Telling your child’s education story within the first few weeks of school is critical.
A parent recently contacted me looking for advice on how to introduce her child to his new teacher. The child will be new to the school, has some “unique” needs and his parents would like to speak with his teacher early in the school year, if not before the first day of school. Many parents find themselves in this tricky situation at the beginning of each school year.
A child is a parent’s primary concern and wanting to communicate early about unique needs ensures a smooth transition to a new school. Teachers, however, have perhaps 25 primary concerns on the first day of school, each with their own unique set of needs to be addressed. Parents must determine a good time to approach the teacher and how to go about it in a way that respects the teacher’s time.
I am a school psychologist and a parent and have experienced both sides of this situation. Professionally, I addressed many issues parents would bring to the table early in the year. Often the parent’s perspective on their child’s needs was helpful in determining an appropriate teacher or curriculum match based on the child’s needs or circumstances that were conveyed.
More often than not the parents who came to us were not advocating for a special education student with an IEP which painted a clear picture of the student’s needs. Rather, these were parents whose children responded to situations in extreme ways (anxious behaviors, withdrawal, separation anxiety), were experiencing stressful life events (divorce, death, deployment, PCS) or had classroom needs (extra bathroom visits, sitting close to the teacher, reminders of routines, agenda follow-through) which warranted accommodations but did not require a formalized plan.
When I switched to the parent side of the table, I became the parent of a child who had some unique needs the teacher needed to know. For years my child had executive functioning challenges. He had great grades and was a good kid, but his disorganization and distractibility caused issues in the classroom.
As we moved from school to school (five schools by 7th grade), I made it a point to explain my child’s unique characteristics to his teachers as soon as I had a name, email, or phone number. There was no way in Hades I was going to wait for the teacher to get to know him or until the first conference weeks into the school year. (I made that mistake in preschool and wasn’t going to do that again.)
I knew my child, I knew his strengths and weaknesses and I needed the teacher to know one or two things about him early on. I was not willing to sacrifice his learning because the teacher wasn’t aware of what classroom strategies worked best for him. I did not feel I needed to tell the teacher how to do her job, and I was comfortable letting her handle things in the classroom, but only AFTER I knew she understood a little bit about my child’s learning style and behavior. I would then sit on my hands and wait for the fall conference to see how things were going.
When is the best time to initiate teacher communication regarding your child?
Contact the teacher or counselor before school begins: I recommend that parents reach out to the school one week before school starts. I know getting your child’s schedule or teacher’s name before school starts can be harder than getting nuclear missile codes. I also know some parents may encounter a brick wall while trying to reach a grade-level teacher or counselor during the last weeks of summer break.
As an education insider, I know they are there! I also know teachers and administrators are in the throes of placing kids in classrooms, which is not always done randomly. It is my experience that many teachers and counselors are very open to discussing our kids before school starts. Many appreciate a heads up about issues that may impact a child’s learning but are not reflected on report cards.
Wait until the second week of school: Early in my first experience on the parent side of the table, I called a teacher friend and asked what she thought about timing to approach my child’s teacher. She suggested waiting until the second week of school, due to the hectic nature of the first week in the classroom.
She believed I would probably have the teacher’s attention better after the first week’s routines and kinks had been worked out. As this was first grade, I was comfortable with this approach, followed my friend’s advice and it worked out well. A simple email asking for a good time for a phone call or face-to-face conference was all that was necessary to generate the conversation.
I suggest the second-week approach if you are confident your child can handle the classroom environment initially, or if your concerns are minor. I used this approach when my children transferred from a different state and I knew their math skills would not be up to par with their classmates’. Knowing the first week or so is review, and that this issue was not behavior- or emotional-related, I waited a week or two before addressing it with their teacher.
How to best communicate your child’s unique needs to the new teacher?
My child attended second and third grades in the same school. Since I had developed a great relationship with his second-grade teacher, I asked her how and when to tell his third-grade teacher about his classroom needs. She offered to speak with the new teacher herself.
I readily took her up on the offer, knowing that feedback from a previous teacher is maybe more powerful than a parent’s perspective. I know many conversations take place in the teachers’ lounge at the beginning of the year with teachers sharing observations another about students they have taught.
As a military family who moves frequently, we have rarely had the luxury of relying on last year’s teacher to speak on our child’s behalf to the new teacher. This is one reason Operation Dandelion Kids developed a binder that helps parents tell their child’s education story in an organized, concise and professional manner.
This binder gives your child’s teacher or counselor a full picture of their strengths, weaknesses, effective classroom strategies and education history. This tool is meant to be a conversation starter to ensure continuity in your child’s education — continuity that often does not exist for military-connected students who frequently change schools. This binder more objectively serves the same function as teacher lounge conversations that exist for returning — but not for new – students.
The Operation Dandelion Kids Education Binder can be downloaded and printed for free. Fill the binder with information critical to your child’s education (report cards, assessment results, work samples, teacher comments) and share it with teachers and administrators.
Suggest that the teacher or counselor take their time reviewing your child’s educational history. You and your child are building a relationship with this year’s teacher, so be flexible and patient at the onset.
Still not sure about making that first call?
Advocating for your child can feel daunting, especially if you are new to the school or unfamiliar with the education system. Always remember that YOU ARE THE EXPERT when it comes to your child.
Your advocacy starts with a simple sentence and one question: “Hello, my child is new to your school and I would like to share some important information that is critical to their success this year. When is a good time to discuss this information in the next couple days?”
Families on the Home Front is dedicated to helping parents maximize their children’s learning and developmental potential. Our Operation Dandelion Kids program helps parents of military-connected kids learn how to best advocate for their children’s educational needs. Our Parenting on the Home Front program helps all parents learn effective parenting strategies based on the latest neuroscience and child development research.