and recognize what the teacher is trying to do.”
Part of creating an atmosphere of teamwork is forming relationships with the school staff. This can be done in a number of ways: volunteering in the classroom, email and phone communication, and participating in school-sponsored organizations and events. When a child experiences success or when a teacher-planned activity is particularly enriching, it is important for parents to recognize that—and thank the teachers. Taking time to applaud the school staff earns a parent the right to be heard during difficult circumstances. “We parents and teachers may disagree on the way to handle issues, but everyone present at these meetings really has the same goal: to help the child be a successful student.” Redmond stated.Have a follow-up plan.
Once the school team and the parents have met and made decisions, it will be important to schedule follow-up communication. Parents and schools should decide on a time frame for any proposed plans, decide who will be responsible for the plans and how the team will communicate about progress. This communication can be as simple as a quick phone call or as thorough as another meeting with the entire team. Again, parents need to recognize that while finding educational solutions can be a worrisome and time-consuming process, good communication from the parents, school and even the child, can make it a productive one. One parent shares this conclusion: “Although this has been a long and sometimes frustrating road, the ultimate result of implementing the interventions was success at school for my child.”