By Dr Robert Needlman
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If your child is having problems in school – academic, social or behavioural – one of the most important things you can do is to form a strong working alliance with your child’s teacher. Here are some ideas to get you started.

General tips

  • Let teachers know from the outset that you respect them as professionals who have your child’s best interests at heart.
  • Even if you find that you and a teacher disagree, be sure not to criticise the teacher within earshot of your child.
  • When you sit down with a teacher to discuss a problem, it’s important to stay focused on your goal: finding a solution.
  • Don’t get sidetracked by looking for someone to blame – the teacher, yourself, your child or even another student.
  • Try to understand the situation in as much detail as time permits.

Problem-solving steps

  • Ask, ‘What, exactly, is the problem?’ For example, if the problem is talking out of turn, is your child talking with friends about the material being taught, chatting about things that are unrelated to the class, or inappropriately shouting out the answers? It’s hard to solve any problem until you have the details.
  • Find out when the problem occurs – during group time, desk time, or transitions from one activity to another. Is the problem worse in the mornings, or after lunch? Timing can be an important clue. For example, academic problems in the afternoon might be a sign that the children are overtired. Perhaps your child is staying up too late. Or your child could be experiencing a sleep problem, such as obstructive sleep apnoea, which can make sleep less restful than it should be. (Think about this especially if your child snores.)
  • Ask what happens right before the problem occurs, and right after. An important pattern might emerge. For example, a child’s misbehaviour consistently results in the child being sent out of maths class. Could the acting out be a way to avoid an academic subject that the child finds particularly difficult or frustrating? For some children, this is a way of covering up a learning disability.
  • Make a list of all the things that have been tried so far. Resist the temptation to say, ‘We’ve done everything! Nothing works!’ Although it might feel that way, there are always other solutions to try.
  • Agree on a plan, and write it down so that everyone is clear on their role. For example, your role as a parent might be to see that your child is in bed every night by 8 pm. The teacher’s role might be to spend a few extra minutes each day making sure that your child understands the homework. Your child’s role might be to check with the teacher to make sure all the homework assignments are written down correctly, then check with you to make sure the homework is done and in the schoolbag before your child starts playing.
  • Be sure to plan when you and the teacher will meet again, how you’ll measure success (or lack of it), and how you will keep in communication with each other.
  • Don’t expect to fix a complex problem in one single step. Instead, look for any progress in the right direction. Agree ahead of time on a backup strategy if you get to the point where you have reached a dead end with a given approach. Coming up with a fresh strategy might involve calling in a school guidance counsellor, the principal, a psychologist, a behaviourally oriented paediatrician, or other health professional.
  • Don’t be afraid to go to the next level and involve the principal or even the department of education in your state. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you and your child will hit an impasse with a particular teacher. Maybe there’s a substantial personality clash or a true incompatibility between the teaching style in a given classroom and your child’s learning style. Or maybe you can’t figure out exactly what the problem is. You just know that things aren’t getting any better. In this case, you should feel free to ask for help beyond the classroom teacher. An experienced administrator can often help bring about some sort of beneficial resolution.