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Building Your Education Team

How to give kids the support they need in school

Rachel Ehmke

All children need their parents and teachers to work together as allies, but children who are struggling in school need that teamwork even more than others. Sometimes kids also need other specialists on their team to help them do their best.

As you assess whether a child is doing as well as they could be, your communication with their classroom teacher is key. Here are some tips parents can use to build strong relationships with teachers, and assess what support a child needs to thrive.

At the beginning of the school year

Whether your child is a quick study or is struggling in school, building a team to support them starts with forming an effective partnership with their teacher.

When your child starts each school year, your first goal is to make sure you understand their new teacher’s expectations—everything from the demands of the academic curriculum to grade-appropriate behaviors. Remember that when your child enters a new classroom, they aren’t just tackling new math skills, they’re experiencing a new style of learning and building new relationships.

When you talk to the new teacher, make sure to give them the information they need to put your child’s behavior into context. Does your child need extra time, or a periodic break to do their best work? Do they need to sit near the front of the class to be able to focus? Are they such a perfectionist that they rub a hole in the paper correcting their own work? Teachers want to know these things—preferably before class begins.

For parents of children who have struggled in the past, starting with a “blank slate” is an attractive idea, but it rarely works out, according to learning and educational therapist Susan Schwartz, MAEd. Keeping a teacher in the dark about an issue you already know about only leads to surprises and frustration for the teacher (and for your child). Schwartz also notes that even if you don’t talk to the teacher about your child, there is always the possibility that another teacher or parent will—and the information that is shared may be inaccurate or outdated or biased. It’s better to tell the teacher everything you want them to know.

Similarly, you want to let the teacher know that you’d like them to share anything specific they notice about what helps your child learn effectively, or anything that tends to get in their way.

If you have any specific questions, don’t be afraid to ask the teacher. For example, how much involvement should parents typically have in a child’s homework? Different teachers have different opinions, and you’ll be glad you asked.

Finally, ask if there are ways the teacher wants you to be more involved—or if there are ways you should be stepping back.

Parent-Teacher conferences

About 12 weeks into the year, schools begin scheduling conferences and sending home progress reports. By now you should already understand the teacher’s academic and developmental expectations for your child, so the parent-teacher conference should be an opportunity to discuss how they are meeting those expectations.

These conferences are important, so you should spend some time preparing. Decide what information you want to share and what questions you want to ask ahead of time. Schwartz recommends talking to your child before you go to the conference, because their perspective can help frame the meeting. Ask: What do you like best about school? What is easy for you to do? What is hard for you to do? Try to include your child in the conference by asking if they have any questions for the teacher.

The parent-teacher conference is primarily an opportunity to work collaboratively, to put your heads together. Does the teacher have any advice for you? Do you have any advice for them? If you have anything important to say, lead with that. You don’t want to run out of time.

Getting more help

If you think your child needs more help than they are getting, make an appointment to share your concerns with their teacher and other school personnel. Teachers can be helpful but so can counselors, school psychologists, the principal, a favorite coach—anyone who knows your child and has their best interests at heart.

If you think your child needs special services or accommodations, a professional evaluation may be in order. Local public school districts are legally required to provide a basic evaluation, even if your child is attending a private or parochial school. A typical evaluation package measures intellectual, academic, and emotional functioning, takes a history of the child and their family, and includes a classroom evaluation. Often schools will also perform other specific evaluations if they are indicated, for example to see whether a child needs speech and language help, occupational therapy, or assistive technology.

School evaluations can be very effective, and in some situations are all that is required to get the ball rolling. However, if you aren’t satisfied with the results of your school evaluation, or if you want your child evaluated for something not covered by the school’s standard assessment, you should seek a private evaluation with a specialist.

Matthew Cruger, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute’s Learning and Development Center, advises telling the school if you plan to have an outside evaluation, and certainly sharing the results with them. “The school might not be able to do everything the specialist recommends, but they generally want to have that information,” says Dr. Cruger. “I think a lot of resistance from schools comes from not necessarily knowing why something has been suggested.”

Keeping everyone on the same page about a student’s strengths and weaknesses will make it easier to agree on how to help them. It also lays the foundation for a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

As with any relationship, be prepared to compromise. While school districts are motivated to help kids with learning needs, they often have limited resources.

Schools will provide what they (and the law) consider sufficient, but not necessarily the ideal, support. This means that parents, school representatives, and other specialists need to work together to come up with the best possible education plan for a child. Dr. Cruger says, “As a psychologist I’m often thinking, what are the fewest intrusive interventions that could lead to maximum gain?”

In his experience, the best plans are the ones that benefit from everyone’s participation—the entire education team, including the child—because when everyone is committed and working towards success, suddenly it becomes a lot more attainable.