Parent Input: An Underutilized Teaching Superpower
There are many reasons why teachers may not solicit advice from parents of students who are struggling in their class. Some may worry that asking for help is a sign of defeat or inadequacy, suggesting that they don’t understand the child's needs. Others may want to avoid opening a Pandora’s box of unrealistic expectations or parental judgment (the kind that often ignores teachers’ logistical constraints). Engaging especially anxious or concerned parents can also threaten to become a “time-suck,” characterized by burdensome check-ins and late-night emails.
But ignoring parent wisdom is a missed opportunity. Despite their blind spots, nobody knows a child like a parent. Parents have observed their children in a wide range of situations over the course of their lives. They can answer a number of questions that illuminate otherwise hidden aspects of our students’ lives.
Does the student who struggles to speak up in class also struggle to express herself at the dinner table? Does she read books for pleasure? How often and for how long? Is a child’s school anxiety showing up in the less-structured environments of at home, too, or is it distinctly academic? How does the child manage free time? How much time is spent on homework, and is support necessary and/or available at home? Does the child have frequent emotional meltdowns or problems with impulse control? Understanding the specific home challenges—and effective strategies that parents employ to address them—can often provide teachers with more tools to better understand and work with the student in their classrooms.
Admittedly, it wasn't until my own dyslexic child struggled in school that I learned how much students can hide their struggles from their teachers. My son’s deep academic insecurities and emotional meltdowns were often saved for our home. If my son’s teachers didn't inquire about his well-being, they usually weren't able to understand how anxious he was about his academic performance or how hard he was working. His unimpressive output led many to believe he didn’t care about school when, in fact, the opposite was true. His effort was Herculean, even if the results were not.
However, when I offered one of his homeroom teachers a description of our stressful evenings, she responded by suggesting we listen to audiobooks in the car on the way home from school to fulfill his independent reading requirement. She also insisted that he go to bed every night at his bedtime, no matter how much remaining work needed to be completed. His academic performance improved dramatically (as did our home life).
By reaching out to the parents of our strugglers for additional context, we invite them to be a part of the student’s support team. Building a bridge between home and school also allows us to better assess our students’ needs and progress and create more effective support strategies. It establishes how much we care about their child’s overall well-being and academic success. Despite fears of “time-suck,” I have discovered that engaging a parent diminishes his or her anxiety, and parent conversations become more trusting and productive. These shifts ultimately save teachers time.
I will never forget the time when I learned the reasons why an intellectually talented 7th grade history student of mine was missing every assignment and failing every assessment. I had initially made the classic error of assuming it was an issue of effort. Only through parent research did I discover that he arrived home every day to three much younger siblings who relied on him to do everything from changing diapers to organizing meals. His single mom had an evening job as a reservist. Shame had prevented him from sharing his unique family circumstances with anyone at school. He had decided that he would rather fail than reveal the details of his home life. However, the relief that he enjoyed when he was able to name his challenge and work with me to create effective strategies and workarounds was transformational. He quickly went from academic struggler to standout student.
There are several times throughout the year when I obtain parents’ information about my students: Before the school year starts, parents fill out a questionnaire about their child. Once I have time to observe the student, I always have additional questions that I ask during fall and spring parent-teacher-student conferences. The students are asked to leave during the last 10 minutes of the meeting so that parents can tell me things that they may not feel comfortable sharing in front of the student.
However, soliciting parent wisdom is not limited to these formalized, scheduled opportunities. Students rarely struggle on schedule. As teachers, we want to be able to address struggles as soon as we observe them. Instead of waiting for a formal exchange of information, I regularly reach out through email and/or phone calls to ask parents for their support and input. Almost without exception, these extra parent “meetings” make my job easier. Most importantly, parent insight makes me a more effective and understanding teacher—a superpower too compelling to resist.