PARENTING: Finding out why your child is unhappy

Sunday July 1 2018


By Stephanie Dolgoff

There was no single incident that made Kim Black of River Ridge, LA, realize that all was not sunshine and warm fuzzies between her son Harrison, then 7, and his second-grade teacher. Rather, it was a constellation of things: Harrison insisting that “the teacher doesn’t like me,” that she yelled at him frequently in class, that she was picking on him in particular—as well as the dramatic change in her son’s disposition. “I’d had this happy-go-lucky child, and now he’s coming home crying every day as he gets off the bus,” says Black, a mom of four.

So before the end of the first month of school, Black went to speak with Harrison’s teacher. “I said, ‘My son doesn’t feel like you like him,’?” recalls Black. “She was very defensive, saying, ‘Of course I like him. I like all the children.’?” Black quickly explained that she wasn’t accusing the teacher of doing anything wrong, but that she was simply trying to make her aware that Harrison felt this way, and to understand why. The teacher insisted she had no idea. “I think that started us off on the wrong foot,” says Black, noting that things deteriorated from there and that she had “opened a can of worms.” Harrison grew to dislike going to school, and his grades suffered. Ultimately he was moved to a different class, but not without much angst all around.

It’s hard to know what to think (or do) when your child comes home clearly upset, or with a specific beef like Harrison’s. “You hear things like, the teacher plays favorites, we all get punished if somebody’s bad, she’s impatient with me, or that he’s bored,” says Susan Etheredge, associate professor of education and child study at Smith College. Some of the complaints can be about social issues—for instance, there’s a problem with another child and the teacher isn’t stepping in, says Etheredge, who adds that the beginning of the year is the peak time for all these concerns.

Depending on your style and whether or not your child is particularly sensitive, it may be tempting to advise him (in age-appropriate language, of course) to grow a pair. More likely, however, a part of you will want to elbow your way into the classroom like Nancy Grace on steroids and fight for your kid.

Totally understandable—although more likely to get you branded as the cuckoo mom to be humored than to resolve the problem. Instead, use our step-by-step guide to sorting out your child’s trouble with his teacher. You’ll find that he may soon be looking forward to school—or at least showing up and learning something. [pagebreak]

Step 1: Play Reporter

Sometimes kids will make generic claims, like “The teacher’s mean to me.” You want to find out what that means. Etheredge calls this “unpacking” what your child is saying. Try to get as much detail as possible. Ask, “What exactly did she say? What was happening in the class when she said it?” (You might want to inquire casually, so your child doesn’t clam up or exaggerate.) “Mean” might mean “She makes me do my work,” in which case you could explain that the teacher is trying to show the kind of behavior you need to have at school; after all, some things are very reasonable under the circumstances, but they may not seem that way to a 6-year-old. The idea is not so much to uncover “the truth” of what went down but to get a more concrete sense of what your child is seeing.

Step 2: Play Advocate

Tell your child that you’re going to write down what she’s saying so you can go have a conversation with the teacher. (Give her a chance to elaborate on her story—it’s hard for kids to remember every detail.) “Let the child understand that you, her teacher, and the principal are partners working to help make school a great experience for her,” says Jan Harp Domene, a mother of three in Anaheim, CA, and president of the National Parent Teacher Association. This serves several purposes: Your child knows that you care about what’s happening, that her concerns are going to be heard, but also that you’re not just going to march in and “fix” a problem. Domene advises saying something like “Mom and Dad are going to talk to the teacher to find out why you feel this way”—not “why the teacher did this.” “It’s your child’s feelings you’re dealing with. Until you talk to the teacher, you don’t have the whole picture,” says Domene. You might also be able to give your older kid some tools to handle the situation herself. Suggest options, such as approaching the teacher after class and pointing out, for instance, that she doesn’t think she gets called on very often. Sometimes the teacher may not be aware of how your child feels.

Step 3: Play the Diplomat

If you decide you need to speak with the teacher, set up a time (not at dropoff or pickup), and go in as someone seeking help in solving a problem. Using inclusive language is important, says Etheredge. Say something like “I’m coming to you with a problem I don’t completely understand, but I’m hoping together we can best figure out Mark’s concern.” Here’s where you explain what your child told you and when, using his words as often as possible.