Those first-week back-to-school jitters were normal, you reasoned. And that first month? OK, it was difficult, but everyone knows some kids take extra time adjusting to the new school year. But now it’s well into fall, your child starts the school day in tears and comes home the same way, and you’re beginning to suspect something more worrisome is going on.
Could it be that your child is in the wrong class?
Mismatches happen, particularly when parents’ expectations are high, says Seattle educational counselor Carol Robins. “We expect one teacher and more than 20 kids to be in a relationship, learn from each other, respect each other’s values and behaviors — all while communicating effectively and compassionately. What a challenge!”
It’s a challenge schools take seriously, because the stakes are high. “It’s hugely important that we make the right teacher and classroom connections,” says Linda Robinson, a former principal with Seattle Public Schools. “The kids should be happy, and school should be a happy place.”
That’s why Robinson was always “obsessive,” she says, about finding good fits for her school’s kindergarten through fifth-grade students. To place students in the right classes, Robinson used a protocol that considers gender, learning style, ethnicity, academic achievement, special needs and friendships.
Administrators and teachers must figure out which kids should be separated and which kids should stay together; which combinations of academics and personalities work best; and whether there’s an even balance of boys and girls in each class, Robinson says.
It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to make all of those elements mesh. It also takes a bit of guesswork. Robinson color-coded every class list, wrote endless charts and conferred with teachers. But not all of the process can be quantified. “In the end, I’d sit at home by myself and get a sense of the gestalt of this group of kids.” What didn’t Robinson do? She didn’t accommodate parents who made special teacher or classroom requests. Even during the school year, most students stayed in their original classes. “If there were issues, I’d work with the teacher,” she says.
Birgit McShane would be the first to tell you every principal views student placement differently. “For me, there isn’t a set rule,” says McShane, a former elementary school principal. While McShane always tried to keep parents happy, she was well aware they could be swayed and influenced by the ever-present rumor mill. “Some parents march in and say, ‘I just can’t have this teacher,’ and it’s based on something they’ve heard,” she says. “Parents get together and decide certain teachers are better.”
And parents often misjudge their kids. They might, for example, demand their child learn division in math class, when the student has not yet mastered multiplication. Often, McShane says, they think their child’s abilities are greater than they actually are.
Most educators aim for an effective student-classroom blend, while accommodating families whenever possible. That could mean placing a child who’s been through foster homes with a “warm and fuzzy” teacher, or teaming a student up with an old-school, no-nonsense instructor because that’s what the parent requests.
When should you get involved? If your child resists going to school, has trouble sleeping, gets tummy aches or is acting out in an unusual way, it’s time to step in. These are all signs that something’s amiss and that parents should begin a dialogue with the child’s teacher, the principal or other parents.
If needed, call in professionals to observe the class and offer ideas for solutions. “Parents, kids and professionals are all in this together, and it helps to work with people the child encounters each day,” Robins says.
Parents need to know that everyone at school is on the child’s side, says Mercer Island school psychologist Beth Remy. “We confer with parents and school staff until we unravel the problem,” says Remy. “We ask: ‘Is there structure at home but not at school? Is there a mismatch between the child’s developmental readiness and what we are asking the child to do?’”
The child may need to be evaluated for special emotional or academic needs, says McShane. “Some kids are perfectionists; they shut down and won’t work. Others are very sensitive.”
Ideally, the school and the parents find a way to make the teacher-student combo work. Sometimes that means the teacher fine-tunes the way he or she is interacting with a particular child, depending on that student’s academic or emotional needs.
But let’s say the teacher seems inflexible. What if things still aren’t jelling? Then it’s time to consider other options. But think long and hard before demanding a classroom switch. “What are you telling your child? ‘If things don’t work out, I’ll rescue you’?” Remy asks. Reserve the class changes for “terrible fits,” she says. “If it’s really a mismatch, that might be the solution.”
Excerpted from the book Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Academic, Social, and Emotional Potential by Linda Morgan.
5 Tips for handling a possible classroom mismatch
1. Try to solve problems with your child by talking to her about what’s going on at school.
2. Contact the teacher and tell her what your child is reporting.
3. If things don’t improve, meet with the teacher and principal, and express your concerns.
4. Work as a team to confront and resolve the issues.
5. Be sensitive to your child’s needs and concerns. Watch for behavioral changes, such as crying at the door, stomachaches or sleeplessness.