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Partnership approach may solve teacher-child conflicts

We all want our children enjoy school and to achieve academically. But sometimes teachers and students just don't click. If your child is having a personality conflict with his or her teacher, it can affect the child's learning as well as the teacher's ability to teach. And sometimes a parent has a conflict with a teacher that doesn't seem to be affecting the child.

Fortunately, says Mary Cronin, principal at Franklin Elementary in Kirkland, "Most problems can be solved when teachers and parents keep the child's best interest in mind and work together in a partnership."

Cronin says the first step is to talk to your child. Parents need to figure out what the real issue is. It could be that the child is being bullied or is struggling with the class work and is displacing his or her feelings on the teacher. Avoid saying negative things about the teacher in front of your child, Cronin adds. It could undermine the teacher's authority and may even contribute to the problem.

Once you understand your child's side of the story, it is time to talk to the teacher. Cindy Ries, a fourth-grade teacher at Canyon Creek Elementary in Bothell, says it is often a good idea to have the child attend the conference so that everyone is hearing the same story, and so the child can see the parent and the teacher working together as a team.

Here are some tips for meeting with your child's teacher:
  • Don't wait. Don't let a small problem become a big one. As soon as you have a concern that you believe merits attention, set up that conference.
  • Empathize. Teaching today is a challenging job. Your child's teacher is probably doing the best job that she or he can. Come up with something good that you can comment on. Starting off with a compliment will set a positive tone for the meeting.
  • Ask questions. There are two sides to every story. Ask open-ended questions to get an understanding of the teacher's point of view.
  • Keep your language neutral. When voicing your concern, try not to use accusatory language. Instead, talk about what you have observed. Avoid broad general statements like "Ethan hates school." Instead, give specific examples like, "Ethan is feeling frustrated because even when he does his best on the math assignments, he still cannot finish them on time and then has to miss his recess to complete the assignment."
  • Make a plan. Together, come up with a plan for how to solve the problem. This may involve moving the child to another place in the room, changing the amount or type of work the child is expected to complete or setting up a reward system for appropriate behavior. Put the plan in writing.
  • Keep communication open. Discuss ways you will evaluate how the plan is working. Perhaps you can do this through email or on the phone. Frequent and open communication will not only keep the plan on track, but may also help to head off future misunderstandings.

If talking to the teacher hasn't helped the situation, you may need to ask the principal for assistance. The principal may mediate conferences with the teacher, bring in other support staff or counsel the parents. Sometimes parents have unrealistic expectations, and another viewpoint can be helpful.

According to Cronin, moving a child to another classroom is a last resort. She has found that problems "rarely progress to a point where a parent and a teacher can't work it out." It may be that the problem never goes away completely, but improves enough so your child is reasonably happy and is learning. In addition, moving the child may not solve the problem because the other teachers at the same grade level may be using the same methods for discipline and the same curriculum.

In rare cases, a personality conflict affects a child so profoundly that the child becomes anxious or depressed. Parents in this situation should consult a counselor or psychologist outside the school. The counselor may be able to work with your child and the school staff in a more effective way or may recommend moving the child to another school.

Personality conflicts are some of the most challenging problems to solve. But when parents and teachers focus on what's best for the child, significant progress can be made.

Rachel Lynette has written several non-fiction books for children. She has taught children of all ages and has two kids of her own.

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