The Student Success Factor We Forget

Yes, the child's work is paramount — but parents and teachers must problem-solve better

Here’s a statement you probably haven’t read yet: A student’s success this school year depends primarily on how well the kid’s parents and teachers collaborate.

Of course the student’s work ethic is a major factor — slackers don’t endear themselves to most educators. And other factors will affect a child’s ability to meet expectations at school as well, including sleep, study habits, learning impediments, and behavioral challenges.

Dr. Ross W. Greene, author of “Raising Human Beings,” during a presentation

If a student has no difficulty meeting expectations, then, all things being equal, it’ll be relatively smooth sailing. But when a student does have this trouble, that’s when parent-teacher collaboration is crucial.

So why do things fall apart when things aren’t going well? Because people — not just parents and teachers — problem-solve ineffectively with one another.

These are the three main issues that cause conflict between teachers and parents:

1.) Power Struggles
Parents and teachers have different opinions as to why kids struggle in school — and some interesting ideas about the role parents play in helping kids meet educational expectations.

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Related: Parenting By Phone Isn’t Parenting

If a student does not meet expectations, we have the very counterproductive tendency to jump straight to problem-solving. We forget to clarify and listen to the concerns of those involved, which leads to competing solutions based on individual conclusions.

The result is a power struggle.

Children’s development depends on building bridges between parents and teachers, Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot explained in her book, “The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other.” Yet natural tensions exist between parents and teachers, she wrote. Some parents feel they’re trespassing at their own child’s school. They also tend to be protective of their children; entrusting their child to the care of a perfect stranger does not come easily.

Teachers often feel most uncertain, exposed, and defensive in interactions with parents, feeling their competence and professionalism are questioned. In training, teachers often receive little — if any — preparation for working with parents. Therefore, many teachers (and administrators) feel ill-prepared to interact with parents collaboratively.

2.) High Expectations
Many educators have a tendency to blame parents for setting unrealistic expectations for their child. I’ve always found this to be a fascinating phenomenon — the parents aren’t present when their child struggles to meet expectations.

Related: Kids with ADHD: No More Shame

It’s easy to point toward perceived family dysfunction as the cause of a student’s difficulties at school. However, it’s worth remembering that many hard-working, well-behaved students come from families that don’t resemble Ward and June Cleaver. Educators aren’t the only ones in the blaming business.

The Cleavers of “Leave It to Beaver”

It’s easy to forget that both parents and educators have valuable information and perceptions to share about a student. Both have valid concerns — and that’s the raw material leading to mutually satisfactory solutions for the student.

3.) Low Expectations
When a child is having difficulty meeting expectations at school, many educators think the parents’ job is to be “supportive” and lower their expectations. On the flip side, many parents feel compelled to restate expectations and force their kid to meet them. But the kid already knows it’s important to meet the expectations. It’s not just the parents and school staff whose concerns are going unheard and unaddressed — the kid is now feeling the same way.

If the pattern continues — if the expectations remain unmet  — the child will eventually lose faith that adults know how to work together to help him or her meet the expectations. And then he’ll lose motivation.

How can we avoid these three issues and instead provide the help our children and students need?

I describe a three-step process for solving problems collaboratively in “Raising Human Beings.” The concerns of both parties are heard, clarified, and understood, and mutually satisfactory solutions are reached. The same three steps are described in my earlier books, “The Explosive Child” and “Lost at School.” Research proves the three-step process is effective.

  • Sharing empathy. Adults gather information from the student concerning his or her perspective on the specific, unmet expectation — and why it is difficult. It may be incomplete homework, difficulty fitting in with peers, or asking questions during social studies discussions. During this stage, many jaw-dropping moments occur. Caregivers often discover their predictions are not correct. 
  • Defining adult concerns. Parents or teachers share concerns and discuss them with each other. These concerns usually center around how the unmet expectation is affecting the child and/or others.
  • raising-human-beings_covExtending an invitation. Kids and adults collaborate on mutually satisfactory solutions that address the concerns of all parties. Through this process, kids and adults are heard, come to recognize their concerns are addressed, and problems are solved.

Here’s to hoping your children meet all the expectations at school this year — and that parents and teachers have the know-how to collaborate on solutions and involve the kids in the process.

Power struggles just cause conflict. Collaboration is the key.

Dr. Ross W. Greene, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School for over 20 years, is founding director of the nonprofit organization Lives in the Balance, which provides web-based resources on a model of care called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions. Dr. Greene speaks widely around the globe. He lives in Portland, Maine.

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